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A Psychologist Explains 'Lone-Wolf' Terror Attacks Like the One in Germany

Gerd Reimann is an emergency psychologist, who counsels survivors of terror attacks like those in Nice and Würzburg.

Police officers stand at the crime scene near the river Main, where the 17-year-old man from Afghanistan was shot the night before, in Wuerzburg, Germany – Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Photo by Michael Probst / AP/Press Association Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

On Monday evening, a man armed with a knife and an axe attacked and wounded passengers on a train approaching the Bavarian town of Würzburg. The Bavarian interior ministry disclosed that the 17-year-old perpetrator shouted "Allahu Akbar" and promptly declared allegiance to the Islamic State as he did so. As of yet, there is no evidence that the perpetrator received any instruction from the organisation. However, a video has surfaced, which the 17-year-old seemingly sent to ISIS before the attack.


Gerd Reimann is an emergency psychologist, who counsels survivors and the bereaved after terror attacks – like those in Nice and Würzburg. I got in touch with him to find out more about what could motivate a lone agent to attack a group of train passengers with an axe and a knife.

VICE: What causes a person to run amok?
Gerd Reimann: There is a wide range of reasons. When it comes to religiously motivated killing sprees, we can assume they involve a system of values that are incompatible with our Western ones. These people see our society – its diversity, democracy and freedom – as the enemy. This is combined with the idea that death isn't final, but rather the start of an afterlife full of pleasures. They don't fear punishment and they believe life only starts properly after death.

Then there are people whose killing sprees are motivated by mental illness. Very often they're inspired by fantasies of omnipotence. Sufferers of certain illnesses believe they rule the world. These people see it as their right to decide who lives or dies – and they go on to do just that.

Can this kind of mental illness be triggered by particular experiences?
Some people experience situations in life that fill them with intense anger and despair. If you don't see any way out, you try to somehow make space for that anger and despair even if it means you could die trying. But there are also people who have unrealistic expectations of the world. When society fails to fulfil those expectations, they try to destroy any perceived obstacles.

Do organised terrorist attacks inspire copycats?
There are definitely serial perpetrators who commit heinous acts repeatedly, and of course they some times inspire copycats. Think of the Werther effect – which describes how publicised suicides some times lead to copycat suicides. People who get little attention and who are rather introverted and insecure, might see how perpetrators of such attacks receive global media attention. Then they think, "My life is so sad and depressing. I want to do what they did and finally be seen."

Do you think lone-wolf attacks are at the moment welcomed by the Islamic State, even if they weren't necessarily orchestrated by them?
The IS instrumentalises the minor and major sources of discontent that affect young people in particular. They promise isolated youths a comfortable life with little conflict, if only these people dedicate themselves to a bigger idea.

Then they'll say, "We planned this thing and now that you carried it out, you are one of us." So, of course others they will listen and do the same thing. Especially when you combine it with the notion that death is not the end but rather the start of something beautiful.