The Challenge Of Identifying Mass Murderers

    Image portraying mass murdererPreventing mass murder, whether politically motivated or not, is a challenge for security intelligence and law enforcement organisations. The tragedy in Norway brings home to us once again the danger presented by that very small percentage of the population who convince themselves that the only way to achieve change or gain revenge is through the killing of lots of innocent people.

    Anders Behring Breivik 32, the man arrested in relation to the Norway attacks, appears to be a combination of Timothy McVeigh and Martin Bryant in his behaviour.

    McVeigh was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people. Bryant was responsible for the Port Arthur shooting massacre in 1996 that resulted in the death of 35 people. McVeigh was executed in 2001, while Bryant is serving 35 life terms.

    The challenge for society is in identifying potential mass murderers before they can undertake the act. In Australia we have been reasonably successful in doing that with Islamist extremists, but we are much less capable of detecting other potential mass murderers.

    There seem to be few childhood parallels between Breivik, McVeigh and Bryant, other than unstable family backgrounds.

    McVeigh’s parents divorced when he was 10. He was the target of bullying at school and took refuge in a fantasy world where he retaliated against the bullies. He later saw the US government as the ultimate bully after the Waco killings. He was an outgoing child who became withdrawn during his adolescence.

    At high school McVeigh became a skilled hacker and at one point was named “most promising computer programmer”, but got poor grades overall. He was introduced to firearms by his grandfather and at one stage wanted to become a gunshop owner. He served in the US military during the 1991 Gulf War and later developed links with right wing extremists.

    Bryant was a destructive child, described by teachers as distant from reality and unemotional. He suffered severe bullying at school. In 1977,  psychological assessments mention his torturing of animals and teasing of younger children. Bryant had an IQ of 66 which placed him in the bottom 1.17 percent of the Australian population. He had no friends, even in his 20s after he received an inheritance from an eccentric sponsor and his father’s superannuation. (Bryant was probably responsible for the deaths of both his sponsor and his father, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.)

    Breivik’s parents divorced when he was one year old. He was said to be an intelligent student. At age 15 he had a falling out with his father and cut off contact. Ideologically, Breivik has been characterized as a right-wing extremist and Christian fundamentalist. He was highly critical of Muslim immigration into Christian societies, pro-Israel and an admirer of the American Tea Party movement. His interests were hunting and conflict-oriented computer games, including World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2.

    Both McVeigh and Breivik seem to have developed their extreme right-wings views in adulthood. McVeigh was nearly 27 at the time of his bombing, and Bryant nearly 30 when he undertook the Port Arthur massacre. As noted earlier, Breivik was 32. In adult life all three developed into cold, calculating loners.

    La Trobe University researcher Dr Ramon Spaaij says that the main ideological drivers for lone terrorists are white supremacy, Islamism, nationalism/separatism, and anti-abortionism. He notes that four of the five lone wolf terrorists in his case studies were diagnosed with either a personality disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. “They were loners with few friends and generally preferred to act alone. Communication with outsiders was largely confined to violent actions and written statements.”

    In Breivik’s 1,517-page manifesto published the day of the attacks – part of which was adapted from the manifesto of the American Unabomber – he writes that Muslims “have transformed my beloved Oslo into a multicultural shithole.” He claimed to be part of a shadowy network of latter-day crusader knights modelled on the Knights Templar military order that fought Muslims during the Crusades. It was set up in London in 2002 with cells across Europe.

    Breivik says he was the youngest of five people at the founding meeting, and attended two follow-up sessions in the Baltic states. Breivik claims the secret society is plotting the takeover of Western Europe by “indigenous Europeans”. “A large successful attack every 5-12 years was optimal depending on available forces.”

    The FBI Behavioral Science Unit has tried to profile mass killers.

    A mass murderer (like, McVeigh, Bryant and Breivik) is someone who kills a large number of people, typically at the same time or over a relatively short period of time.

    By contrast, serial killers have a cooling-off period between killings.

