Category Archives: Active Shooter

Mothers as Terrorists: When Mothers Kill and Die to Attain So-Called “Martyrdom” Status

Tashfeen MalikTwenty-seven-year old Tashfeen Malik, the wife of Syed Farook, and the female half of the California mass murder spree, is reported to have pledged her bay’ah–or oath of loyalty–to ISIS just before donning black military-style attire, taking up arms, an IED, and heading off with her husband, Syed Farook to kill fourteen people and wound seventeen others in cold blood. What would drive a woman to violate the most basic of maternal instincts–that is to protect her own child above all else, and to protect her relationship to her child, and in doing so to become a killer and die herself?

The answer lies in the sick ideologies circulating today and embraced by terrorism groups, including ISIS, who endorse a “martyrdom” ideology. Other examples of mothers who left their children to kill themselves (while murdering others), include Palestinian Reem Riyashi–mother of two children: three-year-old son Obedia and eighteen-month-old daughter Duha. Riyashi was preceded by Chechen female bombers–also mothers, who went on so-called “martyrdom” missions also leaving their children behind.

In January of 2004, during the Second Intifada, Riyash approached the Erez checkpoint leading out of Gaza while wearing a suicide bomb. According to the IDF, she thwarted security procedures there by pretending to be crippled–claiming to have plates in her legs that would set off the metal detectors, she requested a body search instead.

As with most women, she was not suspected of being a cold-blooded killer. But when taken to the private area for her check, Riyashi defied most expectations of women and mothers. She detonated her two-kilogram bomb–killing four Israelis (two soldiers, a policeman and a civilian security worker) and wounded an additional seven Israelis and four Palestinians. Riyashi and her Hamas senders took full advantage of the trust most of us put in the female gender, as well as in this instance, of Israeli decency to a purported handicapped individual–to kill as many as possible.

Riyashi’s suicide attack shocked the world, particularly as she had posed with her small children in photos taken before her attack. The appalling photos of a mother brandishing an automatic rifle with a rocket-propelled grenade in the foreground standing alongside her young children defied all understandings of normal motherhood. In one of the photos her son is clutching what looks like a mortar shell. At the time, Hamas replying to criticism for their hard-hearted and cynical use of a mother to kill and die, protested that the pictures revealed the depth of despair among Palestinian women and their strong desire to defeat the Israeli occupation.

Riyashi was the eighth Palestinian female suicide bomber. Following the attack of Darine Abu Aisha (the second Palestinian female suicide bomber), Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, withdrew his objection to using women in such actions and switched instead to lavish praise of their involvement. He applauded Riyashi’s attack, urged other women to volunteer, and warned the Israelis to expect even more female bombers.

In many ways the Chechens and Palestinian female suicide bombers, and their supporters around the world endorsements of female involvement in terrorism, opened the doors for other female terrorists acting in behalf of conservative Islamic-related terrorists groups to join in. Following them, Al Qaeda sent white European Belgian Muriel Degaque–a wife, but not a mother–to bomb herself in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in Iraq also sent a rash of female bombers from inside Iraq to detonate themselves at various targets inside Iraq. 

ISIS, thus far, has not sent females out to “martyr” themselves but has made signs of considering it. And it is now looking as if Tashfeen Malik may have been their first ISIS inspired volunteer for that dubious “honor”.

Horrifically, three years after Riyashi bombed herself, Al-Aqsa TV, the official station of the Palestinian unity government (led by Hamas), began airing a fictionalized dramatization of Reem’s four-year-old daughter following in her mother’s footsteps. In it Duha Riyashi (played by a child actress) sings as her mother readies herself for a suicide bombing while asking in the sick lyrics of her song, “Mommy, what are you carrying in your arms instead of me?” Mourning her mother’s death in the video, the young girl finds a leftover stick of dynamite near her mother’s bedside table and picks it up as she vows to carry on, “My love will not be words. I will follow Mummy in her steps.”

Clearly to these kinds of groups, fixated on winning at all costs, and engaging in terrorism to do it–mothers and children, and the bonds between them–mean nothing, compared to carrying out acts in behalf of the “cause”.

It should also be noted, that Chechen suicide bombers–male and female–were encouraged by their ideologues to marry and have children before going on suicide missions. The logic was that they should fulfill all their “life duties,” including having children before engaging on their fantasized and final trip to Paradise.

