‘Mental Illness,’ ‘Lone Wolf,’ Unclear Motive: New York Times in Denial Over Islamist Terrorist Trend

‘Mental Illness,’ ‘Lone Wolf,’ Unclear Motive: New York Times in Denial Over Islamist Terrorist Trend

Ira Stoll

A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

When is an Islamist terrorist attack not an Islamist terrorist attack?

When the newspaper reporting on it is the New York Times, which seems in denial, contorting itself to find possible alternative explanations.

“Mental Illness Eclipses Ideology as Motive Behind Bow-and-Arrow Killings,” is the headline over a print New York Times article about an attack in Norway. It reports, “The police said initially that they believed Mr. Brathen, 37, may have been motivated by Islamic extremism and that he had committed acts of terrorism. The authorities pointed to the randomness of the targets and Mr. Brathen’s conversion to Islam. But evidence uncovered since seems to undermine that conclusion. Mr. Tlili says that his first impression of Mr. Brathen, at the time a recent convert to Islam, suggested less a man motivated by religious fervor than one with deep personal troubles.”

This is a pattern with the New York Times. Earlier this year, when an adherent of the Nation of Islam launched an attack on police at the US Capitol, the Times reported, “Police have not categorized the incident as an act of domestic terrorism. A senior law enforcement official, who spoke anonymously to describe the active inquiry, said that, based on early evidence, investigators believed that Mr. Green was influenced by a combination of underlying mental health issues …”

Another Times article this week, about the killing of a member of Parliament, is similarly ostrich-like in its outlook. Under the print headline, “”With Man in Custody, Police Seek Motive in British Lawmaker’s Killing,” the Times reported, “The motive for targeting Mr. Amess, who was 69, was not clear.”

The Times article says, “The sudden and very public nature of the attack evoked memories of previous lone-wolf assaults that rattled Britain. Last year, an extremist stabbed pedestrians on a busy London street; and in 2019, a man went on a stabbing spree on London Bridge before being shot and killed by the police.” The Times describes these as lone wolves but that’s not really accurate. The “extremist” was Sudesh Mamoor Faraz Amman, who, an earlier Times article had acknowledged had posted online, “a photo that showed two guns and a knife on top of an Islamic flag, with the caption “Armed and ready April 3’ overlaid in Arabic.” And the 2019 London Bridge attack was perpetratd by Usman Khan, earlier described by the Times as “a 28-year-old Muslim man who had served eight years in prison for his involvement in a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange.” The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly 2017 London Bridge attack.

In the Amess case, the Times reports, “The motive for targeting Mr. Amess, who was 69, was not clear. A soft-spoken, well-liked backbencher in the House of Commons, he was known for his staunch support of Brexit and his advocacy for animal rights. A Catholic and social conservative, Mr. Amess was also a strong supporter of Israel and of an Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen Khalq, or M.E.K., which campaigns for the overthrow of Iran’s government.”

The assailant is identified as “Ali Harbi Ali,” and the Times notes the “BBC reported that several years ago, Mr. Ali had been referred to a government program known as Prevent, which aims to keep people from being drawn to extremist ideas on social media.” The Telegraph has reported that police and security services believe the motivation behind the attack may have been to “further the Islamist cause espoused by groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and al-Shabab, which is active in Somalia.” A Wall Street Journal editorial described it as “the first assassination of a British political figure by an apparent Islamist that we can recall.” (The 1872 slaying of the Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Mayo; the 1937 assassination of the British District Commissioner for the Galilee, Lewis Andrews; the 1984 assassination of a British diplomat in Greece, Kenneth Whitty; and the 1984 assassination of the deputy high commissioner in Mumbai, Percy Norris, may qualify as precedents, depending on how one defines terms.)

Caution is certainly warranted and is good journalistic practice when it comes to ascribing motive in a developing news story. It can sometimes be difficult to judge whether the reluctance to use plain language about this pattern or to describe a particular case is the fault of the New York Times or of the local legal authorities. In these cases, though, other news outlets don’t share the Times’ reticence. Let me just say, too, that if the victim of this crime had been, heaven forbid, an American lawmaker from the Democratic party with strong Palestinian sympathies and the assailant had been, heaven forbid, a kippa-wearing Likud Party member, a recent convert to Lubavitcher hasidism, or even a conservative Christian white Trump supporter, the Times wouldn’t be chin-stroking about “underlying mental health issues,” “lone wolf,” and motive unclear.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of the Forward and North American editor of the Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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