    Mass murderers may fall into a number of categories, including killers of family, co-workers, fellow students, members of an organization, or random strangers. Motives vary – including revenge, trying to promote a political reaction, and a need for attention or fame.

    Some characteristics of serial killers include: 90 percent male, intelligent, do poorly at school and work, come from unstable families, abandoned by fathers and brought up by domineering mothers, hate their parents, were abused as children, have been institutionalized and have psychological problems, have attempted suicide, are interested in unusual and sadomasochistic porn, wet their beds past the age of 12, light fires and torture small animals.

    Few of these seem to apply to mass murderers like Breivik.

    Two of the common ingredients for mass murderers are being prepared to die during the attack, and being angry or paranoid enough to blame others for their situation. Breivik did not intend to die and surrendered to authorities because he plans to use the trial as a platform to blame the ruling Labour Party for the immigration situation in Norway.

    Unfortunately, the warning signs for mass murderers are not very specific and could apply to many people in the general population who will never be violent towards anyone. Security intelligence and medical practitioners will, therefore, find it difficult to identify potential mass murderers.

    The planned act of mass murder is, however, usually preceded by a careful and sometimes protracted preparatory phase. In Breivik’s case this lasted nine years, with finalization over the past two years. This period could provide security intelligence with some indicators – such as entries on social networking, chat or hate sites, research and reconnaissance activities, and acquisition of the means to undertake the killing. Breivik was active on the internet, including posting a YouTube clip, because he was keen to get his “nationalist” message out.

    One effect of Breivik’s actions has been to focus attention on the rise of right-wing extremism and Islamophobia in Western Europe. There are several contributing factors.  These include the common ethnic European perception of a threat from Muslim immigration and Islamist extremists, competition for jobs, the relatively high birth rate of Muslim families, growing ethnic nationalism, and the time-gap since right wing Nazi extremism was a problem in Europe.

    Indeed, right wing views are increasingly becoming political mainstream in Europe – and even moderate politicians have been moving to the right and away from multiculturalism. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain all recently declared an end to multiculturalism.

    In France, the far-right National Front, now led by Marine Le Pen, has surged in opinion polls, with surveys predicting she might make it to next year’s presidential runoff. Marine Le Pen has compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques to the Nazi occupation.

    Director of the Norwegian Center against Racism, Kari Helene Partapuoli notes “The Norwegian right-wing groups have always been disorganized, haven’t had charismatic leaders or the kind of well-organized groups with financial support that you see in Sweden … But in the last two or three years our organization and other antifascist networks have warned of an increased temperature of debate and that violent groups had been established.”

    Norway does not exist in a vacuum. Its right-wing scene is connected to the rest of Europe through internet forums where hate speech proliferates, and participation in right-wing demonstrations grows throughout Europe.

    Environmental factors that can assist mass murderers to be successful are complaisant national attitudes towards security, poor preventive security practices, ready access to firearms and explosives, military training, opportunities to practice with firearms and explosives, isolation of the victims, and a slow law enforcement response.

    Breivik had access to arms and homemade explosives and knew how to use them. He probably chose Utøya Island because of its isolation and the connection of the young people there to the ruling Labour Party that he blamed for Norway’s immigration policies. Had the Norwegian Police not been distracted by the Oslo bombing, and had they responded more quickly to the island, the death toll there could have been much lower. Depending on whether you believe the police or the media, Breivik had between 60 and 90 minutes to massacre his chosen victims.

    In Australia, one of the positive legacies of John Howard was the gun buyback scheme, and positive post 9/11 developments have been tighter control of ammonium nitrate – a basic ingredient for homemade explosives – and regular exercising of a quick law enforcement response to multiple terrorist incidents.

    The Norway attacks are a reminder for us of the continuing need to monitor individuals with extreme right-wing views as security Persons of Interest. They should obviously not be allowed to join gun clubs, own guns, or be able to buy quantities of explosive precursors. Another lesson is the need for a quick law enforcement response to shooter incidents that might occur in isolated locations – and might be timed to coincide with other police commitments.

    Clive Williams
    Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law and an adjunct professor at ADFA