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Sometimes radicalisation and psychological problems go hand in hand

Jelle van Buuren, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, discusses the link between radicalisation and psychological problems in an interview with Dutch online scientific news platform NEMO Kennislink.

It can be quite tricky labelling solitary individuals who, each with different motives, committed attacks as a 'true' terrorist or rather as a psychiatric patient. 'We should be very careful not to label people too quickly, either as a disturbed person, as a terrorist or as an ordinary violent offender. You could easily overlook certain elements.' Extremist ideas and movements can provide a lifeline for people who are unhappy with themselves and the world around them. This is especially the case when these ideas are being portrayed in such a way that they provide you with a strong identity or an enhanced status.

But does this mean that the solution for preventing violence by solitary individuals can be found in better psychiatric care? 'It can be a starting point but it's definitely not the ultimate solution. Not every psychosis leads to violence, the same holds true for many other psychiatric issues. Better psychiatric care will not provide us with a miracle cure to prevent terrorist attacks.' Investing in a good mental health system can, however, lead to a decrease in violence. Although there are other factors at play then healthcare alone, for instance, the recent budget cuts to the Dutch mental health care and the youth care system can be considered a risk factor.


These days, the internet's wide reach can also provide plenty of triggers for violent tendencies. 'Before the rise of the internet, you were only able to join an extreme organisation if you had visited them first or at least had met some of its representatives in person. In the online world the threshold is much lower. With only a few mouse clicks you can start to feel you are part of a certain organisation or movement. And that feeling of being part of a larger whole is often an important drive for terrorists, including those who appear to be operating all on their own.'

This is also one of the reasons why Van Buuren prefers not to use the term 'lone wolves' when referring to solitary individuals committing attacks. Because of the internet, everybody takes part in society in one way or the other, nobody exists in a complete social vacuum.  If you want to effectively fight terrorism and want to be able to anticipate future forms of terrorism, you need to understand society and the way it operates.

You can read the full interview (in Dutch) on the Nemo Kennislink website.

Jelle van Buuren is an Assistant Professor at Leiden University - Institute of Security and Global Affairs. His research interests lie in, among other things, European police cooperation, intelligence cooperation and border management. He is currently researching what role conspiracy thinking is playing in processes of delegitimisation.

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