It is often difficult to make sense of violence, particularly in the wake of a terrorist attack. So it’s perhaps understandable that we reach for labels such as “far-right extremist” or “Islamist” when a person commits an incomprehensible crime. But an important trend is being missed in discussions about extreme violence.
Annual government statistics show that more people are being referred to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme in England and Wales based on “mixed, unstable or unclear” views than people with clear extreme political beliefs.
The category “mixed, unstable or unclear” includes incoherent combinations of ideologies, switching between ideologies, unclear ideologies, preoccupations with school massacres or other forms of mass killing, inceldom, and non-ideological hatreds of particular groups.
There were 2,500 referrals to Prevent under this “mixed, unstable or unclear” category in the year ending March 2021. People in this category outnumbered those reported for extreme-right or Islamist views combined. The same was true the year before.
Few referrals make it all the way to full intervention via the government’s Channel scheme. The number of mixed, unstable, unclear cases at the intervention level therefore goes down to 205. That is fewer than the extreme-right but still more than the Islamist cases.
The mixed, unstable, unclear cases do not show any geographical concentrations, unlike the disproportionate number of extreme-right cases in north-east England, and of Islamism in London. This suggests people referred to as mixed, unstable or unclear are less influenced by their social context.
On the face of it, the mixed, unstable or unclear category is puzzling. You might think that terrorism involves such inhumanity that a person could engage in it only if fanatically attached to an ideology which prescribed it. Lifelong commitment to a violent strain of Irish Republicanism which had much influence over local communities helped to explain IRA terrorism in the late 20th century.
But among the perpetrators of 21st century attacks are very young people, for example some of the UK’s 7/7 attackers. They have only very brief and limited involvements in the causes for which they kill, and die.
Others, for example the 2015 Paris terrorists, had more history of instability and criminality than extremist activism, as did Khalid Masood the 2017 Westminster killer.
Thomas Mair, who took the life of British MP Jo Cox, was an older adult with a long history of interest in Nazism, but was politically inert. He was a social isolate with major mental health problems, the legacy of a damaging early life. Having been left by his mother, who remarried a black man, he chose to kill a woman who he could imagine as having betrayed her own people.
On that point, without going into what is a complex psycho-legal issue, it is important to be clear that in trying to understand the psychological roots of any murderous behaviour, including terrorism, we are not somehow excusing it. We can still see perpetrators as responsible for their actions.
But a case like Mair’s enables us to make more sense of the Prevent mixed, unstable, unclear category. It suggests how an act of terrorism can offer an apparently political response to the personal problem of how to manage overwhelming feelings of rage, or to transcend a deeply damaged self.
What the Prevent referral data suggests is that some people in states of psychological crisis are reaching for fragments of any ideology which can enable them to focus, justify and express their rage and desperation. The ideology is a rationalisation for the violence, not its driver.
The emergence of incel violence provides an interesting point for reflection here. Mass shootings carried out by young men who blame wider society for their lack of romantic or sexual partnerships fit the official operational definition of terrorism, though some counter-terrorism experts do not see it as such.
We might see incel violence as a link between conventional ideological terror and non-ideological mass shootings. The perpetrator embraces an ideology that is bigger than their own personal experience but which does not conceal the personal and emotional nature of their grievance. When seen this way, it’s easier to see how terrorism overlaps heavily with non-ideological mass shootings.
Studies of the disturbed states of mind involved in contemporary terrorism have been building up since the 1980s.
Alongside this, more detailed empirical work has been in progress to help us understand more about the prevalence of mental health problems and personality disorders in terrorists. However, this is sometimes limited by a search for psychiatric history when not all psychological problems reach the mental health services.
In a tragic twist of the 1960s radical slogan that “the personal is political”, a number of deeply troubled people appear to be turning to the fantasy of redeeming themselves through some superficially political action, as hero or martyr for a cause.
This clearly psychological dimension of mixed, unstable, unclear cases may point towards a truth about many cases where there is a more orthodox ideological rationale, such as people we label Islamists or far-right extremists. Firmness of aim may reflect a more fixed state of emotional unwellness, rather than the absence of any psychological determinants.
The practical implications of the mental health factor in terrorism are complex, for community work, police and security services, and mental health professionals. But no problem can be properly addressed if it is not fully understood.
Barry Richards does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.