by Dr Clare Allely
Last year, the Chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy highlighted that many extremists are vulnerable individuals who are radicalised within weeks. Mental health issues have been identified as a potential part of the path to radicalisation (O’Neill & Simpson, 2015). Although this is debatable as some research shows that mental health issues are not a key factor in the pathway to radicalisation. However, recognition of the potential for mental health issues to be part of the pathway and the research which supports this theory has led to the NHS now having a full-time staff which focused on serving the Prevent anti-extremism programme, which main aim is to identify radical behaviour. They have identified Asperger’s or Autism, serious learning difficulties and low self-esteem, among other conditions as a potential part of the path to radicalisation – specifically, the conditions which extremists are increasingly exploiting in individuals they target for recruiting and training (O’Neill & Simpson, 2015). Prevent Duty was launched last year, which places a duty or mandate upon Health and other sectors to prevent radicalisation. Prevent Duty have published guidance for ‘specified authorities in England and Wales on the duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ (HM Government, 2015).
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are now characterised by 1) deficits in social communication and interaction, and 2) restricted repetitive behaviours, interests, and activities (RRBs).
There has been some recent media coverage of some cases of individuals with autism or Asperger’s syndrome being targeted and recruited by terrorists. Last year a Briton, Kazi Islam, 19, received an eight year jail sentence for training Harry Thomas, also 19, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to be a terrorist. Islam persuaded Harry Thomas, to try to buy materials for a pipe bomb and to attack soldiers with a knife or meat cleaver. Islam’s reported that his training with Thomas was motivated by Nicky Reilly who was another individual with Asperger’s syndrome, who was involved in a failed suicide bombing in Exeter.
However, research has shown that it is important to highlight that individuals’ with autism are no more likely to commit violent crime when compared to the general population (Ghaziuddin et al., 1991). Individuals with ASD are not at increased risk of offending has been found by more recent studies (e.g., Woodbury-Smith, Clare, Holland, and Kearns, 2006; Mouridsen, 2012). In fact, some studies have even suggested that individuals with ASD may actually be less likely to commit violent crime (Mouridsen, Rich, Isager, & Nedergaard, 2008) and that the large majority of individuals with ASD are law-abiding (Murrie et al., 2002; Woodbury-Smith et al., 2006). What some of these cases highlight is the need to protect vulnerable individuals from being targeted and recruited by terrorist groups.
Dr Zainab Al-Attar, a Senior Lecturer and Chartered/Registered Forensic Psychologist, University of Central Lancashire, also highlights that there is no empirical evidence to show that people on the autism spectrum are at increased risk of engaging in terrorist offences nor that autism is over-represented in terrorist offenders. Dr Al-Attar also highlights the role played by autistic special interests, fantasy, obsessionality, need for routine/predictability, social and communication difficulties, cognitive styles, local coherence, systemising, and sensory processing, in terrorism pathways and modus operandi (Al-Attar, 2016).
One recent case which provides some understanding as to the role played by autistic special interests is that of the Mark Alexander Harding (21) who was sentenced to 18 months probation for downloading copies of the terrorist magazines Inspire and Palestine which are created by the global terrorist group formerly headed by Osama bin Laden. Harding had posted 5,000 comments, some supporting the so-called Islamic State, on the internet forum 4Chan – an English-language imageboard website containing hundreds of threads about numerous subject matters. Additionally, police also found that he has amassed on his computer ‘a large number’ of images and audio material stored in two folders named ‘Islam’ and ‘Nasheed’. It was recognised that Harding had not been radicalised and his online persona was a by-product of his autism which caused him to develop obsessions over specific subjects. One argument that has been suggested is that Harding’s use of the internet forum was evidence that he was ‘acting out’ his angers and frustrations.
Radicalisation may be a broad facet and impact any type of case. There have also been some cases of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome who have become involved/radicalised in extreme right wing (XRW) terrorism. The case of Michael Piggin (18), who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, who pleaded guilty to creating numerous weaponry which included petrol bombs, pipe bombs and air rifles but denied planning to use it in attacks on his former school, a mosque and a cinema in Loughborough in the UK. Piggin was initially arrested for an offence in which he allegedly threatened two boys with a knife, but officers were horrified when they searched his home in Beaumont Road, Shelthorpe. Piggin In a Che Guevara notebook emblazoned with swastikas and the initials of the English Defence League (EDL), Piggin wrote about what the prosecution alleged were attack plans. Reports also states that Piggin had boasted at school about going on an EDL march in Leicester. The jury were also shown a video of the teenager spraying “No more mosques!” on the wall of a leisure centre. Another video shows him saying: “We are against the Muslim invasion of our country. If you are looking at us… we will kill you, yeah – we are willing to take arms to fight for this country” (Lowbridge, 2014).
It is important not to assume that autism is a risk factor for terrorism in the general population. However, when dealing with an individual with autism charged with terrorism, it is important to consider how autism may have acted as a contextual vulnerability, and to ensure justice, rehabilitation and management, are informed by an understanding of the individual’s autism (Al-Attar, 2016). Despite counter-terrorism receiving substantial levels of attention and recognition as well as financial resource, there has been much less interest in investigating the effectiveness of interventions which are preventative (Bhui, Warfa, & Jones, 2014).
Al-Attar, Z. (2016). Autism & Terrorism Links – Fact or Fiction? 15th International Conference on the Care and Treatment of Offenders with an Intellectual and/or Developmental Disability. National Autistic Society. 19-20th April 2016.
Bhui, K., Warfa, N., & Jones, E. (2014). Is violent radicalisation associated with poverty, migration, poor self-reported health and common mental disorders?. PloS one, 9(3), e90718.
Ghaziuddin, M., Tsai, L., & Ghaziuddin, N. (1991). Brief report: Violence in Asperger syndrome—A critique. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 21, 349–354.
HM Government (2015). Revised Prevent Duty Guidance: for England and Wales. Guidance for specified authorities in England and Wales on the duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Can be accessed from this link: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445977/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__England_Wales_V2-Interactive.pdf
Lowbridge, C. (2014). How did Michael Piggin become radicalised? BBC News. Can be accessed from this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-27328590
Mouridsen, S. E. (2012). Current status of research on autism spectrum disorders and offending. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 79-86.
Mouridsen, S. E., Rich, B., Isager, T., & Nedergaard, N. J. (2008). Pervasive developmental disorders and criminal behaviour. A case control study. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 52, 196–205.
Murrie, C., & Warren, I. (2002). Asperger’s syndrome in forensic settings. International Journal of Forensic Mental Health, 1(1), 59–70.
O’Neill, S., & Simpson, J. (2015). Mental health link to extremism. The Times. Article can be accessed: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/crime/article4560532.ece
Woodbury-Smith, M. R., Clare, I. C. H., Holland, A. J., & Kearns, A. (2006). High functioning autistic spectrum disorders, offending and other law-breaking: findings from a community sample. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(1), 108-120.