He is the classic “lone wolf,” radicalized in front of the glowing computer screen in the darkened room of his own home, brooding over what he reads on the internet, but going back there again and again to feed his frustrations, his dreams of glory, his anger, and his hatred until finally he feels compelled to act.
He could be the shooter in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub last June, or the man who drove a truck through the crowd on the seaside promenade in Nice, France, last July; those, too, were people with no clear links to any terrorist organization (despite ISIS claims), but they had long histories as losers who couldn’t get their lives together.
Those mass murderers died at the scene of their crimes. This one didn’t have the courage to kill himself, and didn’t emerge from the carnage he inflicted to die in a hail of bullets as he’d expected.
This one was arrested, and confessed, and was interrogated, and given multiple psychological exams. And now the records of those many hours of interviews have been unsealed by a federal court, giving us some of the most detailed information we will ever have about the psychology of a murderous lone wolf—if only we recognize that’s what he is.
The catch is that this terrorist is Dylann Roof, who is not a Muslim. He is the young white supremacist who murdered nine black men and women in a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one evening in June 2015. And because his atrocity does not fit into the category of “radical Islamic terror," it's often assumed his way of thinking must be very different from other lone wolves.
As terrorism authority Peter Bergen points out in his book, United States of Jihad, “By any reasonable standard, the attack on the church in Charleston was terrorism,” but it did not “fit into the political and media narrative that… Muslim militants are the major terrorist problem in the United States.”
As a result, the importance of what can be learned from Roof’s psychological profiles has largely been missed, starting with the fact that while he did not embrace the doctrines of Islam or jihad, he compared himself to those who did, and saw himself very much in the mold of a holy warrior for his own cause.
James C. Ballenger M.D., who conducted multiple interviews with Roof to judge his competency to stand trial and participate in the death penalty hearing that came after it, wrote in January in a just-unsealed evaluation that Roof “stated the best way he has found to explain his thinking is the analogy of being a Jihadist.”
Later in the same interview, Roof “stated clearly that his situation is like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people. He said the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret, because he would have successfully done what he tried to do.”
Typically, people who engage in terrorist causes, particularly the lone wolves or “stray dogs,” as Rand’s veteran authority on terrorism Brian Jenkins calls them, share at least three basic characteristics.
First there’s testosterone. Almost all are young men, and often very frustrated young men on the edge of society with difficulty holding down jobs and problems as well in their sexual relationships, if they have such relationships at all.
Second, there’s a narrative. This is perhaps the most important and most misunderstood element in the shaping of a terrorist’s thinking. It’s often confused with ideology or with religion, but what’s important is identification with a story in which a people are oppressed and the terrorist sees himself as a hero who comes to the rescue, even if the price of his courage and commitment is martyrdom.
It is no accident that the seminal ideological tract for al Qaeda is Ayman Zawahiri’s Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, or that the so-called caliphate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State tries to cloak its atrocities in the language of ancient chivalry. But this identification with narratives of oppression is not unique to Islamist extremists. One could say the same of terrorists over the years carrying out attacks, for instance, in the name of oppressed Irish Catholics, or downtrodden Tamils, or the peasants of Peru.
And third, the terrorist wants his act to have theatrical impact, projecting his cause and his identification with it on the world stage, a task made much easier today by the prevalence of social media.
What the unsealed psychological evaluations of Dylann Roof show is that this formula of testosterone, narrative, and theater—TNT, if you will—fits his case perfectly.
That does not preclude what several of the evaluations commissioned by Roof’s defense attorneys hoped to prove: that he suffered from psychological problems, even pathologies, some of them on the autism spectrum. But it should be obvious that very few terrorists of any stripe have well-balanced psyches. And Roof is particularly interesting because the tests show he is quite intelligent, with an overall IQ of 125, in the 96th percentile, and even higher verbal comprehension.
So virtually from the moment of his arrest he was able to say what he believed and why he believed it, vile as those beliefs might be.
In his chilling first interview with the FBI, for instance, Roof made no effort to hide his crime, discussing in the most matter-of-fact way precisely how he murdered those nine innocent people at Mother Emanuel Church and making it clear he picked them just because they were black and were easy targets.
“Obviously I realized that these people, they’re at church, they’re not criminals or anything,” he told the FBI, “but the criminal black people kill innocent white people every day.”
That sort of reasoning for attacks on soft targets is common to almost all terrorists: once you have defined your enemy broadly, you can slaughter men, women, and children with what you consider to be moral impunity. Thus, al Qaeda issued its declaration of war in the 1990s against all “crusaders [Christians] and Jews” who supposedly were victimizing Muslims; ISIS added “heretical” Shia Muslims to that roster.
Much of what is revealed in Roof’s psychological evaluations and the hearings that touched on them came to light as a result of his efforts to thwart his own defense attorneys. They wanted to reduce the chance of his receiving the death penalty by presenting testimony about his psychological issues, particularly those related to the autism spectrum. But he wanted none of that.
The portrait that emerged from those defense evaluations is of a young man with very high anxiety, especially about his appearance, and no apparent sexual relationships. He dropped out of high school, preferring to earn a GED alone in his room with his computer. He worried that his head was misshapen (hence the bowl haircut to hide his forehead). He supposedly thought that his testosterone was pooling on one side of his body when he slept, causing further physical problems. He convinced himself that a mild thyroid condition, which was real, caused him to be losing all his hair, including eyelashes and pubic hairs, which he found and counted. He said he would kill himself if he went bald.
Reading through the evaluations, however, Roof starts to look more and more manipulative, at one point even writing to the prosecution suggesting that his defense team should be disbarred, and telling one of the psychologists that if he got out, he’d kill the lead defense lawyer.
Judge Richard Gergel, presiding over the case in federal court, at one point expressed concern about the pencils and pens on the desk near the defendant, lest he use one to stab his attorneys.
But Gergel eventually was persuaded that Roof knew perfectly well what he was doing when he murdered the parishioners at Mother Emanuel. Roof had even left a manifesto on his computer, where he had built a crude website, The Last Rhodesian, explaining his motives and how he had come to his conclusions. Written in his shadowed room at home, it laid out the narrative of white victimization he had learned about from hate-filled sites on the web, and was meant to be the platform—the theater—that would spread his name and his ideas around the world.
After his arrest, Roof’s aim at any cost was to preserve his reputation as a man fighting for his cause, and he knew that would be diminished by an autism defense or anything that called into question the image he believed he earned as a hero of white supremacy.
“If people think I have autism,” Roof told Judge Gergel in a closed hearing before the trial began, “it discredits the reason why I did the crime.”
Gergel said he’d read the manifesto and other writings by Roof, “And I take it you… don’t want others to think that you did these things because there was something wrong with you?”
Gergel: “And you are willing to have the case tried before a jury with essentially no defense so people won’t think that?”
Gergel: “And you are prepared to face the death penalty to avoid anyone thinking that?”
Dylann Roof was convicted in Charleston's federal court on December 15 on nine counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 24 counts of violation of civil rights. On January 10, a jury recommended the death penalty. He is currently and for the foreseeable future on death row at a federal penitentiary in Indiana.
Roof may now cherish the belief, as his frustrated defense attorney told the court in order to illustrate his client's bizarre thinking, that “there will be a white nationalist takeover of the United States within roughly six, seven, eight years, and when that happens, he will be pardoned. And he also believes it probable, although not certain, that he will be given a high position, such as the governorship of South Carolina.”
Like many another terrorist, this deluded—if not delusional—loser-turned- lone-wolf is sure that the future belongs to his cause.
Research for this story was contributed by Brandy Zadrozny