Often, such claims reach a willing audience: those who want to believe with all their might that the case at hand has nothing to do with Islam. Fixating on mental illness as a possible cause allows courts and the media to sidestep Islamic texts' open exhortations to despise, attack, and kill unbelievers. And undoubtedly, at least some jihadists realize that their mindset is so incomprehensible to uninitiated Western readers and listeners that it may well be worth a try to offer what might seem like a plausible excuse to them. Indeed, many sympathizers end up doing just that: making excuses for acts of jihad, as also seen in the international cases mentioned below.
Here are several cases where the "mental illness" card has been played:
Naveed Haq, who went on a shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, saying he was a "soldier of Islam," and telling the 911 dispatcher he was tired of the Muslim point of view being ignored.
Aafia Siddiqui, though she later made a U-turn, perhaps when it appeared not to be working to her advantage.
Internationally, there is Murat Altun, whom Turkish authorities immediately insisted was mentally unstable after he stabbed and decapitated Bishop Luigi Padovese, the Catholic apostolic vicar for Anatolia, while shouting "Allahu Akbar!" and "I killed the great Satan!"
And in Yemen, there was the case of Abdul Aziz Yahya al-Abdi, who was let off with a fine as "mentally ill" after murdering a Jewish man and explaining: "I killed the Jew ... I have told them in a letter that they should either convert to Islam or leave Yemen, or I would kill them," and that he had killed "for the sake of Allah."
Now, Hossam Smadi joins these ranks of dubious distinction. More on this story. "Dallas bombing plotter Hosam Smadi sentenced to 24 years in prison," by Jason Trahan for the Dallas Morning News, October 19:
A federal judge today sentenced a Jordanian national who tried to blow up a downtown Dallas skyscraper to 24 years in prison, mostly rejecting defense claims that he was mentally ill and unduly influenced by law enforcement agents.
Hosam "Sam" Smadi faced up to 30 years in prison under a plea agreement accepted by U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn. He will be deported to Jordan once he serves his time.
"I can't for the life of me figure out what moved you in this direction," the judge said in delivering the sentence.
"You got some encouragement along the way," she added, referring to FBI agents' interactions with Smadi, "but your actions were yours."
Before the sentence was delivered, Smadi was apologetic, addressing the judge in halting English.
"I'm very sorry for my actions." said Smadi, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit with his hair grown out to shoulder length. "I could not live with myself if I hurt anybody."
The ruling came on the second day of Smadi's sentencing hearing in federal district court. He was arrested on Sept. 24, 2009, by FBI agents who said he dialed a cellphone that he thought would trigger a bomb in the parking garage under the 60-story Fountain Place on Ross Avenue. [...]
"I want you to think about those people in that building whose lives you were prepared to end," she said, referring to the approximately 2,000 people working at Fountain Place on the day he was arrested.
Lynn heard testimony from experts on both sides, including a psychiatrist who reiterated his belief that Smadi was faking symptoms of mental illness, but she ultimately rejected defense claims that he was inapproriately influenced by FBI agents and suffered from schizophrenia.
"I do believe you were vulnerable to influence," she said. "That is not a criticism of law enforcement. I deeply appreciate what law enforcement did."
Defense attorney Peter Fleury said he was disappointed by the sentence but believed the process was fair. He voiced doubts about Smadi's ability to carry out a terror attack.
"I don't think real terrorists would have bonded with him like these agents were able to bond with him," he said.
Fleury said his client has renounced terrorism and is remorseful for his actions.
The psychiatrist who testified today, Raymond Patterson, said Smadi admitted using a prescription drug to get high while in federal custody and claimed to be haunted by auditory hallucinations - including one in which a donkey spoke to him.
But the doctor said he believes that Smadi is not schizophrenic and is faking his symptoms.
"People who have legitimate psychotic symptoms, they hurt," Patterson said. "When he's talking about these things, he's not in distress about it."
As for the donkey, Patterson said he didn't know Smadi could identify an animal by species just from the sound of its voice.
"I don't know how he knows it's a donkey if he can't see it's a donkey," the psychiatrist said.
Patterson, who examined Smadi in behalf of the government, was testifying for the second day. On Monday, he said Smadi functioned well socially, was able to make friends and even married - although authorities say his marriage was just to preserve his immigration status.
He said Smadi's claims of hallucinations were malarkey - that Smadi "makes them up so they will influence examiners that he's mentally ill."
This morning, Patterson told of an appointment he had with Smadi just last month.
He said Smadi was laughing inappropriately and appeared to be intoxicated. When the doctor asked him if he was high, Smadi acknowledged that he was, according to Patterson.
He said Smadi told him that he had persuaded prison doctors to give him 60 doses of buspirone, a drug used to treat anxiety - and that he'd crushed up some of the pills and snorted them.
"This is unusual for anyone in a prison setting to be given a supply of drugs that you can abuse," Patterson testified. He said he alerted prison officials, who immediately discontinued Smadi's access to the prescription drugs.
Why did Smadi get such potentially dangerous special treatment?
A defense psychiatrist, Dr. Xavier Amador, testified Monday that Smadi was schizophrenic. He said Smadi had out-of-body experiences and visions of "jinns", or Arabic spirits, as well as bouts of amnesia, which were made worse by his heavy drug use while living in Italy, Texas, before his arrest in the bombing plot.