Gavin Mortimer Gavin Mortimer

The alarming rise of the middle-aged terrorist

Police in Paris last week arrested a man suspected of planning an attack against a church. That in itself was not unusual. According to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, since 2017 the police and intelligence services have thwarted 45 Islamist attacks.

Is this some twisted form of mid-life crisis?

What was different about the man detained in Paris was his age: he was 62. This is an alarming development in Europe’s ceaseless fight against Islamic extremism. In the bloody years of 2015 to 2017, when hundreds of people were slaughtered in attacks across Europe, the perpetrators were young men.

The exception was Khalid Masood. On March 22, 2017, the Briton killed five people in an Islamist attack in Westminster before he was shot dead by police. Masood, born Adrian Elms, was 52 and it wasn’t only his age that distinguished him from most other Islamist terrorists. Masood was well-educated and had for a number of years lived a typical English middle-class life.

Terrorists are usually young men because this demographic is by nature more impulsive and idealistic; many are looking for an identity, a cause, some way of finding their place in a world their immature minds find confusing.

Studies from the early 1980s onwards have found that the average age of a terrorist – whether Middle Eastern, American or European – is in the mid-twenties. The average age of the nine-strong Islamist cell that attacked Paris in 2015 was 26, the same for the four Islamists suspected of carrying out last Friday’s massacre of 143 people in a Moscow concert hall.

In a 2005 paper, The Mind of a Terrorist, the renowned American neurologist Dr Jeff Victoroff wrote: ‘Absolutist/totalist moral thinking helps motivate terrorism via its seductive appeal to young adults with weak identities.’

Khalid Masood and the 62-year-old arrested in Paris bucked this trend. So, too, did the 45-year-old Tunisian, who shot dead two Swedish football fans in Brussels last year before being killed by police. He was five years younger than the Algerian national who has been charged by a Dublin court with attempting to murder three children in an attack last year.

What might be behind this new phenomenon? Is it some twisted form of mid-life crisis, which, according to the American Psychological Association, usually hits people between the ages of 35 to 65? Often the crisis arrives when the person realises their life has not turned out the way they’d hoped.

Their behaviour changes. They become angry, impulsive, resentful and empty. The search – often online – begins for something meaningful. This was the case with Khalid Masood, who converted to Islam around the time he turned 40. He’d served a couple of short prison sentences for violence and emerged angry at a country he believed had let him down. Religion was a new identity and soon radical Islam provided him with a means to take his revenge on Britain.

A feature of male ageing is a drop in testosterone levels, on average a decline of 1 per cent per year from 30 onwards, another reason why terrorists tend to be young men. It’s not only testosterone that dwindles in middle-age, so does physical strength – which is at its peak in males at 25. So the middle-aged Islamist is less likely to use a knife, unless his victims are young children. The Dublin attacker was overpowered by three men younger than him, including a 17-year-old Frenchman.

But there are plenty of other methods to commit murder which don’t require much physical strength – as was the case with Masood, who killed four of his five victims by running them over with his car.

One doesn’t need to be in peak physical shape to plant a bomb or fire an automatic weapon – or even be physically mature. In a recent interview Gérald Darmanin, France’s minister of the Interior, revealed that among those being monitored by the security services are ‘people aged 11, 12 and 13 who are new to our services.’

They are among 20,000 on the radar of French intelligence, of whom 5,000 are considered dangerous. Most have not passed through an extremist training camp in the Middle East or had any contact with organisations such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. They are radicalised by what France’s leading expert on Islamism, Gilles Kepel, has called the ‘Jihad of Atmosphere’. In 2021 Kepel pointed to the role of the internet and social media in this process, which ‘propagates a hatred of secular Western values that nourishes the worldview of a certain number of young Islamists.’

Now it is also nourishing older Islamists, middle-aged misfits bitter at life who embrace an ideology to give them an identity. They are just as impressionable as the Islamists half their age, and just as dangerous.

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