Updated: Jun 12

The recently convicted terrorist Khairi Saadallah referred to his triple murder by knife in a Reading park as the „jihad that I done“. Saadallah was a denied asylum seeker, with a history of crime, debt, homelessness and mental problems; his unstable behaviour and anti-social personality disorder were however not sufficient to substantiate a mental illness defence. Already back in the 80s, when terrorism studies were still in their infancy, clinical research on scores of left-wing terrorists in Germany decisively dismissed the “craziness” argument. In fact, eminent scholar Martha Crenshaw wrote in her 1981 piece “The Causes of Terrorism” with reference to psychopathology that “the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality”. Later research on Islamist terrorists reached similar conclusions. Initial arguments placing lack of integration or low socio-economic status at the core of violent jihadi radicalization processes in Europe eventually gave way to evidence displaying a high variety of socio-economic and demographic profiles. In some cases, it was high levels of education and income that distinguished terrorists, exemplary shown for example in the Glasgow airport attack of 2007 perpetrated by a doctor and an engineer; or in the book „Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education“.

This pattern of somewhat ordinary existences turning to terrorism seems to have fundamentally changed in Europe. Daesh brought the crime-terror nexus to the fore as illustrated by the infamous message „Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures“. But this is not the whole story. An additional feature that seems dominant especially in non-Daesh attacks of recent years is mental illness. Overall, terrorists who have carried out attacks in Europe in recent years were often criminal, mentally disturbed, un- or underemployed, without perspectives, at times failed asylum seekers or former combatants, acting alone. While some claimed dedication to the cause, some did not, and their motivation to engage in violence seems to be of a rather personal nature. The 7/7 bombers’ ringleader of the attack in London in 2005 claimed in his video to aim at stopping the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of ‘his people’. In the video of the Vienna killer of 2 November 2020, the political message was completely absent. From an individual perspective, much of jihadi terrorism in Europe is not fighting for a political cause anymore, but it is the loser’s redemption.

Across Europe, roughly half of the individuals convicted for Islamist terrorist activity had previous criminal convictions. In our sample of 51 Daesh attacks in Europe between 2014 and 2021 there are 59% of perpetrators with criminal background, out of which 30% related to terrorism; in 53% of the cases the attackers were known to the authorities; out of the cases where information could be found in open-source data 33% were unemployed and only 11% had a white-collar job. 90% of these attacks involved a lone actor, and in 24% of the attacks there were mental health issues. In the sample of 20 non-Daesh attacks for the same period (one Al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the rest without affiliation), there is again a prevalence of 90% lone actor and 45% criminal background. 55% had mental issues.

The Vienna attacker was on parole after a conviction for attempting to join Daesh. He had a marginal part-time job as security staff. The man who killed four people and injured six in a tram in Utrecht on 18 March 2019 was a drug addict, with a history of violence and debt, and about to be evicted from his home. In January this year, the ‘tram terrorist’ stabbed a guard in a Rotterdam prison in the face and neck. The Strasbourg attacker of 2018, who killed five and wounded 11 with a knife, was described as a hardened criminal, convicted for the first time at the age of 13 and with a total of 27 convictions from petty crime to robbery to drug dealing. Also in 2018, a man killed two female officers and a civilian in Liège while being on a one-day parole; before that he killed a former prison mate with a hammer. He was known for his violent behaviour and had convictions for robbery, assault and drug dealing. In 2017, a man stabbed and killed a person and injured six more in a supermarket in Hamburg. He was a failed asylum seeker with drug and psychological problems and about to be deported.