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Mental Health and Lone Actor Terrorism


The growing threat of lone actor terrorism in the United States is increasing. Lone actors have been shown to be more likely diagnosed with a mental disability than the general population. In which not all lone actors are influenced by extremists’ group like ISIS but fueled by mental instability and untreated mental illnesses.

Keywords: terrorism, mental health, lone actor

The vision of Department of Homeland Security is to create a safe, secure, and being resilient to all hazards. The growing threat of lone wolf terrorists is increasing and these individuals have posed a significant threat to our nation and throughout the world. A lone actor, lone wolf terrorist is defined as “an individual who prepares and commits violent acts alone, outside of command structure and without material assistance from any group. This individual may be influenced or motivated by the ideology or beliefs of an external group or may act in support of a group.” (Wikipedia.org)

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On April 2013 President Obama stated that “one of the dangers we now face are self-radicalized individuals who are already here in the United States and in some cases, might not be part of any network…those are in some ways more difficult to prevent.” Lone actor terrorism has become more prevalent in the United States and threat is particularly heightened today. (dhs.gov)

Preventing lone actor attacks continues to be a major goal for government official and law enforcement agencies. Since 9/11 the majority of our attacks on US soil have been done by lone actors. Detection of these individuals is extremely difficult most arguably because it’s impossible to singly profile lone actors in which commonality does not exist in each individual. Attackers have displayed higher rates of mental illness than any group terrorist organizations and general population. Approximately 50% of non-ideological shooters had suffered from mental health issues. (Hallgrath)

Mental Illness

We have seen multiple headlines about terrorist attacks throughout the world, a single actor carrying out an attack that have resulted in mass casualties. These events generate questions for mental health professionals and government officials into a debate and theories on what influenced these actors into committing horrific attacks. During the 1970s Frederick Hacker propose that terrorism could be divided into three categories: crusaders, criminals, and crazies. Terrorism has a mixture for of propaganda and theatre, there are obvious reasons behind their motives and the not so obvious reasons that may have been fueled by ideology or mental instability. (Farrell)

There have been numerous research cases that have shown a significant number of lone actors that have been suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. In which not all actors are motivated by ideologies extremists’ groups like ISIS to carry out attacks. It is a combination of numerous factors that could be ideology, anger, depression, bipolar, ADHD, or other mental health related ailments. Therefore, lone actor terrorists are more likely to be diagnosed with mental disabilities than the general population, making it clear that numerous cases of lone actor attacks have shown metal illness. (Seifert)

According to a study that was conducted by Harvard Medical School, a leading cause of an individual’s anger is the persons environment, which could include: stress, financial troubles, abuse, poor social or familial situation. These causes are a few that can lead into excessive or violent anger. Each event that will be discussed in this paper, have shown symptoms of anger and some other form of mental illness that have led the lone actor to carry violent attacks against their innocent citizens. (psychguides.com)

An individual that is suffering from extreme mental illness is an individual that does have the risk of becoming violent if not treated. Studies have indicated that a large percent of lone actors have been found to be mentally ill when compared to group-oriented terrorist. With proper treatment violent tendencies can be avoided. Dr. Spaaij, Gill, and Corner have determined that there is no single profile of any lone actor, but when grouped they share similar characteristics.

Dr. Spaaij found that high levels of personality disorders and depression were among a group of 88 lone-wolf terrorists. Across three studies that were examined, one can conclude that many lone actors have some or many of the following: vocational problems, high stress levels, problems in intimate relationships, social awkwardness, violent communications, and higher intelligence. The same characteristics that were discovered in Harvard’s study in the symptoms, causes, and effects of anger. (Seifert)

Lone Actors with Mental Illness

Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Pulse Night Club Shooting in Orlando all demonstrate mental illness that affected each lone actor. Each incident discusses the severity and ailments they were diagnosed or believed to have fueled, motivated their attacks, and their families not pushing or getting them the mental help needed.

Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting

The morning of December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School carrying over 30 pounds of weapons and ammunition. Within five minutes he had fired 154 rounds out of a Bushmaster rifle killing: the school principle, school psychologist, before entering two classrooms where he continued to kill 20 children and their teachers. (Fox)

The years leading up to the Sandy Hook Shooting, medical experts had called for drastic measures to assist Adam Lanza. Medical and school reports found Lanza as completely untreated for psychiatric and physical ailments of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Cowan) In these reports it discussed: his fascinations with mass shootings, particularly the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Co, how he also avoided crowds, disliked loud noises, particular with how his food was prepared, and disliked birthdays and holidays. (Fox)

His mother Nancy Lanza declined medical treatment for her son and even quit her job to stay home to properly care for Adam who continued to show severe signs of mental illness. Nancy told specialists that she had worried about her young son and knew without proper interventions it would become worse. His mother failed to keep appointments and stopped giving him medications to control his mental illness. There is no doubt that Adam Lanza suffered greatly from mental illness and had fascinations of mass shootings. His mother Nancy knew leading up to the events her son became unhinged before being killed in their home.  (Boyle)

Boston Marathon Bombing

On April 15, 2013 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and older brother 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killing three spectators and wounding more than 260 people. (history.com) According to multiple sources the older brother in the Boston Marathon Bombing, Tamerlan struggled for years of inner voices that had become louder and more insistent as he became older. It was reported that he had confined in a friend that the voices he was hearing began to command him to perform certain violent acts.

Tamerlan continued to suffer from auditory hallucinations and his mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, would continue to brush them off and decline medical treatment for her son. (treatmentadvocacycenter) Instead of treating her son she would decide to treat her son on a spiritual route focusing on spiritual counseling. She believed that the words of Islam could calm Tamerlan’s demons. Zubeidat believed that Muslims were not getting the adequate care because the Western-trained providers or people do not understand Islam would be able to fully understand their own problems. (Gebreyes)

This is not an uncommon practice; in Islam better mental health outcomes, enhanced self-esteem, and stronger relationships are a result of individuals putting their trust into Allah. Researchers found that Muslims are hesitant to seek help from mental health professional due to the differences and the lack of understanding of Islamic views and beliefs. (Sabry & Vohra)

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Similar to the Sandy Hook Shooting we can connect that both mothers in each massacre declining the adequate care for their children, which could have prevented the massacres. Their motivations for the attack were fueled by extremist Islamic beliefs as they learned to build the pressure cookers that they learned on the internet. Investigators had concluded that there was no connection to any terrorist groups, and both brothers had planned and carried out the attacks on their own. (history.com)

Pulse Nightclub Shooting

Omar Mateen born to Afghan parents lived in New York prior to moving to Fort Piece, a town two hours from Orlando. Growing up friends and neighbors recalled Mateen as a troubled child, often unpredictable, angry, and threatening. Any attempts with getting him assistance his parents would ignore requests from school staff that noticed his anger and difficulties with learning in class. (witn.com) This continued into his adult years in which he was kicked out of the police academy for sleeping in class and making statements of bringing a firearm with him. Before his attack at the Pulse Club killing 49 people and injuring 53 individuals on June 12, 2016. Mateen had pledged his allegiance to extremist group ISIS as well expressing solidarity with the Tsarnaev brothers referring to them as his “homeboys” during his 911 call. (Michael)

Some have argued if mental illness played a part or an act hate that fueled Mateen in the shooting. His ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy discussed his violent, mental instability, and reports of being beaten by Omar. Mateen had been actively using gay dating apps and would regularly visit the Orlando club prior to the massacre. Conflicted with his religion and his sexuality according to multiple interviews with those who knew him. Leading up to the attack his parents stated his outrage in seeing two men kiss in Miami, but they did not consider him to have any ties with extremist groups. (Famtz, Karimi, McLaughlin) While there is no evidence of mental health treatment for Mateen, testimonies of abuse and possible bipolar disorder were discussed after the attack occurred. Authorities continue to struggle on the reasons behind the attack and if it was fueled by radicalized Islamist group or just a bravado.

Trends and Background Factors

Mental health reform is crucial to making sure we prevent future lone actor attacks from happening. Improving access to mental health care might assist those suffering in America. Lone actors had a significantly higher rate of mental illness than other group offenders 40% vs 7.6%. Attempts to understand the motivation and driver of these individual lone actor has gone through many studies. These three separate attacks demonstrate the approximate 22% of American loners who are psychologically disturbed and 31% of a sample of lone-actor terrorist to have had a history of mental illness. (Corner and Gill)

According to a study in 2016 conducted by Peter Bergen and New America in which they examined 364 Americans charged and or were convicted of some form of jihadist crime, only 11% showed a form of mental health. Unlike the study in 2015 conducted by Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice had found more that 40% of lone wolf attacks in the database were carried out by individuals with diagnosed mental health problems. Psychological profiles of those responsible for lone wolf attacks suggest that many of these individuals have indeed had some type of history of mental illness as demonstrated in the three examples of Sandy Hook Shooting, Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Pulse Night Club Shooting. (Michael)


There is a worrisome trend in the growing number of mentally disturbed young men who have fascinations of violence, radical views, and connections is extremist groups. Groups like ISIS that have marketed extremism to younger Muslims in the West who are experiencing identity crisis and seeking acceptance. (Michael)

The rates in mental illness continues to be on the rise in the United States, especially depression. There are so many negative ramifications associated with not treating a mental disorder. Each event demonstrated families not stepping in and getting these individuals proper care. The obvious ramification is worsening the issue, each actor became more extreme, more violent, and their ideologies became more enhanced. Questions remain if  these attacks could have been stopped if treatment was available and the individual was receiving the proper support from their family or if mental health treatment was easily accessible. It’s difficult to have results that are not conclusive because of the amount of information available had the tendency to treat all mental health disorders equally in the same category instead of categorizing it into different classes. (Jones)

With many individuals suffering with mental illness who are unable to find their niche in society especially young impressionable Muslim men who are seeking guidance from extremism. Countering and preventing lone actor attacks is a challenge. The little to no information available to law enforcement and government officials has presented its difficulties. Most of these attacks occur seemingly out of nowhere as these individuals operate alone less likely to raise any red flags to officials. When information is being received its not being relayed to the proper government agencies or its not being thoroughly investigated.

The intersection between criminal justice and mental health has a long history in which it briefly discusses terrorism. The claims of “insanity defense” in which the defendant claims they are not responsible for a crime due to their mental health capacity. Insanity defense was developed in the response to a terror attack during the 19th century. It’s difficult to determine where their powerful delusions or extreme political commitments are motivating the actor. Programs in the United Kingdom’s Prevent Strategy intervenes on the basis of risk factors for radicalization. Mental Illness and autism are frequently invoked in public commentary on what the UK believe to be part of their risks for radicalizations. This we are seeing more frequently in the United States as mental illness is taking a role in attacks. (Heath-Kelly)The role of mental illness in radicalization to violence continues to remain unclear and some individuals suffering mental illness may increase the likelihood toward an extremist group. Mental illness affects an individual’s ability to cope to what we considered normal daily tasks and when left untreated it could become worse.

The mental health care systems in the United States is considered to be a multibillion-dollar industry yet it’s still not enough to serve all of those who need assistance. Just recently Democratic lawmakers accused the President and Republicans for not doing enough in gun control. Trump reported that guns aren’t the problem it’s mental health problem which continues to be at its highest level in the US. The other issue is family members, neighbors, or any individual that had direct dealings with these individuals who plan to carry out lone actor attacks needs to report it to the proper authorities. Especially when Homeland Security has so many programs in place to assist the general public of reporting suspicious activity.

The shooters wife Noor Salman in the Pulse Night Club Shooting did not report to authorites the information that Mateen revealed to her that he was going to do something bad and had planned his target. Yet Noor Salman knew ahead of time of Mateen’s plans and even assisted him in scouting the Pulse nightclub with him. Her statement of “I often worry that he was going to commit an act of violence or terrorism”, similar to Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy who feared her son and his violent tendencies. Yet neither female reported the behavior, requested/continued mental health treatment, or had major concerns to stop the attacks from happening. (Ortiz)


There is such a negative stigma that surrounds mental illness and those that have traits or have been diagnosed with a form are challenged by stereotypes and misconceptions. In many cases not being able to feel acceptance, feeling vulnerable, finding a sense of community within extremists’ groups are a few areas that influence some lone actors to carrying out attacks. We will continue to see a trend in these lone actors who have previous mental illnesses, but its government officials and law enforcement agencies that need to look into tips that a received. It’s also the responsibility of citizens reporting suspicious behaviors to assist authorities in stopping potential attacks.

Lastly, it would be beneficial for government officials to look into trends of mental illness, clues, and signs that could lead into violent attacks. In order to be successful in stopping future attacks partnerships with public health services on what could lead to violent risk is important.



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