Commentary | 21 November 2019

When is mental illness an excuse for terrorism?

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

It is only with the passing of time that the backgrounds of those who took up with radical jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq or in Australia have become clearer. Court cases have thrown up evidence and led to objective findings, media interviews have confirmed the identities of individuals captured and now detained in Syria, and social media has contributed to an understanding of the ideology that individuals had adopted with apparent gusto.

The evidence that we have been able to gather about Australian jihadis shows that in some ­respects they share the same characteristics as terrorists from other Western countries, while in other regards they sit well apart from them. Most Australian jihadis, for example, were second-generation men in their mid-20s living in a major population centre in common with many of their European contemporaries. Unlike their European peers, though, they were in the main employed high school graduates with no criminal record. The main source country from which they or their parents came was Lebanon, and very few were converts to Islam or from a refugee background.

It is also important to compare Australian jihadis not only with their overseas equivalents but also with the Australian community at large. So while they are likelier to be employed than foreign jihadis, their rate of unemployment was nearly three times that of Australia as a whole.

And of those in employment, more than 70 per cent held blue-collar jobs, more than twice the ­national average of 30 per cent.

The same with their family backgrounds — most of them came from two-parent households, but those from single-parent households were more than twice the national average.

So while in absolute terms the Australian jihadist cohort were better educated, likelier to be employed and from more stable families than many other Western jihadis, relative to the rest of Australia they were less likely to hold tertiary qualifications, more likely to be unemployed or employed in blue-collar jobs and more likely to be from single-parent households. Whether or exactly how this influenced their world view is unclear.

By most measures the Australian jihadist cohort on the whole could be considered to have integrated into Australian society.

They were educated, employed and not in trouble with the police. These characteristics also could describe any number of other sub-groups among other Muslim and immigrant populations, yet these groups haven’t sought to ­further the cause of an organisation that has planned and carried out attacks against Australia and Australians.

The answer to individuals’ true motivations lies in a closer examination of their pathways to ­religious radicalisation and who they were influenced by. Some of the reasons may lie in their relative isolation from mainstream Australian society.

They largely came from two cities in Australia and were concentrated in a few suburbs within those cities. They don’t appear to have interacted or socialised much with the broader Muslim community, let alone with Sydney or Melbourne’s non-Muslim communities. They also were quite ­inward-looking, as evidenced by the fact there were 19 sets of siblings, accounting for 44 people among the jihadist cohort.

And they consumed enormous amounts of social media featuring Australian and foreign preachers, general Islamic subjects and jihadist propaganda put out by Islamic State and other jihadist groups. These “influencers” will be the subject of further research.

Gathering reliable data regarding the backgrounds and true ideological make-up of jihadis can be challenging, and it is often in court that much of the real information comes to light. It is here that evidence is presented and tested; unlike in the world of advocacy, unproven ­assertions carry little weight.

And based on the more than 40 radical Islamists who have gone on trial in Australia in the Islamic State era, we are able to discern three key things: mental health ­issues played a minimal role in their offending; they have by and large not been truly contrite for their actions; and the prospects of rehabilitation for only just over a quarter of offenders has been ­described by the courts as good or better. In other words, the offenders knew what they were doing, aren’t sorry for what they did and don’t have great prospects for ­rehabilitation.

This challenges the assumptions of those who have claimed that jihadi terrorists were variously affected by mental health ­issues and therefore didn’t really know what they were doing; or were passive dupes caught up in some type of youthful misadventure or misled and would be contrite once they saw the error of their ways or were exposed to the correct teachings of Islam.

To make these determinations, though, it is first necessary to have access to objective facts and diagnoses.

These may be hard to come by until well after the event or arrest, so it is difficult for people to confidently assert reasons people undertook certain actions.

In the wake of the Bourke Street knife attack by Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, Scott Morrison was critical of claims that mental health was the cause of terrorist ­attacks, saying it was “the same lame, old, tired excuse for not dealing with the problem”. Courts have tended to support this view. Diagnoses based largely on interviews with offenders can be skewed by the provision of self-serving information by individuals.

One judge in a terrorism funding case noted “there was a need for caution in cases where ­examining psychologists act upon self-reporting”.

The important issue in ascribing the impact, if any, of mental health in terrorism cases is in ­determining whether an individual knew right from wrong at the time they committed an offence.

In the case of the Lindt cafe siege gunman, Man Haron Monis, for example, as objectionable, narcissistic and even delusional as he was, the coroner found that: “He was not suffering from a diagnos­able categorical psychiatric disorder that deprived him of the capacity to understand the nature of what he was doing.”

And even where individuals do have a mental health condition, it doesn’t mean they are not ­responsible for their actions.

In sentencing Ihsas Khan to decades in prison for carrying out the Minto knife attack in 2016, the sentencing judge said: “On any view of the evidence, the offender suffers from some form of mental illness … (but) the offender’s mental illness was not, in any way, causally connected to his offending.” The fact courts have highlighted the lack of true contrition exhibited by jihadis in Australian terrorism trials and their poor prospects for rehabilitation also no doubt informs the view of policymakers in Canberra regarding the real motivation and ideological orientation of the male and female Australian jihadists captured and now detained in Syria. And it illustrates the challenges that the states are going to face in dealing with this category of prisoner well into the future.

The more we know about the present jihadi terrorist cohort, the better we will be able to understand their social circumstances and true motivations that led to their rise and to craft policies to minimise the likelihood of their re-emergence in the future.

To date there has been little ­objective data gathered and analysed in the public space with which to inform debate. Hopefully this study goes some way towards rectifying that.