Chechens who are fighting in Syria (who according to our ISIS defector informants in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project) head the battles as the elite ISIS forces–the Navy SEALs, if you will–of ISIS. They follow the slogan of “Victory or Paradise,” meaning that death holds no sting and “martyrdom” is victory for them.

Indeed, if Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook were inspired by the plethora of sick, ISIS ideology that is presently on the Internet, or radicalized from more personal contact–their mindset would be the same. Death holds no sting and killing innocents is glorified.

We see evidence that the couple were preparing for what appears to be a series of attacks and were likely planning to carry them out much like the Tsarnaev’s did–starting with one target and carrying on to a bloody fight at the end–ending in death for at least the elder “true believer.”

However, it seems a workplace spat somehow triggered Syed Farook to decide to jump the gun and prematurely set into motion their series of attacks. That Syed went to work alone, got into an altercation, and then returned in battle gear with his wife to carry out his massacre–but that the couple “forgot” to bring their other bombs along to carry on as the Tsarnaev’s did from one bomb site to the next ultimately ending in the elder Tsarnaev’s death OR that they thought they could return for the other bombs seems to indicate they went off half cocked–perhaps out of nerves and anger.

Nevertheless, the couple was clearly not willing to surrender. When faced with overwhelming force–just like the Madrid train bombers, the Paris attackers and now them–they fought to the death and would likely have exploded themselves and others around them had they had their other devices along with them.

What this couple’s story underlines is that despite our wish to see females as the gentler gender, females can be lethal terrorists, that terrorist groups and now even ISIS are more than willing to make use of them, and that mothers are not an exception. Sadly, we must face that for those that have drunk the poison Kool-Aid of the “martyrdom” ideology put out by such groups as al Qaeda and ISIS–that killing and dying for the “cause” overrides every other normal instinct–including that of self-preservation and maternal love.

That is the enemy we face today. We must do everything we can to discredit and destroy this ideology and the groups that espouse it.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. She 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. 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. Website:

Probing into the Mind of the Chattanooga Attacker for Clues on his path to Violent Extremism


Just as Ramadan is ending—a time when ISIS had called for an increase in terror attacks—one has occurred in Chattanooga. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized citizen of the U.S., born in Kuwait and also carrying Jordanian citizenship carried out what appears to be an ISIS inspired, active shooter attack at two military recruiting centers on July 16, 2015. Abdulazeez who had won awards for high grades in high school, was a 2012 electrical engineering graduate from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and well liked in his community appeared an unlikely candidate for terrorism.

Abdulazeez, however fired from what a witness called a high-powered rifle out of a silver Mustang into a military recruiting center in a Chattanooga strip shopping mall. He then carried on to another military facility operated by the U.S. Navy where he shot and killed four Marines and injured at least two others. The actual weapon was according to law enforcement officers an AK-47 style rifle and Abdulazeez was also carrying thirty-round magazines when he opened fire. The silver Mustang turned out to be rented.

An ISIS affiliated account tweeted about the shooting around the same time as the shooting was occurring. The tweet read “O Americans Dogs soon YOU Will see wonders #Cahttanooga #USA #ISIS”. This follows a similar pattern to the tweet sent out moments before the ISIS-inspired attacks on the “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas last May. The time stamp on the Chattanooga tweet is under dispute, but it looks as though there may have been some foreknowledge of his attack.

Abdulazeez was like many recent “stay and act in place” lone wolf attackers a “clean skin”—meaning he was not previously known to law enforcement as a potential violent extremist. He may or may not have been directed by ISIS, and simply self-radicalized online, like many ISIS followers now do. All of the ingredients of the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my book, Talking to Terrorists, based upon interviews with over four hundred terrorists and their family members and close associates are all present 24/7 nowadays over the Internet—the group, its ideology and social support are all there readily available to hook in a vulnerable person to move him along the terrorist trajectory, while no one suspects a thing.

What were Abdulazeez’s possible vulnerabilities to radicalization and resonating to a hateful ideology such as ISIS propagates? Well first off, it appears Abdulazeez grew up under the influence of, and witnessing, violence.

According to the Chattanoogan, Abdulazeez’s father, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez was a violent abuser. Court papers document that he repeatedly beat his wife, Rasmia in front of their five children. Her complaint states that Youssuf, who is a city of Chattanooga public works employee, repeatedly beat her, once so badly that she went to a crisis center. It also claimed sexual assault while the children were present in the home and that Youssuf planned to take a second wife back in their native home of Palestine. Rasmia sued her husband for divorce in February of 2009 but like many victims of domestic abuse, later withdrew her request.

