ISIS Jihadists, Mass Shooters: What’s Happening to the World?

Every day, there’s a fresh atrocity, from jihadists attacking a church in France to gun rampages in the U.S.—and there are patterns to the madness.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

PARIS — On Tuesday, two men burst into a church in bucolic Normandy during morning mass. They took five people hostage, slit the throat of the aged priest, and stabbed nearly to death one of the parishioners before, finally, the police killed the attackers.

French President François Hollande went to the scene of the crime in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, where it was said both terrorists had cried out “Allah Akbar,” God is great, while they did their sordid work in the old Romanesque church. This was “the cowardly murder of the parish priest by two terrorists claiming to be with Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, or the Islamic State.

And once again we learn that the police had been aware at least one of the killers had wanted to travel to Syria and join ISIS. He had tried twice, been jailed, and then was released with an electronic ankle bracelet. And once again they’d somehow missed the warning signs that this killing was coming.

Every morning, it seems, we wake to new madness. Somewhere in the world, and sometimes close to home, someone has been slaughtered in what looks like an epidemic of terror.

Often, it is related to Islamic extremism, but in many cases it is not. A man in Japan stabbed to death 19 residents of a nursing home because, he said, the world should be rid of invalids. Before that, there was a new nightclub shooting in Florida, a suicide bomber in Bavaria, a random slaughter at a McDonald’s in Munich, and a man rampaging with an axe in a German train. In Louisiana, meanwhile, a killer gunned down cops in the street. And add to that the massive carnage wrought by suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq—all of it in just the last 10 days.

It hasn’t even been two weeks since the bloodbath on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where a two-bit bisexual Muslim hustler at the wheel of a refrigerator truck murdered 84 men, women and children, and injured hundreds more. And that came after the ferocious slaughter that raged around the globe throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s a contagion of mass murder in the world today, and you’d be at least partially right. But until recently the blur of bloodshed has made it hard to understand the symptoms, much less find a way to treat the disease.

Now, sociologists and psychologists seeking to demystify mass murder by individual killers—and develop the tools to stop it—are beginning to see some common threads.

Importantly, investigations into school shootings in the United States and Germany that had nothing to do with Muslim extremism have helped to identify patterns of behavior now being encouraged and exploited by the so-called Islamic State in its war on the West.

To be sure, the research is of little use for those in open combat against jihadist troops in Syria and Iraq, and of only limited value when we look at the operations of organized terrorist commandos like those who carried out the attacks on Paris in November and Brussels in March.

But some of the insights into the thinking, behavior and actions of killers who operate alone—the things to watch for before they act—are so useful they’ve recently been published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. And it is these “stray dogs,” as Rand Corporation terror expert Brian Jenkins calls them, who have sown so much fear in recent weeks.

One of the first things that’s apparent from the new research is that violence inspires violence, whether conscious copy-cat killing or subconscious emulation.

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In the United States, there’s a lot to look at in this respect; mass murder takes place with almost metronomic regularity. A ground-breaking statistical analysis, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings,” published a year ago by Sherry Towers and her colleagues at Arizona State University, looked at data from 1998 to 2013 and noted that “mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the U.S., while school shootings occur on average monthly.”

The study concluded that after each highly publicized event, the probability of new attacks rose dramatically for a period of roughly two weeks—and that was well before the surge in violence we’ve been watching since at least the beginning of 2015.

With so much murder and mayhem going on right now, Towers told me over the phone, “This is a new world we’re in,” and for the moment the best tool available to begin to meet the threat is “widespread increased vigilance.”

But if we’re going to be vigilant, whether we’re talking about our intelligence services, or police, or perhaps most importantly, people in the community, we have to know what we are looking for.

Mitchell Silber, formerly the director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department as it developed into a major counter-terror force, notes that ISIS has “crowdsourced jihad,” by calling repeatedly for sympathizers to kill infidels wherever they can find them.

The priest killers in Normandy on Tuesday, the axe-wielding young Afghan immigrant on the train, the backpack bomber in Germany, the truck-driving murderer in Nice and the monster at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last month—all were claimed by the ISIS news agency Amaq after the fact as “soldiers” who answered the call of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

But from what we are learning about them, and about killers like them, their identification with the ISIS “cause” probably came late in many cases, and was just one element in the developing pattern that might have been detected earlier.

