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Should We Allow Mentally Ill 'Lone Wolves' To Call Themselves A Terrorist?

18/12/2014 17:19 | Updated 19 December 2014

It was the week where at times it felt the world was falling down in flames, beginning with a 16-hour siege at a cafe in Sydney, where 17 innocent workers and customers found themselves held hostage by a deranged, radical Islamist, and two were killed.

The next day brought more horror, the meticulous planning and execution of a plan by the Pakistani Taliban to hit a military school and kill as many children as possible, with 142 pupils and staff murdered.

The attacks differed radically. One was the result of months of organisation and proper funding, the target identified because of the damage that could be caused and the military connections to the school. The other was planned only inside the brain of a disturbed individual, a place chosen at random, an act so unprepared that the perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, brought the wrong flag, and demanded police bring him a new one.

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Man Haron Monis, the gunman inside the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, Sydney

There appears to be a far closer connection between the Sydney attack with the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, or the shooting at the Canadian Parliament by a Muslim convert, and the stabbing of MP Stephen Timms.

There is a key difference in the kind of people who commit those very different acts that are, perhaps lazily, often both labelled terrorism. Research suggests "lone agents" are far more likely to have mental health problems than the general public, but crucially, they're also more likely to suffer mental health issues than members of terrorist groups, according to authors at the US's Indiana State University and Australia's Victoria University.

Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij, who studied 98 lone wolf attackers in the US, found 40% had mental health problems compared to 1.5% of the general population. They found the mental state of the attacker played a major part "in shaping particular belief systems and in constructing the enemy, externalising blame for one's own failure or grievances onto this all-threatening enemy."

Lone wolf attackers like Monis portray themselves as terrorists or freedom fighters, demanding to be thought of as part of the global jihadi cause, associating themselves with big headline-grabbing groups, from Al Qaeda to Islamic State. But is there a danger to giving them the attention they crave.

"Islamic State is the biggest brand around," Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told HuffPost UK. "It's a big anti-establishment brand, that has eclipsed all else. It's a brand that other people want to be associated with, they want to catch that spotlight.

"In some ways, we saw that in Sydney, an individual who was quite troubled, shows up and realises if I really want to make a big splash, that's the way to do it. Number 1, make myself look like an Islamist, number 2, make it look like this is some kind of IS-connected thing. This to me says, someone with issues, that they're trying to work out, exercising their personal demons through this kind of an attack. It's a way to highlight their own personal cause."

Throughout the day, videos were released first to the media, and then on YouTube, by those held captive by Monis. While the siege went on, no one broadcast them.

That was precisely Monis' goal, and it was being denied to him. He repeatedly demanded an Islamic State flag, the one he had brought was a general black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith on it, but not the IS group's specifically. He demanded the media refer to the siege as "an attack on Australia by the Islamic State". And he demanded a phone call with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to be broadcast live, so the premier would acknowledge IS was attacking Australia.

This desperation to be called a terrorist is nothing new according to Dr Usama Hasan, one of the founders of anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam. "He was complaining about not being portrayed as an IS terrorist. He wanted recognition not just from the media, but from IS itself, it seems to me," he said. "Both Al Qaeda and IS have featured some of these previous lone attackers in their videos or magazines, and held them up as examples to others. My guess is he wanted a bit of that."

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The Taliban fighters who stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, killing more than 140 people, most of them children

"We have to be precise with our terminology and be accurate," Hasan continued, warning to be wary of "glorification".

"I knew someone who served time in Belmarsh prison for terror offences," Hasan said. "He was in there with armed robbers, murderers, rapists and there was a very clear hierarchy, with terrorism at the top. His brother had been involved with some crazy people, and this guy was done for possession of extremist literature. All the hardened criminals, in his words, 'thought I'd blown up a plane or something'. And that would get the highest respect.

"Many kids in east London wants to be a gangster, and the 'ultimate gangster is a terrorist', one kid said to me. So we have to be aware of that kind of perception."

Organised terrorism is in some ways a far easier beast for the security services to get to grips with in Western countries. Five terror plots in London have been foiled in the last four months alone, according to Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of the Metropolitan Police.

Police can stop lone wolf attacks, if the perpetrator does something reckless or tells anyone close to him about his plans, and they do. Hogan-Howe said terrorists had been "very close" to "hurting someone badly or killing them" before an attack was "foiled" just days before it could have happened.

But he said of the Sydney attack: "It's clear you've got a radicalised individual who had a weapon and took many people hostage. That is a terrifying prospect and very difficult to guard against. The best defence we all have is good intelligence."

"If it is a genuine lone wolf it is almost impossible to predict and stop," Quilliam's Hasan said. "We had one in the UK of course, Roshonara Choudhry [the woman who stabbed Labour MP Stephen Timms at his constituency surgery, after being radicalised by watching videos online of Al Qaeda-linked clerics]."

RUSI's Pantucci agrees. "Security services can't stop it, there's nothing really you can do about it," he said.

"Actually, it's about our response as a society and the response of the media. I do think if a certain individual knows that my conducting his attack in a certain way, branding it as IS, it will attract so much more attention. They will become much more renowned than if they just did it without any affiliation. The police did stress it was not a terror attack."