The complaint also said that Youssuf beat his children as well “striking and beating them without provocation or justification” and that he was verbally abusive to his wife in front of the children and to them as well. It also documented that Youssuf, like many domestic abusers, controlled all the money and property in the family. The abuse was bad enough that Rasmia’s brothers flew in from Kuwait and Washington, D.C., but they apparently could not stop his abuse, as the complaint documented their visits only made Youssuf more abusive and that he sexually abused Rasmia again after her brother from Washington, D.C. visited.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, twenty-four-years old at the time of the attack would have been eighteen in 2009 when his mother’s request for divorce was withdrawn. So he was a minor during the times written about in the complaint and clearly grew up witnessing what appears to be horrific scenes of family violence. Psychologists know that as young sons grow up powerlessly witnessing the abuse of their mother at the hands of their father an inner rage boils and often it boils over in late adolescence—often when the son stands up to his father and threatens violence if he doesn’t stop. Likely, Abdulazeez was wrestling with shame, humiliation and anger over seeing his mother beaten and humiliated by his father and the children also being included in the abuse—according to the complaint.

Perhaps he turned to alcohol or drugs to numb out that pain. Clearly he was showing troubles with mind-altering substances as Abdulazeez was arrested April 21, 2015 in Hamilton, Tennessee for driving under the influence. He was scheduled to appear in court later this month on that charge. That would lead to more shame as Muslims are not supposed to drink, and during Ramadan he would likely be atoning for that and trying to clean up his act. Abdulazeez admitted to the police officer of having being around friends who were drinking and smoking weed and he accounted for crushed white powder under his nose as crushed caffeine pills that he claimed having snorted. He refused blood testing. Abdulazeez was interestingly living back at home at the time of his attacks.

On July 18, the Abdualzeez family released a statement saying that Muhammad struggled for years with depression. As with all active shooter attacks, he likely also expected to be killed—and was thus aiming for suicide (by cop) if not “martyrdom” in his action.

Abdulazeez was, according to the divorce filing document, of Palestinian origins and it appears his family had gone through what many Palestinians have—moving from place to place and living without a homeland. Nidal Hassan the military psychiatrist who became an active shooter attacking his base in Texas in protest of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was also of Palestinian origin. Palestinians often feel affinity with the collective struggle to establish a Palestinian state and we still don’t know if Abdulazeez was exposed to relatives, friends and rhetoric supportive of terrorism—but it would be more likely given his heritage.

Abdulazeez would have been in his teens during the Second Intifada and may have, like many of Palestinian origins, believed that suicide terrorism was the only choice for standing up to the might of the Israeli Defense Forces. That would have made him vulnerable to at a later date buying into the al Qaeda and ISIS narrative that Muslims, their land and even Islam itself is under attack. And those feelings might have intensified when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and now when ISIS declared their caliphate while receiving military air strikes from the U.S. and other Western powers. He certainly would have been aware of the recent Israeli poundings in Gaza. His father was also briefly on terrorist watch list for giving charity to a terrorist related organization affiliated with Palestinians in Nablus and the West Bank. His case was subsequently closed.  Palestinian groups have for the most part resisted infiltration from al Qaeda and ISIS, but these groups constantly try to gain a foothold among Palestinians and often use their case as an example to further their violent narrative and call for all Muslims to join jihad.

Abdulazeez appears sensitive about his Muslim identity and unsure about belonging to his new country. In high school he put the following quote next to his photo in the yearbook: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” Abdulazeez’s sister, Yasmeen recalls being harassed for taking Muslim holidays off and wearing a headscarf, once being refused the right to take part in a volleyball match by a referee who objected to her headscarf.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, Abdulazeez kept a blog where he posted on July 13th that “life is short and bitter” and that Muslims should not let “the opportunity to submit to Allah … pass you by.” The New York Times notes that Abdualzeez also only recently grew his beard and that he started regular Friday worship at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga only in the last two to three months.

Abdulazeez visited Jordan in 2014 and Kuwait and Jordan in 2010, both times when he may have crossed paths with violent extremists and have had the plight of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others brought more into focus and in a way sympathetic to groups like ISIS.

Abdulazeez had guns according to a friend and would shoot as a hobby, although friends and neighbors remember him as a “good kid” and not as an angry or threatening persona. One friend claims Abdulazeez changed dramatically after his travels to the Middle East.

