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Brian Levin, J.D.

Brian Levin, J.D.

Posted: November 8, 2009 09:56 PM

The Ft. Hood Massacre: A Lone-Wolf Jihad of One?

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The horrific shooting at Fort Hood, Texas -- that left 13 dead and 30 wounded -- allegedly by Nidal Malik Hasan, a disgruntled yet devout Army psychiatrist, puts the spotlight back on the lone-wolf offender who sits at the crossroads of crime, terrorism and mental distress. To better understand the Ft. Hood attack it is useful to contrast it with some other recent cases. In addition, it is also important to understand the tangled interplay that personal disappointments, traumatic events and ideology can have on such an individual. For sake of argument let's loosely define terrorism as an attack on symbolic targets, particularly non-combatants, to intimidate a population or subgroup for a political or social objective. 

Hasan Probably Not Part of An Emerging Disturbing Trend of Foreign Radicals

Hasan was the sole shooter and no operational links to foreign terror groups have yet emerged. How much help rhetorically, if any, he got in his spiral toward self-radicalization is also still unknown. Reports indicate Hasan perused extremist websites and that his mother’s funeral service was held at a mosque where radical imam, Anwar al-Aulaqi, and two 9/11 also hijackers prayed.

In any event, with a few very recent disturbing exceptions, most American terrorism related cases do not involve those with direct coordinated links to overseas extremists. The ones that do, however, are a cause of increasingly immense concern. Najibullah Zazi, 24, who allegedly was leading a plot to bomb mass transit targets in the U.S. when he was arrested in September, is tied through intermediaries to al Qaeda’s Afghanistan head, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid- a chief bin Laden lieutenant. He was allegedly trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan as part of an effort to teach tactics to other radicals here in the United States, a charge he denies. Zazi’s case is believed to be the first plot hatched by an alleged al Qaeda associate in the United States recruited after 9/11 to try to hit the American homeland. Various other al Qaeda supporters such as attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, would-be bridge bomber Iyman Faris, the Lackawana six, Ali al-Marri and Jose Padilla had connections to the organization that preceded the 9/11 attacks.

Another disturbing case with overseas connections comes out of Minnesota. Four of five people charged have pleaded guilty in the case of the mysterious disappearance of 20 young Somali-Americans from the twin-cities area. The disappeared are believed to be in Africa on a jihad mission in support of Al-Shabaab, a Somali based radical terrorist group linked to al Qaeda that is fighting Ethiopians. Two of those Somali-Americans have been killed in Africa, including Shirwa Ahmed, 27, who detonated himself in a suicide bombing in October 2008 that left him and 29 others dead. Ahmed’s attack in Africa is the first fatal suicide bombing attack by a naturalized American citizen. In 2005, a non-citizen former resident of California, who was deported in 2003, killed 166 people in Hilla, in one of the worst suicide attacks ever in Iraq.

The most recent case of two Chicago residents and former classmates, David Coleman Heady, 49, and Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Hussain Rana, 48, have been of significant concern in the analyst community, but far less so in the mainstream media. The men are alleged to have been involved in plots to target a Danish newspaper involved in the Prophet Mohammad cartoon controversy, as well as possible attacks against India. Of particular concern is the alleged connection of the men to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a violent al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group in Pakistan, believed to be behind the November 2008 Mumbai massacre that killed over 160 people. Analysts also point to Rana’s ownership of various businesses such as First World Immigration Services and a meatpacking plant as a potential cover to funnel would-be terrorists into the United States. Both men maintain their innocence.

Homegrown Plots

Even without the orchestration of foreign terrorist groups, homegrown plotters often seem to select symbolic targets, like the military and Jews, from the same playbook.  The first operational plot by homegrown radical Islamic extremists with no direct connection to foreign terrorists was committed in 2005 by California’s Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh  or JIS. The group which hatched out of the state prison at Folsom consisted of three converts and a young Pakistani immigrant with mental problems, but no connection to any foreign terrorist groups. Their plot involved a series of gas station robberies that were to fund attacks on military bases and Jewish targets. Since then other homegrown plots or attacks directed at military targets have come to light such as those involving Fort Dix, NJ; a Marine Base at Quantico, VA; and the fatal shooting of a recruiter in Little Rock, AR earlier this year by a convert who tried unsuccessfully to get training in Yemen.

Main Types of Offenders

There are three types of offenders who commit violent acts against symbolic targets. The first is the ideologically motivated perpetrator, who acts out of religion, politics, or both. The second is the psychologically dangerous offender, either someone with a degree of cognitive impairment that clouds his judgment or alternatively a sociopath-someone who is aware of right from wrong, but does not care. These two psychologically dangerous types are mutually exclusive. The third type of offender is one who acts out of revenge and/or personal benefit. Offenders are usually a hybrid of at least two of the three categories, although one will usually predominate. 

Dr. Carl Jensen, a former FBI expert, now with the University of Mississippi explains that a key topic for researchers “Is terrorism primarily the result of rational actors deciding upon a course of action to advance their goals or is it the manifestation of psychological factors?”  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association has established its own rebuttable presumption on such matters:

Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual...(American Psychological Association, 1994: xxii).

Psychological Factors

Jensen points to psychologist Charles Ruby who maintains, “terrorism is basically another form of politically motivated violence that is perpetrated by rational, lucid people who have valid motives.” However, others, he notes, like former CIA psychiatrist Jerrold Post believe that psychological factors play a far more significant role for perpetrators of these attacks. Lone wolf offenders in particular often self-radicalize from a volatile mix of personal distress, psychological issues, and an ideology that can be sculpted to justify and explain their anti-social leanings.

Some of the most notorious acts of symbolic or mass violence over the last century were committed by disturbed individuals. This includes those that were either adjudicated insane, a very high legal hurdle, or  those who at the very least had a history of psychological difficulties. The former include New York City “Mad Bomber” George Metesky and attempted Reagan assassin John Hinckley. Others like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, neo-Nazi killer Buford Furrow, and Virginia Tech massacre shooter Seung-Hui Cho had unmistakable bouts with mental illness.

For many of these perpetrators personal setbacks and alienation are an important part of what catapults them to violence. A radical belief system will often justify, amplify, and direct where their growing personal anger and frustration are targeted.  Difficulties in relationships and employment settings, as well as a childhood in a broken home are common.

As Islamophobes and armchair analysts jump to their own simple conclusions on Hasan, his personal dislocations and fears likely played a significant mutating role in his eventual spiral toward violence. These include fear and conflict over an impending first deployment, unresolved distress over the loss of his mother, difficulties with his colleagues and in finding a mate, a cross-country move, and repeated exposure to traumatized soldiers. After two of the main support systems that he knew all his life, namely job and family failed him, religion may have taken their place.

While he had served for two decades in the military, he had become increasingly alienated from its mission, and upset over a feared deployment he could not escape. In addition his immediate family grew distant as his siblings established families of their own and his parents passed. In its place, religion-or at least a twisted idiosyncratic version of it appear to have become a support and belief system that provided a rationale for the growing fear and anger he was feeling. Hasan, like a Christian, killer Scott Roeder-who murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller at a church, twist their own conception of faith to comport with their pre-established violent leanings. As we confront a variety of terrorist threats across an array of extremist movements and structures, perhaps the hardest to guard against is the lone-wolf, or small cell, who overlays a contorted political or religious template on a simmering violent personal cauldron of hatreds, fears, alienation, and disappointments. In the extremism arena they can come from an array of diverse ideologies, but whatever their motivation they can be a violent and twisted army of one. 

See also: A video interview