ISIS, Mental Illness and Stopping “Stay and Act in Place” Lone Wolf Attacks

pressure cooker

A mentally ill person has once again been recruited into plotting for an ISIS “stay and act in place” attack in the West. This time it’s the mentally ill son of a Boston policeman, Alexander Ciccolo who was allegedly plotting to execute college students.

Mental illness, one should be clear, is not the same as impaired intellectual capacity. Ciccolo, it appears, was smart enough to study online how to collect and possibly prepare to make a bomb out of a pressure cooker (bought at Walmart). He had the pressure cooker, a variety of chemicals, two partially constructed Molotov cocktails, and an alarm clock alongside “attack planning papers” and his “jihad” paperwork”—all items found in his apartment when police searched it—according to an FBI affidavit released on July 13, 2015

Ciccolo had taken the name Abu Ali al-Amriki and was according to his neighbors a recent convert to Islam. According to the FBI, Ciccolo was first planning to make a pressure cooker bomb to conduct a terrorist attack on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel. Later he changed his terrorist target to a university town and planned to attack, according to the FBI affidavit “college dorms and cafeteria, to include executions of students, which would be broadcast live via the Internet”.

Ciccolo was caught in an FBI undercover sting operation. The son of a Boston police captain who had responded to the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, Alexander Ciccolo told the FBI undercover operative that he was inspired by those attacks and like the Tsarnaev brothers also planned to use a pressure cooker bomb. Ciccolo’s father was aware that his son was not well and alerted counter-terrorism authorities a year ago that his son “was going off the deep end” and “spouting extremist jihadist sympathies.”

Indeed, according to the FBI, Ciccolo praised the recently ISIS inspired Tunisian terrorist attack on Westerners at a beach resort calling it “awesome” and “impressive”. He also posted on his social media, according to the FBI affidavit, a picture of a dead American solider with the caption “Thank you Islamic State. Now we won’t have to deal with these kafir back in America,” (kafir referring to unbelievers).

Alexander Ciccolo told the FBI undercover operative that he was “not afraid to died for the cause”. He referred to America as “Satan” and “disgusting. As he planned for his attack he bragged to the undercover agent saying, “Allahu Akbar!!! I got the pressure cooker today.”

FBI director, James Comey announced last week that agents had arrested more than ten people with suspected ties to ISIS, foiling planned Fourth of July attacks. Officials now admit that Ciccolo’s arrest was one of these. Twenty-three-year old Ciccolo of Adams, Massachusetts was arrested on July 4th after buying two pistols and two rifles from an undercover FBI informant.

We see from this attack and others a pattern in ISIS “stay and act in place” plots that ISIS is more than happy to recruit the mentally ill into action. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau a gunman who shot a guard at a national memorial and went into the Ottawa Parliament attempting to shoot Parliamentarians was a habitual criminal offender, drug addict and mentally unstable.In June, the New York Times exposed the case of a mentally impaired girl that ISIS recruiters targeted.  Ciccolo, also was mentally ill.  After his arrest he was taken to hospital for treatment where he stabbed a nurse in the head with a pen.

Likewise, this case again highlights that relatives of violent extremists are often aware that their loved ones are radicalizing and becoming dangerous. In this case it was Ciccolo’s father who alerted the FBI that his son might be dangerous and planning a jihadi attack. I recently wrote Bride of ISISinspired by the real case of Shannon Conley—a Denver girl who also attempted to join ISIS and who contemplated carrying out a VIP attack inside the United States. Her father called the FBI to stop her from leaving the country to become a jihadi bride resulting in her arrest.

As the FBI works to shift through hundreds of online braggarts, we need to remember that parents, friends and relatives often know, well before authorities, who might be readying to launch an attack. And this highlights the need for hotlines as well as imams and psychologists to be on call to offer help in disengaging a potential terrorist before he carries out an attack. This makes it far easier for relatives to make an intervention than phoning authorities.  And it might also make way for interventions other than undercover sting operations that sadly may move a sick person further into committing to terrorism only to be imprisoned for long periods afterward.

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. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. Website:

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