It is still uncertain how and when Abdulazeez began radicalizing and decided to carry out an attack and if he was inspired by ISIS, but it is looking that way. Chillingly, Abdulazeez is reported to have worked at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio for ten days in 2013, as an electrical engineer right outside the reactor. FirstPower said he left because he did not have the minimum requirements to remain employed. With that in mind we may have to be thankful that Abdulazeez didn’t do far more damage than kill four innocent Marines, which in itself is a horrible tragedy.

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  Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender.  She had interviewed in the field and in prisons over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and hostages. Website:

Mental Health Issues and the Security Clearance Process—Questions Raised after the U.S. Navy Yard Active Shooter

The recent Navy Yard shooting in which active shooter Aaron Alexis entered the Washington, D.C. Navy facility with a gun that he used to kill twelve and injure many more–before being shot and killed himself, raises some important national security issues regarding the clearance process and granting of access to military facilities. 

Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning (at the time Bradley Manning), Nidal Hassan, and Aaron Alexis all carried clearances.  Snowden and Manning betrayed their clearance by releasing classified documents into the hands of others.  Nidal Hassan, a military psychiatrist who had been treating wounded veterans returning from war and who was about to deploy into Afghanistan and Aaron Alexis were both active shooters.  They took weapons into a military facility and opened fire upon their colleagues ending in their own anticipated suicide. 

Today over five million U.S. security clearances are issued–one third of them to “contractors”–that is individuals who work for companies that hold government contracts.  Snowden and Alexis were both contractors.  Snowden, working for Booz Allen amazingly maneuvered himself into a position with access to innumerable classified and highly important government documents that he was able to surreptitiously remove from his workplace and then release to media contacts. 

How were these persons holding security clearances and with access to government facilities able to penetrate a system to do it terrible damage without the system having some idea of the impending danger?  Is our security clearance system broken? 

If one goes back over these cases it’s clear there were some warnings in nearly every case.  In the case of Nidal Hassan, he was becoming increasingly agitated over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and about being a Muslim serving in a military conflict against a Muslim country.  He expressed his concerns to his colleagues in a fashion that caused them to be disturbed–but nothing was done about it. He also asked the military not to send him to Afghanistan.

Likewise Hassan, a Palestinian by descent, would by anyone’s estimation likely have been aware of the campaign of suicide terrorism-glorified as “martyrdom” being carried out by Palestinians during the Second Intifida.  That campaign and its ideology may or may not have infected his own way of thinking about suicide rampages in behalf of what he might have felt was a good cause.  And if authorities had tracked his Internet and personal records they would have found him worshipping at the same Northern VA mosque in which Anwar al-Awlaki served and that Awlaki–then living in Yemen and highly radicalized–had become a mentor to Hassan discussing his concerns about serving as a Muslim in the U.S. military.  Before his active shooter campaign, Hassan packed up his belongings, settled his debts and bid goodbye to his landlady–although leaving her with the impression he was going off to war.  It was just a different type of war he was engaging in and no one picked up the warning signs.  

If Hassan had been subject to a more frequent security review process, if his colleagues had engaged more with him about his very real concerns, if the military had considered his expressed reservations about being sent as Muslim military member to Afghanistan, and if he had been subject to a data base review of his Internet contacts, he might have been flagged and successfully treated or discharged from the military before he went on his murderous rampage.  His acts depended upon his access to the base and trust that had been placed in him by a government that failed to realize how mentally unstable he had become. 

Chelsea Manning also gave clear signs of distress to colleagues and the medical system prior to her betrayal of U.S. secrets.  Her dilemma was quite different than Nidal Hassan’s but every bit as personally distressing.  As a serving transgender individual in the U.S. military which still does not accept and more disturbingly does not reassure it’s well serving transgender service members that they can continue to serve if they disclose their status or seek treatment along existing standards of care–she faced automatic discharge if her “secret” became known. 

As is often the case with many transgender service members, Manning had likely entered the service without having come to grips with her transgender issues.  At the time when she could no longer ignore it, she was already committed to her military career and caught in the don’t ask/don’t tell dilemma that continues to this day for transgender service members.  She was literally harboring a painful personal secret that was bursting to be addressed at the same time when she was becoming increasingly disturbed by U.S. military practices in Iraq.  Unable to disclose her secret or to get adequate treatment for it without losing her military career, she instead addressed her other concerns about U.S. military practices making a decision to become what she believed was a whistleblower–a decision that involved disclosing state secrets, betraying her country and her security clearance. 

Aaron Alexis also gave out serious warning signals.  Prior to being accepted into the Navy reserves he had been arrested, but not charged in 2004, when he shot out the tires of a car in what he explained to police afterward was an anger induced rage–a signal that he might have a serious dissociative tendency and anger management issues.  Then while in the military in 2008 he was thrown out of a bar after destroying furniture in it.  In that incident he was arrested and spent two nights in jail.  Then in 2010 he had intimidated a neighbor over his complaints about her being noisy, in an ongoing altercation that culminated in him “accidently” discharging his gun, shooting through her apartment’s floor.  The Navy was alerted of all three incidents.  

Likewise despite being discharged from the Navy and their knowing from his parents that they were also concerned about their son’s “anger management” issues, the Navy allowed him to continue to carry his security clearance that allowed him to be later hired by a contractor and gain access to multiple military facilities.  And in the past month Alexis had been seeking emergency treatment more than once at the VA for multiple nights of insomnia–another flag that he might have been deeply psychologically distressed.

Perhaps most disturbingly in his long record of signaling possible impairment to those who gave him his clearance and access to the bases, Alexis had also called the police in August of 2013 while in Rhode Island complaining that he was being microwaved and that there were persecuting voices in his head–potential signals of a schizophrenic episode.  The Rhode Island police alerted the Navy police who somehow failed to take action.  Clearly with all these signals of a troubled mind, the Navy had some obligation to re-review his security clearance and access privileges but it appears that given numerous warnings they failed to do so.  And now twelve people are dead and many more are wounded, bereaved and psychologically traumatized by his actions. 

The security clearance process in the U.S. does not require a person never to have sought mental health treatment or even not to have mental health issues and that is probably correct given that many people serve their country well despite psychological challenges and there are many treatments available to stabilize mental conditions. What the clearance process does require is an assessment of whether a psychological condition and its treatment would impair that person’s judgment and behavior in regard to classified materials and access.  This includes an assessment as to whether or not they are faithfully following their treatment.  So carrying a diagnosis and receiving treatment is not a definitive block to carrying a security clearance.

Despite this, I have personally been asked over the years many times to treat military and diplomatic personnel outside their medical system because they were seriously enough concerned over their security clearance status should they seek treatment for anxiety, addictions, PTSD, dissociative disorders, marriage stressors and even suicidal family members that they wished to do so paying cash rather than having any entry of their treatment logged into their medical system.  In each case that I was involved as a treating clinician, I was given no reasons to doubt the cleared individual’s ability to carry out their duty to their country.  And it seemed wise to me that they did seek treatment as the issues they were facing were serious ones that could impair their ability to perform without treatment.  But had they been compromised, I as an outside clinician would have also faced a dilemma–would this constitute an instance of duty to warn, or would I be obliged to not break their confidentiality? 

While we certainly don’t want to discourage those carrying clearances from seeking and receiving help for psychological challenges they may inevitably as members of the human family face, we also must consider some way of flagging those who should not for mental health reasons be carrying a clearance or having access to military or government facilities, personnel and data bases.  That is a difficult issue to maneuver as penalizing security clearance holders for needing and responsibly seeking treatment can also mean they simply won’t seek treatment–which can also have disastrous consequences.

More frequent review of clearances seems to be a likely solution.  When a military pilot project on security clearance reform was carried out looking only at social media traces of a group holding security clearances it revealed that twenty percent showed demonstrable reasons for review of their security clearance status–including threats to a president, history of arrest and charges, and suicidal intentions. Perhaps the most important things we can do immediately as a country is to enact some kind of security clearance reform that requires continuous evaluation of those who hold clearances without penalizing those who are legitimately addressing any mental health issues they may have.

We could also encourage more police reporting of those they arrest and interact with, who carry security clearances–to flag the appropriate agencies.  These days with big data applications we could easily track those who carry security clearances to be, at a minimum, alerted of their arrest histories.  While medical records likely should not be the subject of privacy invasions, it certainly could be possible to collect all arrest records and have them analyzed to spit out those like Aaron Alexis who we now see in hindsight, gave us many warnings of his psychic unraveling. 

 Sadly he was not flagged for a diagnostic workup and comprehensive treatment and continued on with a clearance and access status while falling apart, a failure of the system that allowed him to hurt not only himself but many others in the process.  Clearly we need to and can find a better way to address these issues.

