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Henry Cellini


Terrorism endures throughout the world. Some individuals who engage in it may suffer from a cognitive disorder. For those who investigate terrorism, preconceptions exist both toward extremists and toward people with mental illness (MI). A review of the literature has shown how counterterrorism (CT) investigators perceive terrorists’ motivations, and how law enforcement perceives people with MI. In filling a gap between the two, this study aimed to research whether based on their lived experiences, do the understandings, perceptions, and attitudes of CT agents inform their biases and influence their decision-making and ultimately investigations of homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) with MI. A qualitative research tradition was used to collect data from 16 participants, all of whom were FBI CT investigators. After using interpretative phenomenological analysis, themes emerged suggesting that CT investigators perceived HVEs as cognitively and physically volatile, and that HVEs are predominantly motivated as a mechanism of MI, not ideology. Whereas CT investigators expressed empathy toward the MI aspect of case subjects, they also sought more training in the identification of MI. Investigators felt as though their beliefs were influenced by their peers, but not necessarily by society. Although CT investigators did possess preconceptions of HVEs with MI, they did not allow these perceptions to influence the investigative process, and reported they remained objective and impartial during the CT investigation. The results of this study may encourage the protection of society, assisting law enforcement and potentially thwarting acts of terrorism. The results may also have implications by informing standardized training of CT investigators, which could help them objectively assess HVE suspects.

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