J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist based in San Diego, along with colleagues in Germany and Switzerland, published a paper in The Journal of Threat Assessment and Management in 2014 that looked, narrowly, at the cases of nine people who carried out attacks on schools in Germany and 31 people who were thought to be at risk of becoming shooters there.

From that research, and further investigation reported in four more scholarly papers Meloy and his colleagues developed what they call, cautiously, an “investigative template” for “warning behaviors.” The most refined version of this research so far is the one published by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

For anyone who has been following closely the profiles of people involved in recent attacks claimed by ISIS, the patterns revealed will have a certain disturbing familiarity, even though many of the specific examples cited by Meloy are historical, and not inspired by or related in any way to the Islamic State:

Pathway — The would-be mass murderer carries out research, planning, and/or preparation for a terrorist attack. This is what we saw with Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice truck driver, who we now know was taking pictures of the promenade in Nice, reconnoitering it, many months in advance.

Fixation — An “increasingly pathological preoccupation with a person or cause,” while at the same time “there is an accompanying deterioration in relationships or occupational performance.” The example cited by Meloy is Malik Hasan, the infamous Fort Hood shooter in 2009, who became fixated on the idea the United States was at war with Islam.

One of those who murdered the priest near Rouen on Tuesday was fixated on his need to join the jihad in Syria. ISIS often portrays this as a fight against "Crusaders," which could mean any Christian. The killer's family originally notified the police last year, leading eventually to his brief detention. Since the murder, his acquaintances have said his obsession was obvious and they were not surprised at the result.

Identification — The potential shooter wants to see himself (or, rarely, herself) as a “pseudocommando” with a “warrior mentality.” “This includes closely associating with weapons or other military or law enforcement paraphernalia, identifying with previous attackers or assassins, or proclaiming themselves as agents to advance a particular cause or belief system.

The example cited here is Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 of his fellow Norwegians in 2011, and likes to think he is a contemporary reincarnation of the Knights Templar. He actually does see himself as a "Crusader," and was fond of dressing up in home-made uniforms. He also identified with American terrorists Timothy McVeigh, the monster who blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, whose writings he plagiarized in his own “manifesto.”

“Breivik considered himself a soldier fighting to free his people from multiculturalism and the Islamic immigration into Europe,” writes Meloy.

Breivik was a hero of Ali Sonboly, the 18-year-old half-Iranian kid who shot nine people in Munich last Friday, but not because of his politics. Sonboly, it appears, was just an admirer of mass murderers, including those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.

Leakage — When planning their attacks, many of the killers feel compelled to tell somebody what they’re doing.

Meloy doesn’t cite it, but the classic case was the plot by two Palestinians to carry out a double suicide bombing on the B Train into Manhattan in 1997, as chronicled by Samuel Katz in his book Jihad in Brooklyn. They had everything in order, but couldn’t resist telling their Egyptian flat-mate what they were about to do. He had known nothing about it, and warned police who stopped the operation in the nick of time.

Last Resort —The would-be killers become increasingly convinced that time is running out for them, that they have no choice but to act, and “no alternative other than violence.”

The example Meloy cites here is Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who committed mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. In his own manifesto, he wrote, “I have no choice. I am not in the position to go into the ghetto and fight. … We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

Two other warning behaviors noted in the original study of school shootings, and carried through to the current list on the FBI site, are “novel aggression,” meaning violent acts in which the would-be killers test themselves, and “energy burst, which is frenetic activity that’s not necessarily related to the impending killing spree. But these are not nearly as prevalent in the subjects studied by Meloy and his colleagues.

Such research is, of course, still in the early stages, and nobody is optimistic that it will have immediate effects. Even when they are perceived, to some extent, what does one do? There were no shortage of warning signs in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. The state acted on them — and still failed to stop a murder.

The risk, says anthropologist Scott Atran, who has been studying jihadists in the field for years, is that the contagion of violence and terror will continue to spread in a world where respect for laws and for social order is on the decline.

Atran notes that many times in the past various leftist terrorist groups prompted brief plagues of terror. “But that epidemic didn’t achieve major geopolitical importance,” Atran said. “This has.”

One of the biggest concerns has to be that savage violence is adopted by other groups, says Atran, leading to “a quasi anarchy like we haven’t seen before" at least not in our lifetimes.

Provocation certainly is the game. Before the young killers in Normandy slit the throat of 86-year-old Father Jacques Hermel, they reportedly forced him to kneel. And then they filmed the murder, hoping all their admirers would be able to see.