We do not yet have a complete understanding of the social histories for either Tashfeen Malik or her husband, Syed Farook, the two identified shooters involved in the San Bernardino, Calif., attack. But news reports that have trickled in indicate there should be no question as to whether or not these were two radicalized individuals who had dreamed of carrying out an act of violent jihad. In fact, reports suggest that these two fantasized about fighting on the side of radical Islam several years before the events in San Bernardino unfolded.

Though she was born in Pakistan, Tashfeen Malik reportedly spent her formative childhood and adolescent years living in Saudi Arabia with her family, where her father worked as an engineer. By the time she returned to Pakistan and began attending university, she was no longer the “modern” girl that some family members had recalled her being in her youth; instead, she spoke Arabic as opposed to Urdu, and she kept her face covered with a veil even though she was attending a progressive university where few women wore veils at all.

She also began attending a local madrassa that was notorious for preaching an ultraconservative version of Islam and for reported links to violent Islamic extremists. We do not know exactly when the initial seeds of radicalization were planted in her life, but we do know that by the time she was carrying out an attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead, she was pledging her allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Facebook.

Similarly, we do not yet know the complete details of Syed Farook’s path to radicalization, but apparently he had taken an interest in radical Islam several years before the attack in San Bernardino. In 2007, Farook reportedly introduced his close friend and neighbor, Enrique Marquez Jr. , who recently had converted to Islam at the urging of Farook, to the radical teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki. The two friends also spent time reading al-Qaeda’s online Internet magazine, Inspire, and watching online videos posted by Somali Islamic terror group al-Shabaab. By 2011, the friends had familiarized themselves with bomb-making recipes found in Inspire magazine and were making plans to carry out attacks. It was Marquez who reportedly bought the rifles used in the San Bernardino attack, and he is facing several charges tied to those alleged actions. Though the pair never followed through on these plans, the violent fantasy remained for Farook.

Who is vulnerable to radicalization?

Let us consider the set of personality characteristics that make some individuals more prone than others to the lure of the radical Internet. In our July 2015 article in Clinical Psychiatry News titled, “Underlying psychology of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism is complex,” we reported upon on our study of the psychology of lone wolf terrorists. After an extensive review of available biographical information of known lone wolf terrorists, we identified several common psychological features that appear to be prevalent among the lone wolf population.

They tend to be isolated loners with fractured family relationships who find a sense of belonging in the virtual community of hatred. The radical sermons emphasize the common suffering of Muslims and magnify resentment of the Western world. Should they lose their lives while striking out against the oppressors, they will rise to a higher place in paradise. Thus, there is a compensatory narcissistic grandiosity, which will lead some to seek to go out in a “blaze of glory.”

The family dynamics of two prominent lone wolf terrorists suggested a generational provenance . The so-called underwear bomber was the son of the former chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria, who was extremely wealthy and not particularly religious. He, on the other hand, was very pious and was teased in school for his religiosity, being nicknamed “the Pope.” He became increasingly incensed about his father’s lack of piousness, and criticized him for eating meat that was not halal (slaughtered according to Islamic requirements). When he broke from his family, refusing to join them at the dinner table, it was sufficiently alarming to the father that he reported it to U.S. authorities. Similar dynamics were present for the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad. On the surface, he reportedly appeared to be doing well in American society; he had a bachelor of arts degree in computer applications and information systems, and a master’s degree in business administration, and was working as an analyst at the Affinion Group. However, as he became increasingly religious, he forced his wife to wear a hijab (head scarf) and became estranged from his father, a senior Pakistani military officer who drank and was not religious.

These characteristics are certainly sounding more and more applicable to Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook. We have identified four prominent clusters of motivations that appear to embody the series of personality traits common to lone wolf terrorists. These identified clusters, often overlapping, include the Glory Seekers, the Hero Worshipers, the Lonely Romantics, and the Radical Altruists. An act of terrorism puts their names in the headlines and makes them the heroes to the world of radical Islam.

These individuals have an inflated sense of self-worth and believe their actions will set things right in the world. They subordinate their individuality to what they believe to be the group cause. Many of these individuals have unfounded anger, perceiving slights they themselves have never personally or physically experienced. It is exactly because of this element of perceived oppression that the extent of actual marginalization in the community becomes irrelevant. All the love and open arms in the world will not stop them from hiding behind the perceived misfortune or victimization of the Muslim community, because they themselves are seeking to convince others that they are suffering more than most and therefore they personally can feel entitled to shame others’ actions and feelings. This mindset obviously has dangerous consequences, as radical Islam becomes a vehicle used to give a voice to their own narcissistic rage.

Identifying those at risk is difficult

As more details continue to be revealed in the aftermath of San Bernardino, we suspect a clearer picture will emerge showing the extent to which these two identified shooters were influenced, at least in part, by radical Islamic propaganda on the Internet that expresses the oppression of the Muslim community. There is a continuous theme in ISIS propaganda calling on individuals to take action for the community. There is no evidence thus far that there was communication with ISIS operatives. Whether they had direct or indirect contact with ISIS operatives, this radical propaganda feeds the narcissistic rage and the conscious or unconscious wish for narcissistic fulfillment.

Terrorists operating under the ISIS banner have proved even more adept at disseminating extremist propaganda online and via social media than previous groups before them. In the past, lone wolf terrorists, while frequently proving rather inept in their terrorist skill sets, often sought to carry out an act that would eclipse Sept. 11, 2001, dreaming of the day when their names would appear in news headlines around the world. Given the additional rounds of ammunition and bomb devices found in Farook and Malik’s townhouse, we can assume they had planned to carry out a series of attacks. Because of the effectiveness of the ISIS propaganda machine, perhaps the couple realized that such a profound act is no longer necessary. One or two lone wolves simply need to open fire on a soft target, such as in San Bernardino, to become rock stars in the world of radical jihad.

This focus on soft targets, with the inherent reward of being celebrated as the next Rambo of the radical jihadist movement, represents an effective escalation in lone wolf tactics and a fulfillment of a goal long pushed for in the world of radical online propaganda. What better way to receive validation as an Islamic warrior than by becoming the cause célèbre in the world of radical Islam? To identify individuals so inspired, who are moving to actualize these fantasies, will be extremely difficult.

Dr. Post is the founding director of the political psychology program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington. He is the author of “The Mind of the Terrorist” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Mr. McGinnis, a former Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operator, is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the university. Dr. Moody, a graduate of the program, is a forensic psychologist in the federal prison service.


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