“Jihadi John”: The Accidental Terrorist*

Take Aways –

  • “Slayer-suicide” young men “terrorists” are likely suffering from crippling mental illnesses – probably severe depression
  • A public health approach to young men violence is universally ignored in favor of marketing “religious/culture wars” in media and politics and knee-jerk demonizing
  • The selling of hysteria, reactive fear and tribal/ethnic hate mongering is profitable but blocks problem-solving
  • Research suggests there are correlations between young man violence, depression and discrimination
  • “Jihadi John” suffered a serious concussion when he was six
  • His behavior became increasingly hostile and aggressive past puberty

Problem-Solving Around “Suicide-Slayer” Young Men

While fully respecting that selling “terrorism” and culture wars and tribal-ethnic hatred-mongering will always be the most profitable and pop(ular) media and political strategies — what is proftibale and pop(ular) usually kills problem-solving.  Let’s also leave for others the themes of folklore-religious differences and warfare between supernatural belief systems.

I personally, find the endless and smarmy warfare themes in the media and politics tiresome and a distraction from thinking work — but, I appreciate that triggering fear makes everyone a lot of money.  Fair enough.

This post is for those of us that want to “take a breather” from all the fear and fighting talk and actually do some reading, thinking and discussing, in the best traditions of Jewish intellectual brilliance and the practical, hard-headed idea of tikkum olam.  Let’s consider, together, a problem-solving approach to ‘terrorists” and an alternative to the hysteria being so profitably sold in the press and political world.

A first principle of problem-solving has two parts:

  1. Don’t confuse symptoms of the problem with the real causes of the problem
  2. The real causes of problems are hidden from our everyday perceptions, beliefs and explanations.

So, the hyper-focus on the violent behaviors of these few young men is likely “symptom chasing.”  Any doctor will tell you, “symptom chasing” can be dangerous!.

Instead, let’s start by looking at the medical history of “Jihidi John.” (JJ).  A young man with clearly progressively psychotic behaviors and, it appears, a lifetime of undiagnosed and untreated crippling mental health issues.  His history of brain injury and disorders and violent behaviors, echoes in the, albeit sketchy stories, of other young men, “suicide-slayers.”  The young men killing themselves and others certainly could use some “repair and fixing”  – as could our institutions for public health and safety around these kinds of profoundly ill young men!

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Young Men, Depression, Discrimination and Violence

This post started when I happened across the following studies mentioned briefly below. There is growing study, and thus more medical evidence, that  a very small number of seriously brain damaged and mentally young men turn to violence instinctively and automatically.  Studies of gang members led the way, but applying the public health-psychiatric data to young men “terrorists”/”suicide-slayers” seems a productive path.  Certainly an approach that receives, effectively, zero public or political discussion!

A.  Depression and Violence are Correlated  Here is one study (1)

 “People diagnosed with depression are roughly three times more likely than the general population to commit violent crimes such as robbery, sexual offenses and assault. [Imagine the number undiagnosed!]Violent Criminals:

  • Depressed People – 3.7% of men and 0.5% of women
  • Non-Depressed: 1.2% of men and 0.2% of women

[However,] the overwhelming majority of depressed people are neither violent nor criminal …Fazel noted that in guidelines for doctors treating major depression, there is considerable focus on whether a patient is likely to self-harm or attempt suicide, yet little attention is given to violence.“Quite understandably, there is considerable concern about self-harm and suicide in depression. We demonstrate that the rates of violent crime are at least as high, but they don’t receive the same level of attention in clinical guidelines or mainstream clinical practice.”

B.  Higher Family and Personal Status + Ethnic Discrimination = Depression
The seeming paradox of the violent young men mainly coming from well-educated and middle or upper-middle class families may be partially explained by this piece of research.  The following study (2) offers hints at why educated young men from well-off families, from different ethnic backgrounds than the European dominant ethnicity, typically called “white,” of the society who may experience discrimination get depressed which is correlated with violence.  

There is an intuitive sense to the potential strong effects of being successful in terms of social status and education and yet still being bullied because of your skin color or other superficial ethnic difference markers.

“High socioeconomic status increases perceived discrimination, depression risk in black young adults.  Study finds greatest perceived discrimination in black young adults from most highly educated families, removing parental education’s protective effect against depression… among high-socioeconomic-status black youth, greater perceptions of being discriminated against cancelled out the protective effects of parental education. While black participants whose parents had a high school education or less experienced more discrimination than those from families in which a parent had some college or vocational training, those whose parents had advanced or professional degrees reported the greatest perceived discrimination of all – almost twice as high as white young adults from similarly educated families and 1.2 times higher than black participants whose parents had a high school education or less.…the more discrimination young adults reported feeling, the more likely they were to report symptoms of depression…if you talk to young people, black youth consistently report frequent experiences of discrimination – from being followed around in a store to being targeted by police – regardless of their socioeconomic status…even if we do eliminate educational disparities, black youth will not reap the same health benefits as white youth until we confront these larger societal issues.” 