The Male Active Shooter—Bad Genes, Dangerous Chromosomes?

Recently on CNN a Dr. James Fallon showed the brain scans of psychopaths explaining that the amygdala, orbital cortex and other brain areas of psychopaths are not showing as much activity as in so-called “normals”. Dr. Fallon went on to explain that genetic combinations known to be associated with aggressiveness may be dangerous if combined with brains that operate in this manner, but then surprisingly admitted that one of the scans we were looking at was of his own brain and that he also has the “bad genes” for aggression. But Dr. Fallon is hardly a psychopath, and he is not telling us that a predisposition to violence is genetically predetermined—only that psychopathic brains do operate differently (according to brain scans) but others who have similar “different” operating systems are not necessarily criminal psychopaths. According to Dr. Fallon, it takes a third ingredient—childhood abuse—to bring the whole thing together.

The other day, I received a blog post from a respected writer and colleague, Cara Hoffman, claiming that nearly all those who rape, carry out mass shootings and domestic assault against women carry a Y chromosome ( And Cara reminds us that looking into the psyches of violent males is a much-needed exercise if we want to put an end to such violence.

So is it a combination of bad genes and dangerous chromosomes that creates a foundation for mass shooters?

Cara’s comments made me reflect on the fact that in my past ten years studying and interviewing terrorists, and now in observing the latest investigative news as it unfolds on the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings, I have never come across a female active shooter, the word experts in my profession use to label the person who goes on a shooting rampage with the intent to suicide or be killed in “death by cop”.

However, females do engage in terrorism. They strap on bombs and go into crowded marketplaces, theaters, restaurants and nightclubs to explode themselves. They also hijack planes, use rifles to shoot their enemies and place bombs for later detonation after they’ve slipped away, as well as engage in all the other roles of terrorism support, such as acting as couriers, fundraisers, propagandists and the like. But unlike many of the male suicide terrorists I’ve studied—particularly male Palestinians—who frequently pick up guns to go on a killing spree during which they intend to be killed, I’ve never come across a case of a female being an active shooter. When it comes to the school shooters here in the U.S. and abroad, none, to my knowledge, have been women.

Why is that?

Is active shooting—mass killing with a gun—just a male thing? And what makes a young man pick up a semi-automatic rifle and go on a shooting spree?

Terrorists are equipped by a group with a political goal, who have engaged and convinced him of a violent activity either through the bonds of brotherhood, ideology, or by playing upon any combination of his emotions relating to discrimination, marginalization, frustrated aspirations, humiliation, bereavement, traumatization – often from living in, or being shown extremely disturbing events from a conflict zone, and desire for revenge. He’s become a believer that political violence is the way to address his or other’s grievances. With a sending group whose ideology justifies killing civilians and some social support—either within the group itself or even more powerful, surrounding it, active shooting is glorified and allows him to make a violent choice.

Psychache, the term coined by suicidologist Edwin Shneidman who studied normal suicide, is the overwhelming psychic pain that propels normal people into seeking suicide as an escape. And I found the same extreme anguish in terrorists who suicide in the name of their group. From the group’s perspective, his psychic pain makes him a useful weapon to expend on behalf of their political cause. If he’s following the militant jihadi ideology, his group has convinced him that paradise is just a bullet away.

But what about the active shooter who acts alone and has no group, ideology or social support for his actions? Not living in a conflict zone, he can’t claim he’s razing down innocent children in revenge for the death of his own, that his home or resources have been taken from him, that he lives under occupation, or that he’s fighting for freedom by, as he may claim, the only means he has: attacking civilians. He is not suffering from active posttraumatic stress disorder, in which he experiences full sensory flashbacks of violent episodes that leave him in gut-wrenching agony, his heart aching with survivor’s guilt over having made it when others did not, his nerves frayed to their core with the constant coursing of neurotransmitters screaming out their painful message of high alert. He’s not in a war zone; he doesn’t have PTSD.

Or does he?

So easily in our culture, we forget that a lot of our children living right here in the U.S. grow up in active conflict zones. It’s just not a declared war. Instead it’s a tough neighborhood or maybe the carried memories of war far away, for refugees. Even many affluent homes are conflict zones to those trapped inside. Many homes, schools, churches, shopping malls. and neighborhoods are not the safe havens we wish them to be, but places where nice young boys get preyed upon by molesters, rapists and others who leave their young victim with a silent but throbbing scar on his soul. And if the child already has a genetic predisposition or an innate inability to process difficult emotions being victimized can leave him extremely vulnerable to acting out aggression. As Dr. Fallon warned—the perfect storm begins brewing.

