Can we spot when terrorism is a delusion?

My long read for the New Statesman on the dangerous blurring between symptoms of radicalisation and those of a delusion (8 August 2017). 

I interviewed Amr, now a successful scientist, who started having delusions as a teenager, around the time he started university in London.

Amr describes his hallucinations as close to reality, rather than dreams. His delusions centred on his mobile phone. “I was hearing messages as clear as you can hear my voice,” he says in the hush of the common room. “It sounds like audio. It sounds as if somebody was in the room, but they’re not physically there and it’s not your voice.” Terror group al-Qaeda was in fact only one of the shadowy recruiters he believed was calling – the others were the CIA, and the Israeli secret service Mossad. The only person he saw in the room was Princess Diana.

Amr is British, but of Syrian-Palestinian heritage and spent much of his youth living in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Ten years on, Amr has not experienced delusions again. He feels lucky that he received treatment in time, and wonders how the media would have reported it if his delusions had driven him to do something newsworthy.

“Let’s go to this alternate world, headline, British Muslim – because that’s what I’m going to be, never mind I stopped believing in God at age 12 – from an Arab background who grew up in the Middle East, politically outspoken and opinionated. Was seen in Hyde Park Corner shouting about Palestine, Israel. Has emails of all sorts of opinions, acted weird for several weeks.” He pauses. “If I ran into a crowded space shouted Allahu Akbar…”

During the research for this story, I was surprised to find out that a stabbing in Leytonstone, London that was initially reported as an attempted terrorist attack turned out to resemble far more closely a delusionary episode. Nevertheless, despite the best attempts of none other than the victim of the attack to clarify matters, Donald Trump and his followers have cited Leytonstone as an example of  a British terror attack.

You can read the full article here (the New Statesman has a metered paywall).

PDF: “I thought al-Qaeda was recruiting me”: can we spot when terrorism is a delusion?