Implications for Workplace and Campus Violence Prevention

Reid Meloy, Ph.D.
Spring 2010 Newsletter

When U.S. Army Major and psychiatrist Malik Hasan committed a mass murder at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November, 2009, it was the culmination of a pathway to violence that began several years earlier.  It was not impulsive nor reactive.  It was planned and purposeful, and may serve as a harbinger of future acts of workplace violence which are motivated by religious and political extremism.

Now a paraplegic who will begin his criminal trial in the fall, Dr. Hasan self-radicalized.  Although he had e mail contact with a Yemeni imam named Anwar Alwaki who may have sanctioned his extremist desires–and has been officially targeted by the U.S. to be either captured or killed–the personal psychological change that Hasan underwent is most critical to understanding the potential threats that may be posed in the workplace.  In this first in a series of articles, I want to frame some ideas that may be helpful to those tasked with maintaining workplace safety in the face of the self-radicalization threat.

First, the numbers.  Although US intelligence analysts estimate that violent Islamic extremists probably number in the thousands throughout the world, a recent international Gallup poll in the majority of Muslim countries found that 7% of those interviewed would be considered radicals:  they believed that the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. were fully justified, and also endorsed the use of violence to bring about immediate political change.  Although there are over a billion Muslims in the world, and the vast majority condemn both attacks against civilians in any context, as well as violence to deliver political change, this still represents millions of believers, some of whom will be employed by you.  Although the risk of acts such as the Ft. Hood massacre will remain extremely rare, the beliefs that motivated Hasan to act are not.  How do we identify those who are self-radicalizing?

Over the course of the past decade, I have spent time developing the concept of the “violent true believer:” an individual who intends to kill himself and others to advance a particular religious or political belief system.  Although this term could attach to various individuals and movements throughout history—Christians were executing heretics less than 400 years ago in Scotland—it is most applicable to Muslim extremists in our contemporary times.

One pathway toward radicalization that has emerged from my work with different government agencies begins with rejection from a chosen occupation, such as a career or a course of studies, which results in anger and humiliation concerning the loss.  This is followed by a period of social drift in which the individual becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn from others, and increasingly angry and alienated from the predominant economic and political forces around him.  Most interestingly, young Muslim males who take this path often tend to disavow any affectional or sexual relations with young women, and the first to complain about the change in the young man are these young women.  He is converting to an extremist and politically charged version of Islam that promotes a rigid and absolutist belief, derogates critical thought, and blames others for all his troubles.  He becomes more intolerant of difference, and hatred of others is more palpable.  Paranoia begins to emerge, and hints of an entitlement to kill others who do not believe become evident.  In several of our cases, his friends, acquaintances, and fellow employees described him as increasingly intense, humorless, angry, ideologically rigid, dogmatic, and strident before the mass murder.  A very recent case that may partially fit this profile is Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square Bomber, who failed in his attempt to kill civilians on May 1, 2010; he appears to have self-radicalized—with help from extremists in Pakistan—following both economic and marital failures.

In another line of research, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Laura Grossman studied 117 “homegrown” jihadist terrorists in the US and UK.  Their sample either participated in or provided illegal support for jihadist terrorist plots.  These subjects spent a significant portion of their formative years in the West, or their radicalization was closely tied to connections in the West.  They found six manifestations of radicalization:

  1. He adopts a legalistic interpretation of Islam.  This is a rules-based approach to the Koran in which the holy book provides strict guidelines for virtually every aspect of one’s life.  This is necessary but insufficient for radicalization, and by itself, may only represent a very conservative Islamic tradition.
  1. He begins to trust only select religious authorities.  He puts his complete faith in a certain select and ideologically rigid set of religious authorities.  All other moderate and scholarly interpretations of the Koran are considered inauthentic or watered down.
  1. He perceives a schism between Islam and the West.  He comes to believe that there is an irreparable separation between Islamic and Western beliefs, and they are fundamentally incompatible.  The concept of loyalty is critical, and even participation in Western democracy may be suspect.  He is likely to socially withdraw from former friends, acquaintances, or employees who do not share his beliefs.
  1. He has a low tolerance for perceived theological deviance.  All religious disagreements becoming immediately personal, and are met with a large amount of anger, if not fury.  There is absolutely no willingness to listen to another’s religious view.
  1. He attempts to impose his religious beliefs on others.  He will typically try to convert family members and friends first, but this will not be limited to the home, and will likely spill over into the workplace.
  1. He becomes politically radicalized.  He comes to believe that Western powers are conspiring against Islamic believers and want to subjugate them both physically and morally.  Muslims worldwide have lost their faith, and do not have the strength they possessed during the reign of Muhammed.  The only proper response is violence.

Through these various approaches, we begin to see the internal world of the self-radicalizing individual.  Next we will look more carefully at the warning behaviors that may indicate a self-radicalized individual is on an intended and targeted path toward violence.