Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist renowned for work both in cutting-edge legal cases and research on criminal evil, explained to the Clarion Project why it is a mistake to describe Islamist extremists as "crazy" and to attribute the conflict to cultural miscommunication, as if their actions are caused by a false impression of the West that can be rectified through talking and passivity.
Dr. Welner also discussed one of the major obstacles we face in fighting Islamic extremism — lack of freedom of the press. Islamists control major media outlets in the Muslim world that reflexively demonize the West. They consistely reject any blame for the human rights abuses and societal failures and refuse to facilitate meaningful retrospection.
If Islamist extremism is to be defeated, there must be enough intellectual freedom in the Muslim world for alternatives to be offered, he posits.
Below is a fascinating interview with Dr. Welner conducted by Clarion Project's Ryan Mauro:
Ryan Mauro: How do you approach these issues as a forensic psychiatrist?
Dr. Michael Welner: My conclusions are based on an appreciation of research and scientific method, as well as facts on the ground. My experience includes examination of Islamist terrorists and a familiarity with literature related to them and all of its scientific shortcomings. It also includes examination of mass killers who acted upon ideological motivations, religious zealots of a range of stripes and training in psychotherapy and how to use humor as a therapeutic device.
Forensic psychiatry embeds research understandings in a fact-based context. This is referred to as ecological validity. Without ecological validity, a claim based on forensic psychiatry has no grounding in the real world. For instance, researchers on crime have demonstrated poverty to be an important predictor of crime, but the conflation of this understanding to mean that poverty causes terrorism has long been debunked. This is because terrorism is more than a crime.
The application of forensic psychiatry to terrorism requires appreciation of the terrorist entities, their aims and where they operate. Ecological validity does not allow broad generalization, but reflects specific adaptation.
Mauro: "Crazy" is the term that is often thrown around by Americans to describe Islamist extremists because that's the closest we can come to rationalizing their behavior. Based on your expertise in mental health and psychiatry, is there a significant correlation between mental instability and Islamist terrorism?
Welner: The infrastructure assembled by large-scale Islamist organizations—Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others, speaks to the very rational actors, thinkers and planners involved. They have succeeded because of highly-functioning, very organized individuals with exceptional people skills and capable management, administration and military strategy.
Crazy has nothing to do with the terrorism we see. Those who believe it does ignore what we have learned of the Guantanamo detainees and what Israelis have learned from their study of suicide bombers. They confuse actions that shock—actions that create a spectacle—with actions that are irrational.
Islamist terrorism is cold-blooded violence. It is proactive and planned, as opposed to a hot-blooded violence that is reactive and impulsive. The attacks are carefully crafted. The leaders are selected based on how their planning resonates with those who finance them. The supporting elements are chosen by how efficiently and reliably they provide logistical support. The perpetrators are selected based on how disciplined, dedicated, ruthless and in-control they are while carrying out destruction.
Mauro: Are there any signs we can see in a person's psychology or behavior as the radicalization process occurs? Average citizens know they should get worried when someone starts talking about murdering innocents and buying weapons, but what happens in the stages before that?
Welner: Those indoctrinated into terrorism within the United States are following a different vector than those overseas.
In Muslim countries and even in Western Europe and parts of Africa, extremely devout followings of Islam are widespread and intertwined with political and sectarian affiliations. In secular countries like the U.S. and Canada, where Muslims are only a small portion of the population and they have little political standing, enlisting in terrorist groups is out of step with the general environment, even for Muslims.
In America, a high proportion of those implicated in Islamist terror plots are either converts or recently became devout. Part of what drives this psychologically is that the newer conscript feels the need to prove his bona fides, just as do newer conscripts in hate groups like white supremacists.
This is part of what makes the U.S. and Western world's prison population so vulnerable to radicalization. Radical Islam connects with those who are already alienated from the host country that incarcerated them. For those ensnared and leave prison as disenfranchised ex-cons, violence is not as taboo as it would be for less-hardened peers.
All of those who are involved in Islamist terrorism are devout or believe they are devout. However, those who gravitate towards a more devout religious observance include many who do not have political aims and are merely following their faith. Others may be sympathetic to co-religionists who act for the cause of advancing the Caliphate (as ISIS is doing), or otherwise attacking the symbols of apostasy or the "apostates" themselves but would never personally act criminally.
Clearly, there are far more sympathetic followers of terrorist organizations' social media than there are those who actually participate in terror. And so the challenge becomes, who among the devout goes the terrorism route?
The process of radicalization is an intimate one. It reflects one's personal relationship with one's spirituality. In some instances, a cleric may be involved, but many self-radicalize because of their own curiosity and find fellow travelers online. Sometimes it is the company one keeps. Travel itineraries reveal exposure to training, rather than visits to family or sightseeing. Weapons training, when a recreational passion, is common to the devout who later reveal to be terrorists.
Mauro: How do you respond to those that argue that the conflict with Islamist extremists is just a misunderstanding between cultures due to a lack of heart-to-heart communication and self-esteem issues among recruits?
Welner: One can only achieve understanding, under ideal conditions of conciliation, between two humans of differing perspective. If one party dehumanizes another as a fundamental threat, then conciliation is not possible because the uncompromising goal—as in the case of ISIS—is that the other party is its enemy and submission or extermination is required.
For ISIS, understanding with others is an existential threat to the purity to which they lay claim. It is ISIS' and, more broadly, radical Islam's dehumanization of non-believers that feeds their cause and entitlement to brutalize. Likewise, this mindset demands that the only understanding we reach is submission, just like all fascisms before it and since.