C. Studies of Gang Members Shows Serious Mental Illness Is Prevalent

Some quick quotes:

“Gang violence cause of high levels of mental disorders”

“It is probable that, among gang members, high levels of anxiety disorder and psychosis were explained by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the most frequent psychiatric outcome of exposure to violence.”  He said the fear of future violence and victimisation led young men to experience extreme anxiety.  The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, said: “Readiness to retaliate violently if disrespected, excitement from violence, and short-term benefits from instrumental violence lead to further cycles of violence and risk of violent victimisation.”

“Violent ruminative thinking, violent victimization, and fear of further victimization were significantly higher in gang members and believed to account for high levels of psychosis and anxiety disorders in gang members, the study found.”  Source: “Study Finds Gang Members Suffer High Levels of Mental Illness”

JJ’s Behavioral History: Childhood Concussion, Family Mental Illness and Increasing Violence and Surveillance – But No Medical Care!?

By definition, JJ is a deeply symptomatic and psychotic young man. Looking for cause of is violent behaviors we can take a cursory look at medical factors without evoking any “beliefs” and ethnic/cultural influences.  With minimal investigation, news reports highlight evidence of serious mental illness in JJ and perhaps his family.

First, he suffered a serious concussion as a child:

“Another told LBC: ‘We were in the playground and Mohammed was running away from someone, I think he was just about to get into a fight. And as he was running another guy blocked his path. And he ran into a goal post and hit his head on a metal goal post and fell to the floor. This was year six, we didn’t see him for six weeks. He was not the same ever since that brain injury. I am telling you one million per cent. He was not the same’. “ 3

Six is very young for such a serious brain trauma! The brain is highly plastic. (See note below)

His brother appears to have inherited genetic vulnerabilities to violence, exhibiting chronic antisocial personality disorders.  If there were family heart disease, diabetes, etc. in the male members of the family – it would likely be medically treated.  Family mental health issues?  Apparently ignored.

“The younger brother of Mohammed Emwazi is a small-time criminal with hardline and outspoken Islamist views.”

It is probable there are learning disabilities co-morbid with these brain disorders.  Let’s remember that the behaviors are not the mental illness, they are behavioral symptoms of serious neurological disorders.

Finally it appears that JJ, and perhaps his family, experienced steady surveillance from his erratic and threatening behaviors.  JJ’s behavior led to repeated police attention, but, predictably, no mental health care.  Along with community ethnic prejudice factors, we can speculate that his harmful behaviors problems also led to institutional responses, which could be experienced as prejudice.

“According to Emwazi, his family then began planning for him to travel to Kuwait to get him away from the ‘harassment’ he had suffered in Britain and he went to work for a computer programming company in the emirate.”

His behavior, again, informally reported, seems to deteriorate into the impulsive-aggressive-violent pattern:

 “ Jihadi John had a fearless and hate-filled “nothing to lose” mentality that catapulted him into his role as the bloodthirsty executioner in the terrorists’ grisly beheading videos, according to British medics who met him in Syria.”One described the Kuwaiti-born Mohammed Emwazi as an “adrenaline junkie,” who first fought with the murderous al-Nusra Front…Another said he caught the hardened militants’ attention when he defied them at a checkpoint in Syria.“He was at a checkpoint, from what I heard, and the people manning the checkpoint stopped him and forced him to get out. They were trying to rob him and, for a man with several weapons pointing at his face, he responded by pulling out his own weapon and pointing it at one of their faces,” the medic told ITV.“He seems like someone with not a lot to lose. He dealt with people in a careless, gung-ho manner with disregard for his own safety. He was chosen most likely for his fearless mentality and he’s got nothing to lose,” the medic said.”

A psychiatrist can probably contribute professional experience with these kinds of symptomatic behaviors.

The discrimination does appear to have been experienced as pervasive, serious and dispiriting/fear-anger triggering for the community JJ grew up in in London, the effects of which were carried into university::

“I once walked into a meeting of the Islamic Society where they were clapping and cheering the events of 9/11,” he told the Daily Mail.“I did not know him, he would have been two years behind me, but I am utterly unsurprised. The university was nothing less than a hotbed of radicalism when I was there.”

