If we fail to distinguish between the mentally ill and terrorists we do ISIL’s work for them

On 17th December 1992, paranoid schizophrenic Christopher Clunis stabbed 27 year old Jonathon Zito to death in a random, unprovoked attack at London’s Finsbury Park station.

On Monday, 19 year old Zakaria Bulhan admitted manslaughter of US tourist Darlene Horton on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to his paranoid schizophrenia.

Bulhan was reportedly chanting “Allah” when police tasered and arrested him. In the context of the 7/7 terrorist atrocities at nearby Russell Square tube station, it is understandable that many might consider Bulhan’s murder of an innocent American as yet another act of terrorism.

Yet random – and exceptionally rare – acts of violence by mentally disturbed individuals always have, and always will, happen in a great metropolis like London.

In the pre-9/11 and pre-ISIS 1990’s the question of terrorism in Jonathon Zito’s killing never arose. In the second decade of this century, however, that is the first thought that springs to mind when we hear about a random killing.


But should we consider these acts of violence as terrorist-inspired, even if committed by mentally-ill individuals? Don’t ISIS and other terrorist organizations use mentally vulnerable people – including children – to spread terror? Are we ignoring this harsh reality when we think of Bulhan’s crime as similar to that of Christopher Clunis rather than as another terrorist outrage?

The most cost-effective military strategy known to humankind

The number of empty Paris hotel rooms in the wake of the Bataclan and Nice attacks testify to one key fact about terrorism: it is the most cost-effective military strategy known to humankind.

At minimal cost to the perpetrator, terrorism sows fear in the minds of millions of people, diverts expensive military and police resources and disrupts whole economies.

Treating the 9/11 attacks as an act of war rather than of criminality, for example, cost the US at least $1.7 trillion in a failed war in Afghanistan, and the costs of the Iraq war are many times greater than this.


Yet you are twenty times more likely to die by drowning in your bathtub than you are of dying in a terrorist act, and a thousand times more likely to die in a road accident.

So why, given these statistics, is terrorism so effective? The core reason is that its shocking randomness makes us feel that we can’t do much to protect ourselves – in other words, we feel out of control.

The Myth of the “Lone Wolf”

Most recent terrorist attacks have been carefully orchestrated by ISIS and have not been random “lone-wolf” actions.

The last thing an ISIS leader needs in the execution of such carefully-planned actions is a mentally-ill operative who will be unpredictable and uncontrollable in following any detailed plan.

Yet that leader will be exceptionally grateful to any media outlet which cares to label random acts of violence such as Bulhan’s as terrorist acts. Because this makes an already highly cost-effective military strategy even more efficient through sowing more fear without any additional expenditure.

Yesterday’s court decision was a sensible one, rightly focusing our minds on issues pertaining to mental illness and not to those of terrorism.

Feeding the Martyr Myth

Osama bin Laden’s greatest strategic aspirations were fulfilled when Afghanistan and then Iraq were invaded.  This gave credence to the ‘crusader’ myth and associated persecution narrative that has inspired tens of thousands of young Muslims around the world to flock to the so-called “caliphate” and train for terrorism.

Terrorism is essentially a tool of mass psychological manipulation – less of the terrorists themselves than of us, the population of ordinary people who are to be terrorized.

And the traditionally most racially tolerant, liberal-minded people are actually more likely to show an increase in prejudice against Muslims following a terrorist incident than more conservative-minded individuals [v].  This damage to the tolerant spine of society makes the terrorist’s mind-manipulation doubly effective.

This, of course, is exactly what our terrorist puppet-masters desire, because for every notch-up in anti-Muslim sentiment, the number of potential recruits to ISIS also rises.

Ian’s latest book is The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make us Stronger and Sharper. Follow him on twitter: @ihrobertson.

This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph, London 7th February 2017