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The Islamic State’s Irregulars

What should we do with lone-wolf attackers who are mentally unstable or deranged? Are they terrorists, too?


When a gunman took hostages and displayed an Islamic flag at a coffee shop in the heart of Sydney last week, supporters of the Islamic State (IS) online were slow to cheer. The flag on display was not their familiar, official flag, and the user was wearing a headband that made them think he was a Shiite Muslim, a member of the branch of Islam that IS despises with a passion.

“Hezbollah is behind this terrorist attack,” one IS supporter definitively tweeted.

Eventually, the strange story emerged, not of Hezbollah, but the tale of Man Haron Monis, a Shiite Muslim born in Iran who had emigrated to Australia. He had been charged in 2013 as an accessory to murder and faced dozens of sexual assault charges related to his “spiritual healing” practice. His own lawyer described him as “unhinged.”

When a gunman took hostages and displayed an Islamic flag at a coffee shop in the heart of Sydney last week, supporters of the Islamic State (IS) online were slow to cheer. The flag on display was not their familiar, official flag, and the user was wearing a headband that made them think he was a Shiite Muslim, a member of the branch of Islam that IS despises with a passion.

“Hezbollah is behind this terrorist attack,” one IS supporter definitively tweeted.

Eventually, the strange story emerged, not of Hezbollah, but the tale of Man Haron Monis, a Shiite Muslim born in Iran who had emigrated to Australia. He had been charged in 2013 as an accessory to murder and faced dozens of sexual assault charges related to his “spiritual healing” practice. His own lawyer described him as “unhinged.”

Earlier in December, scant days before the attack, Monis had declared his conversion from Shiite Islam to Sunni and pledged his loyalty to the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State. While he had previously spoken of political violence and showed signs of radicalization, his affiliation with IS appeared to be freshly minted. (To be fair, it is still early in the investigation.)

While many Islamic State supporters on social media have accepted Monis as their latest martyr, the case highlights a nascent trend. In September, IS called for so-called “lone wolf” attacks in the West as retaliation for air strikes on its territory, and quite a few individuals with weak or entirely absent ties to the organization have responded.

But in a number of these cases, it’s unclear whether the attacks were inspired by the Islamic State and its extremist ideology, or whether IS provided a convenient excuse for violence that was already brewing in the hearts of the perpetrators.

History is filled with examples of what happens when popular hysteria confuses issues of attribution, from the Salem witch trials to the House Un-American Activities Committee to the Satanic ritual abuse scare of the 1990s. In the case of IS, the problem is less dramatic (so far) but potentially more acute because the Islamic State’s focus on violence against the West is a concrete reality — and because there are legitimately blurry lines confronting those who seek to understand its impact.

Seeking celebrity

An imperfect — but not inappropriate — analogy for many of these cases can be found in the example of John Hinckley Jr., who in 1981 attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley had been obsessed with actress Jodie Foster and wrote her a letter just before the attack, in which he said his motivation was to “impress” her. No one in his right mind attributes the attack to Foster or assigns her responsibility. Rather, we understand that Hinckley had fixated on her as a visible celebrity from whom he sought affirmation. Both the fixation and the assassination attempt were manifestations of mental illness.

In cases like this, the object of fixation is in many ways incidental to the violent act. The challenge before us now is understanding how centrally the Islamic State factors into the increasingly diverse acts of violence carried out in its name.

The Islamic State is a dramatically different object of fixation than a celebrity, of course. It is an extremist group with a defined ideology, which explicitly promotes acts of violence as well as celebrating violence in its graphic videos. But it also possesses a celebrity of sorts, or at least notoriety, and dangles the prospect of public affirmation for violent acts. Unlike a movie star, IS offers explicit reinforcement to those who seek its attention or affirmation, from online cheerleaders to articles from its propaganda magazines.

For people who already have issues in their lives that might lead them to violence, the lure of such fame and personal validation may provide an outlet that is only ambiguously connected to the Islamic State’s radical religious and political platform.

Questions of overlap between mental illness and terrorism are not new. A spike in spree shootings and standoffs has pushed the question to the forefront over and over again, from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan to Norway shooter Anders Breivik to Connecticut school shooter Adam Lanza and any number of recent attacks on police. The “terrorist or psychopath” debate is often controversial and frequently becomes political, particularly over the very legitimate question of why Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be labeled as terrorists for very similar acts.

Many who study terrorism in depth see a role for the discussion of mental illness and non-ideological factors (such as criminality), while still often classifying specific incidents as terrorism, sometimes despite evidence of mental health considerations. Aside from relatively rare cases where a perpetrator of violence is clearly delusional, a spectrum of mental health problems — such as depression, trauma, or impulse control — do not inherently absolve those who commit violence from responsibility for their actions, allowing a role for ideology or extremist radicalization. But the question of whether a specific act falls into the technical category of “terrorism” is slightly different from the question of how we are to respond to the threat posed by individuals acting out under the “lone wolf” paradigm, and a growing number of marginal cases related to IS highlight the problem this presents.

In September, the Islamic State began aggressively calling for these so-called lone wolf attacks, in which individuals are urged to carry out violence without direct support from a terrorist organization. Al Qaeda has been urging such attacks for many years, with little success. But within just a short span of months, IS has been far more successful at motivating its supporters to act out.

