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The Lone Terrorist in the Workplace

Explaining the three components of motivation for ideologically driven violence

The breaking news on December 15 reported a black banners flag—the emblem of Jabhat el-Nusra and linked to Al Qaeda--being held against the window of a Lindt chocolate store in downtown Sydney, Australia. A lone gunman inside had taken 17 people hostage, both employees and customers. Eighteen hours later, amidst flash bang grenades and automatic weapons fire, Man Haron Monis, a 49 year old Iranian immigrant and violent criminal, and apparently a recent convert to the cause of ISIS, was dead. Two other hostages were killed, including the store manager. Monis was well known to law enforcement for his violence and strident preaching, both in the terrestrial and online worlds—his Facebook page included photos of dead children ostensibly murdered by Americans and their allies in the Mideast, and he had a history of both sexual and violent crimes against women, including accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

Almost two months earlier, on September 25, 2014, Alton Nolen, a 30-year-old U.S. employee, beheaded a fellow worker, 54 year old Colleen Hufford, with a knife in the Vaughan Foods processing plant in an Oklahoma City suburb. He then attacked another worker, apparently attempting to also behead her; she had initiated a complaint against him for racially slurring whites that resulted in his suspension earlier that day. He was shot and wounded by a reserve deputy who was also the CEO of the company. What do we know about Nolen? He had a criminal record, was a recent convert to Islam, had provocative postings on his Facebook page, including images of a beheading and Osama bin Laden, and did his act following several decapitations of Americans by ISIS in Syria, and the beheading of a French mountaineering guide the day before.

Do we call this terrorism or workplace violence? This is mixing apples and oranges. It is both. The setting in which these acts occurred was the workplace; one of the motivations—although the complexity of these acts would need to be sorted out by a careful study of the cases—appears to be “revenge and obliteration” (the words of my colleague James Knoll, MD). We list “Motivations for Violence” as the first item in our Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk, the WAVR-21[1], to encourage threat assessors to think carefully about the many reasons a subject could view targeted violence as a legitimate means to achieve a particular goal. Ideology is one of them, and the lone terrorist (sometimes labeled lone wolf), often has a conscious belief system that justifies such violence in his mind with an eye toward a much larger, media-inspired audience. The workplace is not immune from such threateners and assaulters.

My British colleague, Jessica Yakeley, M.D., and I have recently published a science study on lone terrorists[2] which focuses upon their relationships and their evolving psychology. It is one of several empirical papers that have appeared over the past year on ideologically driven lone offenders which enhance our understanding. In this brief perspective, I want to focus on the construction of motivation in these individuals.

Personal grievance: similar to all acts of targeted violence, the pathway typically begins with a personal grievance: an event or series of events that involve loss and often humiliation of the subject, his or her continual rumination about the loss, and the blaming of others. Most people with grievances eventually grieve their loss, but for those unwilling or unable to do so, often the most narcissistically sensitive individuals, it is much easier to convert their shame into rage toward the object which they believe is the cause of all their suffering. Such intense grievances require that individuals take no personal responsibility for their failures in life. As my colleague retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole has noted, they are “injustice collectors.”

Moral outrage: the lone terrorist, however, begins to distinguish himself from others on a pathway to workplace violence because he embeds his personal grievance in an historical, religious, or political cause or event. The suffering of others, which may be misperceived or actual, provides emotional fuel for his personal grievance. He closely identifies with the “victimized” group, whether they be aborted fetuses, an endangered animal species, rain forests, gun owners, Muslims, those who fear the U.S. government, or those whose prejudice is equal opportunity, and labels all those who are different as the oppressors, often on the basis of skin color or belief. He then knows whom to hate. What is ironic is that the lone terrorist often has never actually suffered oppression or victimization as a member of the group with whom he identifies. This is a vicarious identification. Malik Hasan, the 2009 Ft. Hood mass murderer, is a striking example. He closely identified with the Taliban and attempted to mount a legal “defense of others” at his trial, believing that he was, like them, oppressed by the U.S. which was at war with Islam in his mind. However, Hasan had never been personally attacked by the U.S., had no military comrades who were Taliban; and, in fact, had substantially benefited from his commission in the U.S. Army, completing medical school, his residency, and his fellowship at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, and attaining the rank of Major.

Framed by an ideology: the motivation is completed when the personal grievance and moral outrage is framed by an ideology. Current analysis indicates that lone terrorist ideologies will include right wing extremism (there are currently 1018 active hate groups in the U.S., including the National Alliance and Christian Identity), Islam (ISIS or Al Qaeda, both derivatives of ultraconservative Wahhabism, a sect of Sunni Islam), anti-abortion beliefs, and nationalism/separatism (Sovereign Citizens in U.S., Freeman on the Land in Canada). Upon closer examination, these conscious belief systems are quite superficial; subjects will cherry pick phrases from the relevant authoritative text to justify their desire to kill others, and perhaps themselves. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, he wore a T-shirt with a Thomas Jefferson quote, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This framing is absolutist and simplistic, providing a clarity that both rationalizes behavior and masks other, more personal grievances. These lone terrorists become “violent true believers,” intent on killing others to advance their cause, and their pathway toward an act of targeted violence has begun—sometimes ending in the workplace.

Copyright 2014 J. Reid Meloy

[1] S White, JR Meloy (2010). Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk Structured Professional Guide. San Diego, CA: Specialized Training Services.

[2] JR Meloy, J Yakeley (2014). The violent true believer as a “lone wolf”—psychoanalytic perspectives on terrorism. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, DOI: 10.1002/bsl.2109

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