‘Active supporters’ and lone wolvesIn 2015, Peyton Pruitt – a youngster diagnosed with Autism, mild intellectual disability and Attention Deficit Disorder – was arrested in Alabama for sending bomb making instructions to a person he believed was part of IS. This case may be about a naive and vulnerable person, who spent an exceptional amount of time scouring the internet without supervision. But in doing so he became fascinated or fixated with terrorism. Subsequently he found some affiliation with others whom he could relate to, via the safety of the internet. As a result, he was then exploited and/or became sympathetic to and inspired by IS. Another case we discussed was that of Nicky Reilly, an 18-year-old man, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Reilly did not have many friends and lived in a poor area of Plymouth, England. Reilly clearly had difficulties relating to other people and had a fixation with terrorism and martyrdom. He sought and found affiliation (and also what he believed was the right life). He became a practising Muslim in 2002. After his girlfriend left him, he befriended a group of Muslim men. Reilly became obsessed with martyrdom and with the Twin Tower attacks. He had posters of the attacks on his wall and as wallpaper on his computer. He would watch videos of the 9/11 attacks and watch video clips of beheadings. Reilly believed that he would be entitled to a better life if he died a Muslim. Eventually, he changed his name to Mohammed Rasheed. Reilly also turned on his family calling them “infidels”. He devised a plan to make three crude bombs, and strap them to his chest as a suicide bomber, then run out in a crowded restaurant killing as many people as possible. Reilly went into the bathroom of a restaurant with bottles containing sodium hydroxide, paraffin and nails. But when he activated the bomb, he had difficulty opening the bathroom stall door and it exploded. He was seriously injured. Tragically, Reilly took his own life while in prison some eight years later in 2016.
Risk factorsIt is important to caution here that there is no substantial link between ASD and terrorism. However, there may be specific risk factors which could increase the risk of offending among people with ASD. Autistic special interests such as fantasy, obsessiveness (extreme compulsiveness), the need for routine/predictability and social/communication difficulties can all increase the vulnerability of an person with ASD to going down the pathway to terrorism. Searching for a “need to matter” or social connection and support for someone who is alienated or without friends may also present as risk factors. People with an ASD may be more vulnerable to being drawn into increasingly more involved commitment. They also have a tendency to hyper-focus in on their fascinations and interests at the expense of other attachments and life interests. These are potentially the conditions which extremists are increasingly exploiting in people they target for recruitment and training. Our findings clearly highlight the need for clinicians carrying out forensic evaluations of people who have engaged in terror-related actions to investigate whether ASD may be related to their behaviour. Such evaluations are vital – not just in delivering justice – but also to ensure rehabilitation and offender management are informed by an understanding of the ASD diagnosis in each case.
Clare Allely receives funding from the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre. She is affiliated with the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre at Gothenburg University, Sweden. Clare is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences affiliated to the institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow.