When Mental Illness Becomes an Excuse for Terrorists

When Mental Illness Becomes an Excuse for Terrorists

It was a warm afternoon in the Netherlands on May 5 as the country celebrated the 73rdanniversary of its liberation from the Nazi occupation. Some had gone to the beach. Others picnicked in local parks.

But in the streets beside the Hollands Spoor train station in The Hague, one man chose a different way to mark the occasion: brandishing a knife, he slashed at random bystanders, wounding three people, one seriously. Police rushed to the scene, where they shot the attacker in the leg to force him to the ground. Yet even as he lay across the sidewalk, he held tightly to his weapon. “Allahu Akbar,” he cried out, the Arabic that means “Allah is greatest.”

Police arrested the Syrian-born attacker, later identified as “Malek F.” But only hours later, authorities were forced to acknowledge that he had been in their sights for some time – not for radical Islamism, but for what they called “disturbed behavior.” Media reports described the man as “troubled,” and officials claimed they were searching for a motive. Even The Hague Mayor Pauline Krikke told the press that “terrorism has been ruled out as a motive,” insisting “there is no sign that there was anything more to it” than that the man was mentally ill.

Yet further investigation revealed that police had received an anonymous tip in March warning that Malek F, who has lived in The Netherlands since 2014, was planning an attack.

This was not the first time this kind of situation has occurred. More and more, officials are starting to describe radicalized Muslims as “mentally disturbed” rather than “terrorists,” and question whether their claims to act in the name of terror groups are real or imagined. At the same time, mental health experts are exploring whether mental health issues can make people – particularly refugees housed in asylum centers – vulnerable to radicalization.

Take, for instance, the attack last December, when 29-year-old Palestinian-Syrian Saleh Ali smashed the windows of a kosher restaurant in Amsterdam, waving a Palestinian flag and again calling out the battle cry of “Allahu Akbar.” He too was known by authorities who, as with Malek, ignored warnings that he had radicalized. Overlooking the fact that Ali had also fought in Syria, they instead referred him to mental health clinics, according to Dutch news channel NOS.

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