Authorities describe many, many obvious jihadis as mentally ill, but if the information in this article is accurate, Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy may really be. Yet the two categories — jihadism and mental illness — are not mutually exclusive. It may be that he turned to Allah and jihad as a way out of his drug addiction, in hopes of tipping Allah’s great scales of judgment in his favor. It seems from the story and photo of him with his mother that he grew up in a devout household, so that was likely his frame of reference.
To Khdiga Metwally, the medical records spread across her kitchen table are more than a chronicle of her son’s history of addiction and mental illness; they are proof he is not a terrorist.
Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, a 20-year-old Canadian, faces a possible life sentence when he appears in a New York courtroom as early as next month for plotting a 2016 bombing at Times Square for the so-called Islamic State.
But his mother insists the case is not what it seems.
“Actually, it’s not a terrorist case, it’s a mental illness problem,” Metwally said in an interview at her home in an Oakville, Ont. suburb.
“We have all the reports that confirm that my son was sick.”
Those reports describe brain damage, bipolar disorder, obsessiveness and drug use beginning at age 14 that led to “huffing” — inhaling air fresheners, bug spray and anything else he could get his hands on.
In many ways, El Bahnasawy’s story is familiar: a youth radicalizes online and decides to kill in the name of ISIS. But medical records from four countries obtained by Global News make it more complicated.
The documents are an unprecedented and intimate look at the psyche of a young man who plotted mass killings in the West under the guidance of ISIS.
And they raise complicated questions.
To what extent does mental health explain the actions of some terrorists? Should terrorists with a history of mental illness be treated differently? Is a person with a mental illness, who engages in terrorism, still a terrorist?
The teen addict
“Abdulrahman has an extensive history of mental health problems and poor function, dating back to childhood,” according to a report by New York psychologist Katherine Porterfield, who reviewed El Bahnasawy’s medical files, met his family and spent 50 hours with him over nine months in 2017.
The medical records date back to the day he was born. In the delivery room in Kuwait City, his mother had a severe uterine rupture. The baby was delivered “swiftly,” according to the hospital report, but the traumatic birth may have deprived the infant of oxygen, possibly causing brain damage.
El Bahnasawy did not speak until he was four, according to Porterfield’s report for the U.S. legal defence team. He was an average student, “described as an anxious, hyperactive, and inattentive child.”
“His most consistent trait was his tendency to fixate or obsess about certain topics or interests,” Porterfield wrote. The solar system, soccer, computers and atheism all monopolized his attention during stages of his childhood. And once he tried marijuana, it became the latest of his all-encompassing obsessions.
He began “incessantly” talking about it. He researched how to grow it and droned on about how much he loved it. He argued with his parents about its benefits. “He essentially showed no interest in any other activities,” the psychologist wrote.
To get him away from what they saw as Canada’s “permissive society,” and hoping he would benefit from being closer to relatives, his parents returned the family to Kuwait. But even in the conservative Gulf state, El Bahnasawy had no trouble finding drugs.
He became addicted to chemical inhalants. When using them, he would hear a man’s voice that he thought came to him over radio waves. “He became one of my only friends and every time I wanted to talk to him I would get high and he was always there,” El Bahnasawy wrote in a letter to the judge hearing his case.
His parents got him into a Kuwait City hospital, where he was diagnosed with substance addiction and depression. To discourage him from relapsing, his father Osama El Bahnasawy videotaped him shaking from withdrawal.
He stayed for 40 days.
But as soon as he got out, he went right back to drugs.
The family returned to Toronto and, after El Bahnasawy disclosed multiple suicide attempts and thoughts of throwing himself off the apartment balcony, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) admitted him.
CAMH records list the substances he had used: heroin, cannabis, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, crack and ecstasy, among others. His files indicate he “did well” at the facility. But when he was discharged, he returned to drugs.
The family next tried a private addiction clinic in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alriyada Hospital thought the underlying problem was bipolar disorder, along with “fits of obsession together with psychotic symptoms,” records show. After seven months, he came out in June 2015, finally off drugs.
El Bahnasawy was 17 when he returned to Toronto and he knew nobody. The medication he was taking seemed to work but it made him gain weight and he stopped taking it. His mother tried slipping it into meals but he found out.
Although he hadn’t previously identified as a Muslim, El Bahnasawy rediscovered the faith after his parents forced him to attend a Mississauga Islamic school, which they felt would not tolerate drug use.
But like everything else, he took it to the extreme. He dropped out of school and did nothing but sit in his room exploring violent jihadist Internet content and chatting online with ISIS supporters.
“Much as he had done with drugs, Abdulrahman put all of his energy and focus into this activity online, even speaking compulsively to his parents and sister about his new beliefs,” Porterfield wrote.
In the fall of 2015, ISIS members in Syria were desperately trying to launch attacks in Western countries. Abu Saad al-Sudani was one of them. U.S. prosecutors called him a “high-level ISIS recruiter and attack planner” active in plotting terrorism in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
Alone in his bedroom in suburban Ontario, El Bahnasawy, began to correspond with al-Sudani. He told al-Sudani he wanted to join ISIS. Al-Sudani said El Bahnasawy would need to prove himself first, so he bought cellphones and collected $500, which he sent to a list of names and addresses al-Sudani had provided.
Having passed his initiation, El-Bahnasawy was encouraged by al-Sudani to help ISIS achieve its ultimate fantasy: an attack on U.S. soil. The target was to be New York City, and the killings were to take place in June or July 2016, to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
A U.S. citizen living in Pakistan named Talha Haroon joined the attack plot and they agreed the operation would involve bombings and mass shootings at a concert venue or the subway, prosecutors alleged. Then a third plotter joined in, a U.S.-based member of the ISIS online network.
The conspirators “repeatedly declared their allegiance to ISIS” and said they wanted their attack to be like those in Paris and Brussels, prosecutors said. El Bahnasawy said he wanted to carry out the next 9/11.
“These Americans need an attack,” he wrote.
To prepare for the big day, El Bahnasawy bought bomb-making materials and components in Ontario, including 40 pounds of hydrogen peroxide, and shipped them to his U.S. contact.
On May 1, 2016, he sent the U.S.-based conspirator images and maps of the New York subway system that showed the routes the attackers would take and the subway lines they would strike, the prosecutors said.
Needing more money to see the operation through, El Bahnasawy consulted al-Sudani, who put him in touch with “The Doctor,” a Philippine citizen named Russell Salic, who allegedly wired $423 on May 11, 2016.
In the final weeks, El Bahnasawy made plans to travel to New York, using his parents as decoys. He told his U.S. contact he would be arriving “under the guise” of a family vacation. “I will be masked behind my parents back,” he wrote.
The day before the road trip, Haroon wrote that Times Square would be the perfect target. “We have to make an ocean out of their blood,” he wrote, “scar them for life knowing the soldiers of Allah are everywhere.”
The attack was to be a suicide mission, which Porterfield thought was telling. In her report, the psychologist said the hopelessness El Bahnasawy felt about beating addiction had led him to contemplate suicide. And the messaging of the extremist community offered him a path to that end.
“It is my clinical opinion that, below the surface of his submission to Islam and embrace of enslavement to the law of Allah there lurked a self-destructiveness,” she wrote.
“Essentially, Abdulrahman was engaged in a fantasy, the ultimate ending of which was his own destruction. As frightening as his ideas were, they can best be understood as psychological in nature — the terribly misguided thinking of a depressed young person who could not beat addiction.”…