Spectacle crime, such as terrorism, is a choice made by those with high expectations of themselves to do great but who are painfully aware of their underachievement. The ideology they choose is the bromide of their disappointment; the enemy they choose the projection of their shortcomings; and the terrorism they leap into a transcendence they would never otherwise achieve.
What ISIS' recruitment in the U.S. and elsewhere has achieved is the seduction of idealistic young recruits drawn to utopian religion. The recruits feel good about themselves, in some cases pursue the ISIS dream with their spouses and want to be a part of something greater.
These are a whole different group from the hardened, angry, dead-ended ex-cons who have violent histories and, often, previous drug problems that we've seen implicated in terror plots. The San Bernardino massacre was the birth of ISIS in Americana, reflecting the organizational signature of how far a couple would go for their faith—indeed they would die together — and leave their baby an orphan.
Mauro: Let's talk about solutions. Is there any information from psychology and psychiatry that can help us understand what will de-radicalize someone? What has to happen for an Islamist extremist to change their mind about the cause they've embraced?
Welner: Because the problem is a religious one, its treatment is religious as well. And, just like cult treatment, terrorist treatment is difficult because the patient does not accept treatment willingly. And how can you "treat" a belief that is shared by one's physical or social media peer group? Psychiatric treatment for cult survivors requires isolation from other influencers. Isolation is impossible when you're dealing with a widespread community of believers, as is the case with radical Islam.
The results of deradicalization programs are still actively debated. High-profile failures demonstrate that the programs can be gamed by the terrorist “patients.” There are some success stories, however, but not enough transparency is available to allow us to become fully informed as to whether terrorists have reprogrammed themselves ideologically, become pacifist or simply matured to other passions.
Deradicalization programs aiming to re-educate the violence-oriented with a more peace-oriented Islam are part of a broader psychosocial strategy that integrates family influences and external life priorities like vocational developments. The programs of Asian countries with large Muslim populations and little Islamist influence, Singapore specifically, are particularly informative.
The intellectual freedom in these countries allow for introspection that is not possible, for example, in the Arab world or other Islamic countries. In those countries, discussion about defining Islam in a way that does not threaten the national interest is reflexively regarded as blasphemy. It is a form of political-correctness of the Muslim world that undermines well-meaning deradicalization programs.
Mauro: There's a common claim that the more we kill Islamist terrorists, the more hate will exist and the surrounding population will become terrorists as well. What's your take on the notion that killing terrorists is counter-productive and there must be a better alternative?
Welner: The claim that the "more we kill, the more they hate us" is vacuous, as if the Islamists were Tibetan monks set upon by Chinese occupiers. We are at war because our enemy has acted to murder us and to eliminate a way of life different from its own. And if the enemy uses a religious ideal to justify killing us, if we do not eliminate that enemy, that ideology will use its very survival to claim God's will to protect it in order to continue to kill us.
No matter how we as a nation pursue the Islamist threat, the United States will be portrayed as a devil deserving of destruction. Therefore, the "more we kill, the more they hate us" premise is irrelevant; we are hated not because we kill, but because we exist.
Were we not to kill, the U.S. would be slandered and propagandized against for any number of grievances, including for being a secular and pluralistic society. Those who control mass opinion in the nations where radical Islam is highly represented use the media to propagandize no matter what we do. Those who concern themselves with making the right impression among our enemies overlook the reality that our enemies control the messages to their populations.
Mauro: We've seen the power of political satire through Bassem Youssef in Egypt and now an Arab version of "SNL" is airing in the Middle East. Can you explain the importance of comedy, satire and being able to laugh at one's own identities (sect, religion, nationality, political party, etc.) in relation to Islamism?
Welner: Comedy is so powerful because humor’s ability to disarm penetrates defensiveness, and thus is one of the most effective ways to cultivate introspection.
The Islamic world is unusually defensive about the inhuman shame of Islamist violence, responding with rage and pride that blames non-Muslims. Undermining such self-deception is extremely difficult. The West makes it worse by accepting ingrained bigotry, be it the whitewashing of widespread rape by Muslim immigrants in Europe or silence in the face of Islamic misogyny or overlooking homicidality towards non-believers.
I am not convinced that there is enough freedom of the press in Muslim countries to allow for satire to confront the entrenched pathologies of radical Islamism. In other words, is the satire that currently exists truly humbling? Or is it simply another medium in which a comedian can make fun of Donald Trump and the Zionists like everyone else? Our own American satirists, sadly, incise in one political direction only and never take on Islamism. Even the rare outspoken humorists like Bill Maher only go so far as to offer criticism and political commentary, but not actual humor.
The U.S., the acknowledged beacon of free speech, touts "The Book of Mormon" for its comedic merit, but allows its creative types to be intimidated from satirizing Islam with equal treatment. Charlie Hebdo was decimated with no rejoinder to protect the capacity to satirize.
Since we do not set an example of protecting and promoting the full potential of comedy, because of our own self-censorship, what can be expected of the Muslim world? Until comedy is truly protected as free speech—without neither violence nor professional ostracism—we will reap the consequences of censoring free speech by failing to give example to peoples we should be inspiring.
Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, M.D., is chairman of The Forensic Panel. He has examined terrorists in cases in Guantanamo and elsewhere, perpetrators of mass killing, and religious extremist offenders spanning the criminal and civil case spectrum.
Dr. Welner's landmark Depravity Standard research, standardizing the distinction of criminal evil, is applicable to such contexts as war crimes. It is the first sentencing research to involve survey input of the general public to refine sentencing standards, and you can likewise participate, at www.depravitystandard.org.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.