What I really said about radical jihadism
In a Dec. 12 Outlook piece ["Radical jihadism is not a mental disorder"], Stephen Xenakis mischaracterized my testimony in Omar Khadr's Guantanamo sentencing proceeding.
Since the Supreme Court cemented the contribution of psychiatry to risk assessment in Estelle v. Smith (1981), forensic psychiatry has refined such dangerousness evaluation to focus on context. Assessing risk of dangerous jihadist activity borrows from clinical understandings about criminal and violent recidivism, but it must reflect the context of actual jihadist violence or an individual's ability to facilitate that violence. My testimony related only to this defined context. Neither this methodology nor my qualifications were contested.
The validity of risk assessment also draws from statistical base rates. The figures of released Guantanamo detainees who return to active battle have climbed sharply from just 6 percent in 2008 to 25 percent, according to this month's report from the director of national intelligence. My testimony demonstrated several reasons why U.S. government recidivism figures are a significant underestimation. This testimony was not contested on cross-examination or rebutted.
My effort also included the research data of Danish correctional psychologist Nicolai Sennels, precisely because Sennels has studied and treated large-scale groups of young Muslim and non-Muslim inmates. Sennels's work has been lauded by the Danish Psychological Association. That he has now become a foe of unregulated Muslim immigration to Europe does not negate what he learned from giving of himself to help Muslims stay out of prison. Sennels's research findings also were not contested on cross-examination or rebutted.
No part of my assessment characterized radical jihadism as a mental disorder. I testified specifically that jihadism is a phenomenon of religious inspiration, not mental illness. In fact, I provided extensive testimony on deradicalization, imploring pro-social Islam to be the antidote to the strain of extremism fermenting among Islamists in Guantanamo and in prisons all over the world. Khadr's own legal team agreed with my recommendations when in 2009 they themselves proposed deradicalization.
My opinions were presented to the defense in advance of my testimony. I underwent cross-examination in front of a jury that the defense had chosen. That jury then recommended sentencing Khadr to 40 years. These facts speak far louder than Xenakis's self-serving Monday-morning quarterbacking of the defense with which he worked intimately.
Michael Welner, New York
The writer, a forensic psychiatrist, is chairman of the Forensic Panel.