Attacks across Europe: ‘Terrorists are not mentally ill’

Nice Memorial

Nice Memorial

Several of the perpetrators of recent attacks in Europe, from Nice to this weekend’s suicide bombing in Germany, have been reported to suffer from psychiatric problems. Yet for Dr. Samuel Leistedt, mental illness does not explain their actions.

Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man who killed 84 people at the end of Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, used to have “episodes” during which he “destroyed everything” in sight, his father told Tunisian media after the attack.

The young Syrian refugee who blew himself up near Ansbach, Germany on Sunday, injuring 15, was said to have suffered from depressive episodes and had stayed in a psychiatric hospital after a number of failed suicide attempts.

These horrific acts have raised the question of whether there is a relationship between mental illness and terrorism. But for Dr. Samuel Leistedt, a psychiatrist and professor at the Free University of Brussels who specialises in terrorism, the situation is more complex.

FRANCE 24: Is there a link between terrorism and mental illness?

Dr. Samuel Leistedt: It’s fundamental to understand that a terrorist is not mentally ill in the strictest scientific terms. There are no real signs of mental illness among those we have been able to study. Even if we’ve observed highly narcissistic and paranoid personality traits, it’s not enough to qualify as pathological.

That said, we can make a real distinction between actual terrorism and what we refer to in psychiatric jargon as the “pseudocommando”. Although these are two completely different things, they can both manifest as attacks and mass killings, whether carried out using explosives, a knife or weapons of war.

We use the term pseudocommando because unlike the terrorists involved in some of the more recent jihadist attacks, who were often trained in Syria or Iraq to learn how to use weapons, the pseudocommando often acts alone and without much preparation. He’ll obtain weapons, but will not have necessarily done any physical training – he’s not a warrior.

A pseudocommando can present serious personality disorders, with narcissistic and paranoid tendencies. These are people who will often kill themselves before being caught. A typical example of this kind of profile is Nordine Amrani, the Liège killer, who killed five people in an attack in December 2011 [Amrani, who acted alone, was heavily armed. Among the five killed was a baby. He also wounded more than 121 people before ultimately committing suicide]. The Norwegian Anders Behring Berivik, who killed 77 people in July 2011, also falls into this category, because despite adhering to extreme-right ideology, he acted alone. The question was raised at some point whether he should be committed to an institution. But it’s yet another example of a highly narcissistic personality.

FRANCE 24: What can we make so far of Nice attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s profile?

Dr. Samuel Leistedt: We can’t yet determine if he belongs to the pseudocommando category, because he was apparently in contact with the Islamic State group, even though he never travelled to Syria or Iraq. What’s more, it seems as though there was extensive preparation beforehand.

The difference between a pseudocommando and a terrorist is that a terrorist functions as part of a network. Pseudocommandos are isolated, if not lonely. Often, there’s a catalyst for their actions – a divorce, the loss of a job… They don’t let anyone in on their project, and obtain weapons on their own. It’s an isolated and immediate act.

FRANCE 24: According to initial reports, Bouhlel appeared to be extremely psychologically unstable…

Dr. Samuel Leistedt: It’s an exception. Generally terrorists don’t have this type of profile. Depression, ill-being are not the rule. Very few display traits of psychiatric disorders. This man was presented in some media as a psychopath. It was a false analysis. For the moment, that’s not what is emerging. Psychopathy has a very precise definition. A psychopath would not have reacted at all like the killer in Nice: a psychopath doesn’t take, doesn’t kill, doesn’t explode.

FRANCE 24: The Syrian refugee who blew himself up on Sunday in Ansbach, Germany had spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Are people who are mentally vulnerable a target for Islamic State group recruiters?

Dr. Samuel Leistedt: In Europe, Daesh [an alternative name for the Islamic Sate group] recruits from a fertile ground of people who are disenfranchised professionally, socially and who also have family issues – a situation that is particularly common among migrants. They are targeted by Daesh, who seek to use these individuals as moving bombs.

FRANCE 24: Are there any warning signs?

Dr. Samuel Leistedt: Warning signs are very complicated. Yes, there are some, but how do you intervene within a legal and democratic framework when someone hasn’t committed a crime? There are dangerous behaviours, but it’s very difficult to intervene beforehand. How can you tell if someone will decide to take action?

I personally work with research groups that study attacks on Belgian and French soil to better understand as well as prevent them. It’s important to understand what kind of killer we’re dealing with, because the way we extract information from an investigation depends on these profiles. It’s also important in how we judge a criminal in court.