And boys are taught from early on to be silent about their bad experiences. Just this year one grown man I was working alongside suddenly blurted out to me that he’d been raped in the men’s room as a young boy. I was amazed at his courage to tell and asked him how long he’d carried it as a secret. How many men carry such a deep secret buried inside?

When we are wondering if it’s something about chromosomes or bad genes, let’s not forget to wonder what does watching a father hit his mother do to a young boy trying to grow into manhood? It is totally emasculating and confusing; he doesn’t know who to identify with: his strong father who is beating the crap out of his mother or his mother who he wishes to save at an age when he finds he is as powerless as her in the face of his father’s violence. Ultimately, the victims of domestic violence, assault and molestation suffer the same symptoms as someone coming from a war zone: constant painful flashbacks, painful bodily arousal, guilt, anger, shame—all forms of devastating and psychologically overwhelming psychic pain. We underestimate how many young boys are raped and how many grow up in violent neighborhoods and homes. And guess what? Certain brain areas in traumatized people don’t light up on brain scans the same way they do in normals. So is it bad genes, deficient chromosomes or the experiences of young men in our society that is the problem? Or the combination of all three?

When a young boy is carrying traumatic experiences on his soul, what is he to do with it? The anger boiling inside, the shame seeping into every crevice of his cells, the complete powerlessness to address it because “boys aren’t supposed to cry” and men don’t get raped or assaulted, and the message that you must be powerful and act like a man, are too strong to override to find help.

And after blocking any normal expression of trauma or grief for those who have been wounded, what do we model to our young men about solving problems? There’s the video game that trains him for steady dopamine hits, doling out the pleasure neurotransmitter every time he “lights someone up”. And we know that when dopamine is engaged to internally medicate painful experiences, there’s no end to the addictive need, causing the brain to require more intense hits of the same experience to give the same level of dopamine high. We know many of our youth are hooked on violent computer games. And then there’s the movies and television shows that glorify the violent gun-toting hero who solves all his problems and expresses all his emotions with a gun. Most boys who watch violent movies and play these games don’t ever act out on these models, and most who are abused keep the abuse sealed painfully inside—but the rare one that snaps—given the ready availability of assault weapons in this country—cause unbelievable carnage.

Girls who grow up with violence don’t have these models. They are allowed to cry and to ask for help. And we know from research looking at young girls’ responses to trauma compared to boys, that girls are much more likely to dissociate whereas boys are more likely to act out. The latest active shooter we are being told already suffered from a mental disorder – Asperger Syndrome – that alone should not have led to violence. However we are also being told he emerged from playing video games, to smash his hard drive up before he shot his divorced mother and going on his killing rampage. For me there’s a possible message in that—and it’s not about bad genes or the Y chromosome.

What Makes An Adam Lanza?

Adam Lanza was not a terrorist in the strict definition of the word: he had no political cause, but he terrorized a community and a nation and committed a heinous crime, reminding many of the Beslan School hostage-taking in which three hundred and thirty innocents were killed.

I’ve been studying terrorism for ten years–interviewing terrorists, their family members and close associates, and their hostages – including those held in Beslan – and I find there are a lot of parallels between terrorism and mass shooting sprees. For one, terrorists are made, not born. The same is true for mass shooters.

In the case of terrorism, I found that there is a “lethal cocktail” of terrorism that takes vulnerable individuals and moves them along the terrorist trajectory to enact violence. A vulnerable terrorist recruit rarely acts alone; they need a group, an ideology and social support to propel them into violence. The group equips them, the ideology justifies violently killing civilians and social support makes it more attractive to engage. The individual acts out of his own pain, which resonates with the other three ingredients.

