Terrorism as the Short-Term Psychological “Fix” for Mental Illness

sydney siege hostage

A sixteen-hour siege in Sydney, Australia ended today with the gunman and two hostages killed, three others seriously injured. The suspect identified by New South Wales police as Man Haron Monis is a fifty-year old self-proclaimed cleric who came to Australia on asylum from Iran in 1996 and was currently out on bail with a lengthy criminal sentence. His previous lawyer refers to Monis as “a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous.”

Monis, like Tamerlan Tsarnaev before him—who attacked in Boston with his homemade bombs—were both asylum seekers legitimately granted asylum from parts of the world where torture, war, killing and mistreatment are commonplace. Each over a period of years of unsuccesfully integrating into their new country fell prey to the lure of terrorist ideologies and there are likely others like them.

It’s clear that ISIS, whose flag Mr. Monis demanded be brought to display in the Lindt chocolate café that he overtook, is more than happy to use such mentally deranged and “damaged” individuals to act in place as lone wolf terrorists to advance their campaign against Western nations. The October 2014 Parliament attacks in Ottawa were also staged by a habitual offender and drug addict, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, from Montreal who was thought by his circle to have mental illness issues.

Indeed, terrorist groups do not often recruit their regular cadres from among the mentally ill, as to do so would mean they rely upon unstable actors. But for lone wolf and self organized suicide attacks mentally ill people do just fine—and the short term fix that the terrorist group offers them in terms of deranged purpose and directed hate serves the group while offering short term psychological “first aid” to individuals who usually die as a result.

So how can we head these kind of attacks off? As Western countries who open their doors to asylum seekers we need to be aware of the mental health burdens of those who legitimately seek and receive asylum and that these are persons who are particularly vulnerable for mental illness and for terrorist recruitment as they are confused about identity, belonging and purpose.

In the case of Australia, five percent of asylum seekers come by boat and are held in grim circumstances when they arrive. They can take over a year to be processed, often in abysmal conditions, that greatly exacerbates their mental suffering and may even turn them against the country that grants them asylum. During the time that they are held in detention—often in close quarters and overcrowded conditions—their mental health often rapidly deteriorates. And in the time they are held, they often also mix with others who may hold extremist ideas who may influence them.

Mental health professionals who work with such populations know that if asylum seekers were tortured in their home country their rates of psychiatric diagnoses and medication seeking sharply increase even over a period of only three months of being held in detention and that for asylum seekers being held over six months puts them under deep psychiatric strain.

Thus an important lesson to be learned is that asylum seekers often have been deeply wounded—thus their reason for fleeing their home countries—and are in need of quick processing and mental health support. If they are giving out such signals are Mr. Monis was of criminality and hatred—or mental instability as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was—or of failure to succeed and attraction to extremist groups as Tamerlan Tsarnaev was—one can assume that they are easy prey for a group like ISIS or al Qaeda to convince to “act in place” as a lone wolf terrorists.

While ISIS holds sway and has a strong social media presence with its heady and utopian claims of a caliphate, these kind of cases are only going to increase. And in the case of American recruits they can be especially lethal as a result of easy access to assault rifles and other types of weaponry.

The answer to preventing such acts—in addition to defeating and delegitimizing ISIS—is that if we are going to allow asylum seekers into our countries we also need to be aware of their mental health needs and offer them real and meaningful help so that they don’t accept psychiatric fixes in the form of hateful ideologies that capture their minds and direct them to act out their mental illness upon all of us.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

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