Two lone wolf cases in Canada in October were relatively easy to resolve in favor of terrorism (even with complications). Both suspects had tried to join the Islamic State as foreign fighters before resorting to terrorist attacks at home. In September, a Melbourne, Australia, man who had been called in for questioning after publicly displaying the IS flag stabbed two police officers. The case of a man who attacked police in Queens with a hatchet in October was less clear at first, although his obsession with jihadist material was soon documented.

The Islamic State retroactively took credit for all four of those attacks, and in all but the Queens incident, the suspects had previously been under investigation for terrorism. Notably, IS did not claim another incident in September, a workplace beheading carried out by a disgruntled former employee in Moore, Oklahoma. The suspect, Alton Nolen, maintained a social media profile indicating a clear interest in jihadist ideas but lacking a clear focus on IS.

French connection

The phenomenon shows no signs of slowing. Just this past weekend, two more individual attacks took place in France. The first was carried out on Saturday by a man whose brother was already under investigation for terrorism. The assailant, whose Facebook page advertised his support for IS, stabbed three policemen in Joué-lès-Tours before being shot by a fourth.

On Sunday, a man drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians in Lyon (more than five hours away from the first incident), shouting “Allahu Akbar.” (Vehicular homicide is one of the tactics IS has specifically urged on its supporters in the West, but the case has not so far been explicitly tied to the Islamic State.) Early reports indicated the driver was “apparently imbalanced” and had spent time “in a psychiatric hospital.” On Monday, the scene repeated itself in the city of Nantes, with authorities again pointing to mental illness as the culprit.

In November, David Diaz Sr. of San Mateo, California, was arrested after trying to order a custom-embroidered hat with the logo “We Love ISIS.” Law enforcement investigators found illegal weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his apartment. Diaz later claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was referred for mental health treatment instead of prison. Other than talk of violence and the explicit mention of the Islamic State, he showed no signs of jihadist radicalization. He appears to have simply latched on to the public image of ISIS.

Questions about the sanity of those acting in the Islamic State’s name are not confined to lone wolves. In August, an Australian IS fighter who joined the group in Syria proudly tweeted a photo of his son holding a severed head. Before joining IS, the fighter had a history of treatment for paranoia and mental illness, including a robust medication schedule and eventually a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

All of these examples (and this list is not exhaustive) highlight growing ambiguities around paths to radicalization. The problem is not exclusive to the Islamic State. The sovereign citizen movement, for example, embraces beliefs wildly divorced from reality, and the question of their competence has been raised in court on many occasions. And sovereign violence is also on the rise, arguably presenting a quantifiably greater danger on U.S. soil than IS, although its adherents are less centrally organized.

The Islamic State magnet

Nevertheless, the Islamic State has displayed unusual success in motivating so many to act violently in such a compressed time frame. This may in part be due to its recruiting practices. IS visual propaganda puts a premium on the depiction of acts of violence so horrific and sadistic that their depravity can scarcely be appreciated without seeing them. But it alternates those messages with carefully manufactured visions of a utopian Islamic state within its territory, which stands in stark and unrealistic contrast to the carnage. This is a recipe to incite and agitate people with borderline personalities, and IS is a populist movement, happy to accept virtually any support.

Those who officially join the Islamic State organization (as a foreign fighter in Iraq or Syria, or as a recruiter or fundraiser) are easier to deal with from a policy and prevention perspective. The physical movements, communications, and outward behaviors of such suspects make it easier to detect and interdict such suspects using traditional counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) practices, even if that process is markedly imperfect. (Nearly all of the lone-wolf attackers whose acts were acknowledged by the Islamic State had been previously investigated for connections to terrorism.)

Evaluating and combating the threat of lone wolves is a different story. Here, the ways in which we understand a case matter. The noise surrounding the threat presented by IS is amplified by cases such as Alton Nolen and David Diaz, and the waters are muddied still further by cases like Man Haron Monis, whose turn toward the group is only the punctuation mark on a long history of crime, violence and delusion.

Monis will not be the last case to present us with challenging ambiguities. Given than IS thrives on outsized perceptions of its threat, it is important to avoid giving the organization too much credit for events where its influence is tangential or incidental. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to properly assess the most crucial questions until we have more data, and the fact that such cases often end with the death of the perpetrator makes it more difficult to get the answers we need.

Simply displaying a terrorist brand is not always a sign of well-articulated extremist belief (consider the swastika displayed by Charles Manson or the Satanic graffiti scrawled by serial killer David Berkowitz), and this may turn out to be even more true for IS than it has been for other ideologies.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to study the psychological impact of IS propaganda and messaging. For individuals like Monis and Nolen, we need to understand to what degree they were agitated and provoked to violence by the Islamic State’s messaging and to what degree they might have presented a risk of violence based on some other trigger or justification.

If and when we can answer that question, we will be better able to determine what strategy best fits the challenge — a model based on mental health intervention or countering extremism.

Of course, it’s possible, even likely, that we will not be able to answer such a complicated question in a definitive way any time soon, if ever. In that case, we will be left with a series of judgment calls and gray areas. If we fail to try, we empower IS to retroactively pick and choose which perpetrators to adopt, further shaping its narrative without pushback from responsible voices.

The politicization of terrorism means many will rush to fill in the gaps with simple answers, some favoring the polar extremes — either that it’s all just terrorism requiring a counterterrorism response, or that Islamic State extremism and messaging are rendered entirely irrelevant when mental health issues come into play.

Reality remains, as always, far more complex than we give it credit for.

Photo Credit: Cameron Richardson/Newspix/REX / The Associated Press

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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