Mass shooters, as opposed to terrorists, often do act alone, but let us not deceive ourselves that they are in fact lone actors. Just like terrorists, there is a group that equips them—it’s the local gun store, gun fair, a friend or family member, or any place where they can quickly and easily obtain means to kill– once they have crossed the mental line where killing others becomes acceptable. And the ideology and social support that justifies mass shootings here in the U.S.–in the demented minds of those who carry them out–is the cultural milieu of violent movies, computer games, even family and cultural socialization that models for troubled young men to refrain from expressing their emotions and asking for help (“big boys don’t cry”) and glorifies using gun violence as a means to express pain and solve problems. (See the latest action movie, television show or computer game where the hero shoots his way into the arms of the loving girl). Social support also exists in the instant and overwhelming media attention that mass shooters are guaranteed to get by expressing their painful outrage, despair, or whatever other sick idea they wish to get across through murder.
Like terrorists, mass shooters are vulnerable individuals and usually highly troubled. A young man does not pick up a semi-automatic rifle and go into a school, workplace or public gathering and shoot as many people as possible for no reason. In the case of shooting school-age children, the perpetrator may highly identify with the age of his victims, symbolically killing himself at the age when he suffered sexual abuse or some other violence or humiliation which he has never gotten help with, doesn’t know how to get over, and is now expressing his outrage in killing others. Again we see emotions acted out–versus spoken and worked through –and violence used to try to wipe away pain. Or he may just be mentally ill and unable to contain or work through upsetting emotions and the gun provides him an outlet.

Terrorist groups know that when a vulnerable individual is in overwhelming psychic pain it is often not hard to attract him into a suicide mission – he wants to express that pain, will act in behalf of the group and seeks to exit out of this life as what he believes is a “hero” by following the militant jihadi ideology that promises instant access to paradise.

In the case of mass shooting incidents, the lone perpetrators are often not following any terrorist ideology and don’t believe their act will take them instantly to paradise, but they are in deep psychic pain. Their emotional pain is so overwhelming that they want to express their outrage and despair publicly unleashing a bloodbath that can only result in their death even if they don’t suicide. They have so little help for dealing with their anguish that it overwhelms any reasonable judgment, and they see death as their only viable exit. They are in a state of what suicidiologist Edwin Shneidman called “psychache”, which is the biggest predictor of suicide. But these actors will not simply suicide. They will kill others as they exit life, which is why our first responders now need to know how to act fast to take the suicidal murderer down and hopefully lowering his potential number of victims before he kills himself or suicides in “death by cop”. In either case the terrorist or the lone shooter is aiming at suicide (the terrorist may be calling it “martyrdom”) and we need to understand that. His psychic pain is overwhelming and he will express it until he is killed or kills himself – if he is equipped to do so.

So how do we prevent the next Adam Lanza?

We can tackle the problem from any number of avenues. The fact that in this country, vulnerable individuals have access to semi-automatic weapons at the time when their minds are filled with overwhelming pain and a desire to die—but not without first expressing their outrage, despair and emotional pain in a slaughter of others. The availability of guns makes certain that the “lethal cocktail” of mass shootings continues to exist and operate in our country. We have to come to grips with finding a balance between our freedoms and the need to protect our children and innocent civilians. And some element of that is likely going to have to be restriction of weapons that can commit carnage in seconds.

We have to do more to try to identify and intervene with troubled youth, giving help to young people who were abused, neglected or otherwise hurt and who are now searching for a way to resolve horrible inner pain without knowing where or how to get help. Truthfully this kind of psychological care is very costly, and at a time of fiscal challenges, it isn’t easy. But can we do any less when looking at the faces of the children we lost in Connecticut? We can and should provide good mental health interventions that identify and treat troubled youth – but will we? And will everyone that needs it, engage in accepting help? We can’t force troubled young people who have committed no crime into therapy.

We are also unlikely to do away with violent movies, television shows and computer games that model killing. But we do have to recognize that our entertainment media is contributing to a violent society and perhaps decreasing the empathy of children who grow up witnessing countless violent acts. We can and should limit more carefully what we let our children watch and play. And as consumers we should encourage the entertainment industry to create dramatic action films and games that are fun and engaging but do not glorify death and killing.

And there’s no escaping media that will cover every moment of any mass shooting. So there will always be a subsection of troubled young people who will want to pick up guns to act out their pain. And as long as there are guns easily accessible to them, some of those young people in overwhelming psychic pain will chose guns and mass shootings ending in suicide as their means of expressing outrage and their pathway out of agony.

We can give teachers guns, put a cop in every school and hope they stop the perpetrators before they shoot our children. And we can begin to identify, treat and intervene in the lives of abused, neglected and hurt young people to prevent them from becoming violent in the first place. But for those we miss and who fall through the cracks, we can ensure protection of the general population by creating strong controls on assault weapons. We can and must stop the next Adam Lanza.