By Tom Wilson
Determining when an act of violence is and isn’t terrorism has always been a contentious issue. The dispute has often been a highly politicised one. In the past, when Palestinian guerrillas would hijack a plane, or when members of Germany’s Red Army Faction conducted a hostage taking, there may have been those who argued that these people were freedom fighters rather than terrorists, but there was little doubt about the political intent behind the violence. More recently apologists for Hamas atrocities have attempted to claim that these attacks were acts of resistance by the “democratically elected” government of Gaza, but few could deny the essentially ideological nature of Hamas’ actions. Now, however, we have moved into a disorienting grey and murky era of lone actor terrorism, in which the distinction between what is and isn’t terrorism has become increasingly unclear. The case of the New Year’s Eve stabbing at Manchester’s Victoria Station is one more example of the ambiguous nature of so many of the attacks witnessed in the West in recent years.
We know that a 25-year-old man of Somali and Muslim background carried out a stabbing attack, injuring three people and that police initially opened a terror investigation. Subsequently, the assailant was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and it was revealed that the man was not previously known to anti-terror police, but was in fact known to mental health services. For many this will be taken as evidence that the incident on New Year’s Eve was nothing to do with terrorism. And yet if we refer back to a case such as Darren Osborne’s attack on Finsbury Park Mosque—which has widely been accepted as an act of terrorism—then we find an assailant who was similarly unknown to intelligence services, but who also had a history of mental health problems. The reality is, mental health and ideological motive do not have to be mutually exclusive. Yet widespread confusion about lone actor terrorism remains.
Some of the very first instances that could be pointed to as lone actor terrorism in the age of Islamic State—a number of vehicular attacks targeting Christmas shoppers in France—were explained away on mental health grounds. As the number of lone actor and low tech attacks in Europe proliferated the sense of confusion only grew. A rather distasteful, and often disingenuous, debate gained pace. On the one side were those who wished to claim that pretty much all of these incidents were to be dismissed as the acts of crazed loners or anti-social criminals, typified by the “nothing to do with Islam” mantra. Opposing this were a number of alt-right blogs and questionable news websites which appeared intent on totting up extensive lists that claimed every reported act of violence by anyone of Muslim background as terrorism. Everything from a brawl on a beach to incidents of domestic abuse went on the list.
Britain was no exception to the phenomenon of these hard to place attacks. The 2016 Russell Square stabbing which saw five injured and one killed by a teenager shouting “Allah, Allah, Allah” appears to have been a psychotic episode by someone recently released from a mental health institution. The murder of MP Jo Cox, which is widely accepted as an act of terrorism, was committed by an individual clearly steeped in the ideology of the violent far right, and yet an individual also known to have had a long history of mental health issues. That same year an explosive device was placed on the London Underground by a 20-year old autistic student who had recently acquired an interest in extreme Islam. This individual’s condition appears to have led to a judgement that he was not culpable of terrorism, although the question will remain of what, or who, influenced his attempted bombing. After all, in Middle Eastern conflict zones Jihadist groups have repeatedly used those with severe learning difficulties to carry out suicide bombings, sometimes detonated by a remote control trigger. We know from a statement released by the Metropolitan Police in 2015 that Islamic State were actively seeking to recruit those in the UK with mental health issues.
The complicated picture we face is one in which a large number of attacks by relatively sane lone actors inspired by calls put out by groups such as Islamic State, are mixed in with incidents involving those with low level personality disorders and others who are clearly driven more by severe mental health problems than they are by ideology. It quite possibly being the case that some of the latter are in some way seeking to imitate the former. This not only represents a huge challenge for those on the front lines trying to prevent attacks, it also poses a deeper challenge for the societal response to terrorism. If we were met simply by a wave of terrorism posed by groups like the IRA or Baader-Meinhof, we could at least be relatively unified and resolute in the face of a clear existential enemy. But if public and politicians wrongly gain a sense that the threat is primarily coming from a multiplicity of challenged and vulnerable individuals then this will not only undermine the morale needed to challenge the problem, but it will make it that much easier for Islamists to claim that their ideology is not culpable, and to attack counter-extremism efforts involving the Muslim community by framing them as unjustified and discriminatory.
There is no denying that the realities of mental health and terrorism are complicated. Yet, we cannot afford to lose sight of the clear cut moral distinctions required to fight the ideologies that genuinely inspire most of these attacks.