Casual journalism then, uncovered a list of risk factors that seemed to accumulate in this man’s life. It is interesting that there are no reports of medical attention, diagnosis, symptom examination or treatment. As the behavior problems, for both sons it appears, increased – the family fled. Denial, avoidance and disassociation seem the default responses to family mental illness.

There does seem to be dominant, perservating, hysterical disassociation often severely delusional, magical-religious verbal behavior with these “slayer-suicide” young men. Seems similar to other severely mentally ill people echoing religious tropes, e.g., “I am Jesus.”, etc.

Many, many young men have similar experiences, learning and neurodevelopmental disorders and some concussions. But it takes a rare combination of events to lead to full blown criminal behaviors and even more to lead to murder of oneself or others.

What we have, then, is a list of medical conditions that are associated with violent behaviors in young men. There is no need to bring in culture, religious factors or personal explanations for the harmful behaviors, to himself and others. Standard medical matters.

As a side note, there was a report that the Charlie Hebdo killers found their mother dead of suicide as young boys so clearly life-threatening mental illness existed in their families as well.

Young Men “Slayer-Suicides” and Tikkum Olam

The theme and purpose of this blog is to encourage professional, evidence-based problem-solving in the spirit of the great traditions of Jewish intellectualism and tikkum olam.

Fact.  The young men “suicide-slayers” are human beings.  They are not monsters.  Jews, better than any culture, know the harsh truth of human beings acting monstrously, neighbors happily sending neighbors, especially children, to the trains to the work camps and gas chambers and gladly stealing their home, land, goods, bank accounts.

I make no humanitarian or moral argument for the fac ts.  I make a very practical, problem-solving demand we look at the facts – first!

Here, in problem-solving about young men “suicide-slayers” we can take a proven, standard medical, epidemiological, public health approach.  Looking at, and for, at-risk young men will do more to solve the terrorist/”slayer-suicide” problem then all the public/media/political outcry, Facebook/Twitter venting and mass marches. Sorry.

At least it is something new to try…something with facts to back it up!

*Yes, this is an allusion to the book “The Accidental Tourist”
1 – Source: “Clinically depressed 3 times more likely to commit violent crime “Link
2 – Source, Massucussetts General Hospital Press Release, link
3 – The source for the above quotes is from The Daily Mail – ” EXCLUSIVE: First picture of the face of the angelic schoolboy who turned into reviled ISIS executioner. How polite west London pupil became bloodthirsty Jihadi John” Link

Notes:Concussions are Bad
My “go-to” source for psychiatric matters is  “Psychiatric Times” need a free subscription for the articles.  a good summary article on traumatic brain injury is “Management of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury”.  The whole issue of concussions, like so much in brain science and medicine has been hidden as the cause of serious problems.

Even “mild” concussions are being discovered to do serious long-term damage:

“When we were able to connect the dots, we saw that injuries that might have been considered trivial seemed to have a big impact on how these patients did later on,”“We hope to contribute to the discussion about what should be done for these patients when they come in with seemingly mild concussions,”
Source: “Head injury: Early signs predict how soldiers recover”

Here is a good brief summary, source link:

One Concussion Could Cause Permanent Brain Damage

March 25, 2013 by KATE FEHLHABEREvery year, 1.5 million Americans sustain traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which occur when sudden traumas damage the brain. TBI commonly occurs when the head suddenly and violently hits an object, as in a car accident or during a football tackle. Over 75% of TBI cases are considered mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBI), which include concussions. This name is deceiving, however, since almost half of these MTBI cases actually results in major neurologic and psychological problems.In moderate and severe cases of TBI, the brain actually undergoes atrophy, as brain cells die…since neurological and psychological symptoms persist long after a concussion, MTBI probably causes permanent damage and brain atrophy…Usually, there is no evidence of structural brain abnormalities immediately after a concussion, but the researchers found that there was measurable brain atrophy one year after a concussion.Specifically, there was significant atrophy in [the area of the brain associated with] mood, attention, working memory, and executive function, all of which are frequently abnormal after a concussion. [This area] helps regulate anxiety [and damage] as been implicated in several psychological disorders, including schizophrenia. The structural damage seen in patients with MTBI correlates with behavioral symptoms they report.Taken together, these findings confirm what has been long been suspected: patients who are symptomatic long after a concussion actually have permanent brain damage.

About the Author
Elmer Rich is interested in evidence-based problem-solving in professional, business and policy work. With an M.S. in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from University of Chicago, he works as a professional marketer and communicator in B2B/technical topics in financial services.
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