Accurate and detailed descriptions of the attack's nature will help, he added. "Getting quick and accurate information out will temper some of the more extreme editorial reflections. A guy starts shooting in a school, and ultimately you have no idea if he's some kid who was being bullied or a terrorist who decided this is the biggest, softest target in his near neighbourhood. You just don't know."

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a PhD researcher at Oxford University who studies global Islamist movements, said the label was much more readily applied to Muslim perpetrators of random attacks, but said there were many other examples of lone wolf terror from outside the religion.

"The lone attack thing is not specific to radical Islamic movements," she said. "You could take Baruch Goldstein in 1994, with his attack on the Cave of the Patriarchs [Goldstein opened fire on unarmed Palestinians praying during Ramadan, killing 29 and wounding 125]. There's Timothy McVeigh [a militia movement symapthiser who committed the Oklahoma City bombing killing 168 people].

"There are attacks on abortion clinics, that's sometimes referred to as a form of terrorism. Lone attacks are not so exceptional as perhaps we're made to think they are."

"The reality is that this will continue to happen, whether or not people claim a 'jihadist' label or not," she continued. "People will lose the plot and go out and behead their neighbour. It happens. It doesn't even have to have any vaguely comprehensible ideology behind it, it's rare and unfortunate, but people get stabbed in the street and die.

"But because we don't attach it to the meta-narrative of jihad, the perceived threat of those attacks is lessened. There will always be a number of individuals at the fringes who will be attracted to radical, violent outlooks, due to mental health issues or due to commitment to a particular cause. I don't believe we'll ever get rid of those individuals."

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Lee Rigby's killers Michael Adebolajo, left, and Michael Adebowale

But though, as Cerrah points out, lone wolf activists, perhaps with mental health issues, have often found other causes to associate themselves with, the stand-out difference when it comes to Islamist-related attacks is that groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State have encouraged people to commit random acts of violence.

"The groups genuinely are trying to push people in this direction. Look at Woolwich, there was definitely an organisational structure behind them [the perpetrators Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo had spent time with radical Islamist groups], a bigger picture, they were connected to other people, though not directed to do specifically what they did," RUSI's Pantucci said.

Quilliam's Hasan agrees. "Al Qaeda and Islamic State have openly incited these kind of attacks, saying to people 'come and join the jihad, but if you can't you can work on our behalf wherever you are, get a gun, get a knife'. One video even suggested going to B&Q or somewhere, and literally stab random strangers. And the Choudhry case is a good example of someone who followed that to the letter."

Cerrah believes the link with poor mental health in the case of lone wolf attacks "is not sufficiently explored... there's a hole in the literature".

"In the case of the Edmonton beheading [where a Muslim convert Nicholas Salvador killed a grandmother Palmira Silva in her garden], we were clearly dealing with extreme mental health issues. To suggest that person could be branded under the same label as someone like Ayman al-Zawahiri [the current leader of Al Qaeda]. Al-Zawahiri is a committed political radical who believes very much in what he says and does not appear to be psychologically deranged.

The Edmonton example, which police were very careful not to label as terrorism, "should have been a story about the failings of the mental health system," Cerrah continued.

"Mashudur Choudhury [the would-be jihadist from Portsmouth man who was the first person in the UK to be convicted of a terrorist offence relating to the conflict] he had faked a health scare, created alter-egos and lived a double-life and again, it seems, that the "jihadist" label was a way of redeeming himself so it looked like there was a higher cause for the way he was behaving, which was badly.

"Woolwich is closer on the spectrum to that, both of them were thought to have mitigating mental health issues.

"And Sydney is also on that side of the spectrum. Mounis has a history of paranoia, dabbling in criminality, he is associated with a murder cases, and he had sexual assault charges. He is a Shia [Iranian], who converts to Sunni Islam to join a sect [Islamic State] that believes in eradicating Shias. That in itself is an extreme indication of a worrying mindset."

Hasan cautioned against a direct comparison between Sydney and Woolwich, the brutal killing of Drummer Rigby outside his barracks in Woolwich by two Islamist attackers.

"One of the men was very mentally ill, Michael Adebowale," he conceded. "But the other, Michael Adebolajo certainly wasn't mentally ill at all. He had a very clear, ideological motive for the whole attack.

"Adebowale was vulnerable, brain-washed. But Adebolajo did it for ideological purposes and that's clear. I don't think we should deny the influence of or minimise religious fascism here that justifies this kind of terrorism."

Pantucci thinks the appeal of disturbed individuals associating themselves with Islamic State, or extreme Islam will eventually fade, but it doesn't mean random acts of violence will stop. "There has been a trend toward this kind of terrorism for many years, it's now being branded in an IS direction, but that's a reflection of their brand, they get the most attention these days.

"But that brand will fade, one could argue it's already losing a bit of its lustre after its failure to take Kobane [the beleaguered Kurdish city in Syria, on the Turkish border]. It has waxed and waned in its 10-year history and now it is at one of its most expansive positions but that will undoubtedly change. And then you will see the attraction of it as the one people attached themselves too start to fade as well."

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