Terrorism and Mental Illness

On Sunday July  22nd, 29-year-old Faisal Hussain walked through a Toronto neighbourhood and opened fire at innocent civilians enjoying a warm summer evening. He murdered a 10-year-old girl and an 18-year-old young woman. Days later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and Toronto Police responded by saying there was no evidence to back this claim.

The Hussain family were quick to release a polished statement (we later learned it was provided by a professional activist), claiming the Danforth shooter had a history of mental illness. The gatekeeper media accepted this statement as fact, despite other media reports indicating that Toronto Police files on Hussain showed little evidence of the typical history of a person with a mental illness.

It’s important to note, as many scholars have, that terrorism and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.

Jihadist groups such as ISIS have a history of recruiting people with mental problems and encouraging them to carry out terrorist attacks. For instance, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel - the perpetrator of the 2016 Nice truck attack - had been diagnosed as suffering from psychosis by a psychiatrist in 2004 and also communicated via telephone with known Islamist radicals in the lead-up to his attack.

Other instances have shown that mentally ill individuals with no connections to ISIS carrying out jihadist attacks. Most recently, 27-year-old Ayanle Hassan Ali was found not criminally responsible after attacking Canadian soldiers at a recruitment centre in Toronto. Ali stormed the building, shouting “Allah Akbar,” and stabbed several officers. He was found to have schizophrenia, but Crown prosecutors argued that he acted as a “terrorist group of one” and “that while Ali should be found not criminally responsible for his actions, he did commit a terrorist act and the court’s verdict should reflect that.”

We can also find concrete examples of terrorists who have been described in media reports as mentally ill, only to later learn the story is far more complex:

  • Numan Haider stabbed and injured two counter-terrorism officers in the parking lot of a police station in Melbourne, Australia on September 23, 2014 before being shot dead at the scene. Haider’s family described their Numan as mentally ill, stating that they had advised him to seek counselling. No confirmed diagnoses existed. Haider was attending lectures at an extremist mosque and posted a photo of himself on Facebook brandishing ISIS’ flag days before his attack.


  • Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at Canada’s National War Memorial on October 22, 2014 and stormed Canada’s Parliament building, firing shots before being shot dead by security. Zehaf-Bibeau’s friends characterized him as mentally ill, pointing to his “erratic behaviour.” No confirmed diagnoses existed. Zehaf-Bibeau shouted, “For Iraq!” after he killed Cirillo, and the RCMP later released a video where Zehaf-Bibeau called Canada “the enemy,” claimed to be a fighter for the “Mujahideen” and showed many signs of adherence to a jihadist and Islamist ideology.


  • Zale Thompson wounded two New York Police Department police officers on October 23, 2014 before being shot to death at the scene. Thompson’s family said that Zale had mental health problems, though no confirmed diagnoses existed. For nine months leading up to his attack, Thompson visited websites relating to ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, including websites depicting acts of violence.


  • Martin Couture-Rouleau killed Warrant officer Patrice Vincent by ramming him with his car in a parking lot in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec on October 20, 2014 before being shot to death by a police officer following a car chase. A neighbour claimed he was “depressed,” though no confirmed diagnoses exist. Couture-Rouleau had converted to Islam in 2013, and he called 911 during the car chase stating that he committed the attack to warn Canada to quit “the coalition against the Islamic State”.


  • Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 before he was killed in a shootout with police. Following the mass shooting, Mateen’s first wife stated that Mateen was “mentally unstable and mentally ill,” but no evidence of mental illness exists. Mateen was never diagnosed with mental illness. When he applied for his security guard licence in 2007 and for its renewal in 2013, a psychological screening found him to be mentally sound. During his attack, Mateen placed a series of calls to 911 in which he identified himself as “Mujahideen” and “soldier of God.” He also pledged his allegiance to ISIS and ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said that he committed the attack “to stop the U.S. airstrikes” on ISIS.

These cases depict instances where mental health problems were brought up by non-experts (typically family, friends, neighbours, etc.), and the media subsequently treated these statements as conclusive evidence.

Researchers studied 55 Islamic State attacks in the West involving 76 terrorists, and found that 27.6% had a history of psychological instability - roughly the same as the general population.

The report notes that, “the percentage is likely overinflated for several noteworthy reasons, including poor reporting, low benchmarks, and the tendency to overuse mental health problems as a ‘silver-bullet’ explanation for terrorist involvement. The relationship is, in fact, far more complex than typically presented.”