Allahu Akbar!

A Psychological Abstract for Mass Murder?

J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.
Special Edition 2015

With the recent Paris attacks, terrorism is once again in the forefront. Continuing from a previous feature, Reid Meloy discusses the meaning of language used by terrorists as well as the epithets uttered by mass murderers in other contexts. 

During the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 7, 2015, shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” could be heard in the midst of AK gunfire. The Takbir is the term for this Arabic phrase, usually translated as “God is great” or “God is the greatest.” Although the phrase is commonly used among Muslims in calls to prayer, informal expressions of faith, celebration, victory, determination, defiance, and distress, it is most familiar to Westerners as a phrase which precedes violent jihad. Malik Hasan shouted it prior to his massacre at Ft. Hood in November, 2009. Mohammed Atta, the cell commander for 9/11, urged his comrades to shout the phrase since it would strike fear in the hearts of nonbelievers. And Faisal Shahzad, the failed New York City Times Square bomber, spoke these words as he was sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge in 2010. Its narrow association with the intentional killing of nonbelievers is a gross distortion, but words shouted before a mass murder do have a history which we have studied over the past 20 years.

In 1999, my colleagues Anthony Hempel, Thomas Richards, and I coined the term “psychological abstract” which we defined as “a sentence or words utterly immediately prior to or during a mass murder” (p. 217) [1]. We theorized that the phrase gave insight into the perpetrator’s intent and motivation, at least his conscious one. Thirty per cent of our cases presented with a psychological abstract, and it was usually said with a loud voice and great emotion. Here are some examples among our first sample of 30 US adult mass murderers gathered during the last two decades of the previous century:

“This is for the feminists!”

“Happy new year pigs!”

“The people here have ruined my life!”

Two years later, we published a study of 34 US adolescent mass murderers, and found a psychological abstract in 37% of the cases. [2] Here are some examples:

“I’ve had a bad day.”

“This ends now.”

“Jocks get up.”

Both samples of psychological abstracts suggested themes of anger and control. In a third comparative study of both samples, we wrote, “ubiquitous throughout our data for both the adolescents and the adults…is a right to kill others, a sense of entitlement that may have been exacerbated by the porcupine quills of paranoia or the suffocating blanket of depression. Such feelings and attitudes, however, still need to be hardened by a shell of callousness to be acted upon” (p. 304). [3]

“Allahu Akbar” does appear to convey both conscious intent and motivation-the choice to do something and the reason why. It is different from other abstracts shouted by mass murderers, however, in its religious connotation. As I have written here previously, motivation for lone terrorists usually has three components: a personal grievance, a vicarious identification, and an ideological framework. In these cases, the ideology is a politicized and authoritarian form of conservative Islam, and the most disturbing aspect is that it gives religious sanction, if not moral obligation, for violence against unbelievers. Acting as an agent or soldier of God to advance His Will brings a resolve and commitment that is steeped in righteousness, often masking a self-righteousness that views others with contempt, if not disgust; deterrence involves threat assessment through intelligence gathering, but if the pathway is undetected, interdiction may only be an efficient and lethal tactical response to the attack. A French social worker commented that Cherif Kaouchi-the younger of the two brothers who attacked the magazine headquarters in Paris–told him “he had been tricked and sucked into something he himself did not control or understand” [4] following his detention as he was about to leave for Iraq as a foreign fighter in 2005. He was charged with criminal association in relation to a terrorist enterprise, and expressed relief at the time he was stopped. He was convicted, but subsequently released back to French society. His behaviors, associations, and the reasons for his return to violent jihad are unknown at this time, but typically the motivations and reasons for acts of terrorism are numerous, and not limited to just a conscious rationale shouted before the killing begins.

“Allahu Akbar” is a psychological abstract. When used by terrorists it is also a totalitarian perversion of a deeply meaningful and personal expression for most Muslims which does not invite violence. When it was utilized by the brothers Kouachi in Paris, it conveniently fueled their predatory and homicidal aggression against civilians.


Copyright 2015 J. Reid Meloy. All Rights Reserved.




[1] A Hempel, JR Meloy, T Richards (1999). Offender and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample of mass murderers. J Am Academy Psychiatry and the Law, 27:213-225.

[2] JR Meloy, A Hempel, K Mohandie, A Shiva, T Gray (2001). Offender and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample of adolescent mass murderers. J Am Acad Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40:719-728.

[3] JR Meloy, A Hempel, T Gray, K Mohandie, A Shiva, T Richards (2004). A comparative analysis of North American adolescent and adult mass murderers. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 22:291-309.

[4] Retrieved at on January 8, 2015