THE BLOG
11/29/2011 11:09 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

Are Terrorists Insane?

Is someone who engages in terrorism crazy or do they know what they are doing?

The recent cases of Rezwan Ferdaus, the man charged with plotting to attack the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, and more recently, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who has been charged with attempting to assassinate President Obama. Both men have a history of mental illness. Ortega-Hernandez is not being charged with terrorism but his case, along with Jared Lee Lougnher, underscore the importance and growing concern about mental illness in violence.

The most obvious observation is that it depends on the person. In all fairness, without a forensic evaluation nothing is conclusive. But if we want to make a generalization based on the observed behavior of the majority, a randomly picked terrorist is unlikely to be insane.

Insanity is a legal distinction, not a specific psychological condition. Insanity is not a mental disorder or condition found anywhere in the DSM. More importantly in our court system, if someone is insane he or she isn't usually held legally accountability for his or her actions as a sane person would be; preventive detention is another matter. Anyone in their right mind would like to see terrorists held criminally accountable for their actions. Furthermore, since insanity essentially means that someone didn't have control over a behavior, insanity dismisses accountability. All the evidence suggests that terrorists are very much in control of their actions.

Is the compulsion to commit terrorism a static personality trait?

The occurrence of someone 'born bad' is very low. Insanity is a legal definition, not a psychiatric disorder, but the psychiatric diagnosis Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) is a formal disorder. ASPD is widely thought to be a stable trait, since there is a lifetime pattern of antisocial conduct. People with ASPD are not successful in many facets of their lives and individuals with ASPD would likely not be able to amass the support and following that OBL garnered. And lastly, there is nothing in OBL's history to suggest that he had Conduct Disorder while a child, which is a necessary precursor for ASPD in adulthood.

ASPD as an explanation for Osama bin Laden's motivations and behavior and that of his known followers can confidently be ruled out.

Are terrorists psychopaths?

Psychopathy seems to be a particular subset of ASPD. The defining characteristic of a psychopath is someone without conscience. They need not be a murderer. The Ponzi scheme mastermind who robbed people of billions of dollars in retirement, Bernie Madoff, is a good example of someone who may be a psychopath. He shows no remorse for what he did and he probably won't. Adrine Raine of the University of Pennsylvania has found quite convincingly that psychopaths have different brain functioning than normal people.

Terrorists are different from psychopaths. Terrorists do feel remorse for some of what goes on in their life. They are angered by what the U.S. and the West has done in the Middle East and to Muslims. They feel remorse over the killing of a friend, family member or neighbor.

Many people wrongly say OBL was a crazy murder. He was no less of a crime of an organizer of murderers, but he was not crazy. What he did may seem crazy to some in that it defies logic to kill innocent people, but we have to remember that he was very careful, thoughtful and methodical about what he did and what he said. OBL did not want to get caught and wanted to continue to attack the U.S.

There are some individuals who are affected by mental illness and this can be a risk factor for violence, especially when combined with drug abuse. This, however, is not what we see with the garden variety terrorist.

Osama bin Laden was a rational, carefully calculated individual. He believed in what he was doing, he believed that it was the right thing to do; he was not compelled to do what he did because he was crazy, although various life experiences contributed to his decision to do what he did. It would be accurate to call him an ethnocentric criminal terrorist, but not insane or crazy. Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that those who follow him are insane either.

PAUL HEROUX lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in 2003, has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master's from the Harvard JFK School of Government. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.