Professor Craig Jackson, Head of Psychology, Birmingham City University, who specialises in spree killings, reflects on the Munich mass shooting tragedy. He suggests Ali Sonboly’s on-camera behaviour gives us a unique insight into the Narcissistic Hypothesis of spree killers, and the methods used by him represent a new level of forward planning by such perpetrators. The psychopathology of such perpetrators is quite homogenous and is not related to mental health problems but deeper flaws of their personality and poor socialisation.

A Fledgling Spree Killer

Ali Sonboly was an 18-year-old student loner who lived with his parents in their fifth floor apartment in a nice Munich suburb. Although he was bright he was also quiet, sometimes unstable and quite shy – and being of Iranian heritage it sometimes made him an easy target for school bullies of many backgrounds. His decision to launch a surprise spree attack on shoppers at tea-time on a Friday, using a Glock semi-automatic handgun he bought illegally online had been made a year before. Being bullied and not getting anywhere in life relative to his peers were clear motives for his need to seek revenge.

It was no coincidence that his killing spree occurred five years to the day of Anders Breivik’s notorious killing spree in Norway. Like Breivik before him, Sonboly had shown a level of planning and foresight in his attack that assisted in securing the nine fatalities he amassed.

As Sonboly was not familiar with handguns and had no experience of shooting, he needed all the tactical advantages he could. By posting a Facebook message to encourage victims to gather in a McDonald’s restaurant at the start of his spree, and then surprising the victims by emerging from the toilets while shooting, he increased his likelihood of achieving as many fatalities as he could.

Although other spree shooters had used distraction techniques to lure emergency services away from the scene of their imminent killings (Breivik used a bomb in central Oslo, while Klebold and Harris used incendiary bombs to lure fire services away from Columbine High School) Sonboly appears to be the first spree killer to lure potential victims to the scene of the impending massacre. Doing this via online methods can be quite risky for the perpetrator as it could potentially link back to them.

Sonboly had studied spree killings and spree killers, and Anders Breivik, whose picture was used by Sonboly in some of his online activities and gaming fora, was some kind of hero for him. Breivik’s spree killing was synonymous with ‘forward planning’.

Disordered Personality

Understanding the role played by extreme narcissism is vital if we are to understand spree killers and prevent their fatal actions in future. After killing 44 people in a school shooting and bombing attack in Bath (MI) in 1927, Andrew Kehoe left behind a sign he made which infamously proclaimed ‘criminals are made, not born’ – and this sums up the narcissist’s approach to spree murder; the murder and butchery is not important to them, but getting their voice and opinion heard is, and having survivors understand that the killer themselves are the real victim, who was forced into such extreme action because of others. Bizarre, but that is the nature of extreme narcissism.

In my experience of conducting ‘Psychological Autopsies’ in many spree killer cases over the last seven years, I have found, time and time again, the following factors to be crucial in the development of a spree killer. The vast majority have:

  • Extremely Narcissistic personality
  • Social status seen (by themselves) as inferior to others
  • Inability to accept responsibility for any setbacks or mistakes
  • Habitually blame others and see themselves as a victim
  • Unstable/neurotic personality
  • History of being over-indulged as a child/teen
  • Received inconsistent parenting
  • May have fantasised about killings for some time beforehand
  • Suffered a period of intolerable stress (work, school, relationship) shortly before conducting the spree, that tips the killer into action

The ‘Rooftop Guy’ Conversation

In an almost surreal moment among the chaos of the shooting, Sonboly was captured on camera on the roof of a car park, arguing with a witness (Thomas Salbey, aged 57) who was safely removed at a safe distance from the action on a nearby balcony.

Salbey was berating Sonboly and his actions, and that Sonboly who had just murdered and injured several people was prepared to engage in a row/exchange with a perfect stranger provides strong evidence of the importance of narcissism in these cases. It was clearly important to Sonboly that he could get his side of the story across and be ‘understood’. A most peculiar thing to do amidst the action. The conversation went like this:

Salbey:                 ‘You f***ing a*****e you…’

Sonboly:              ‘Because of you I was bullied for 7 years…’

Salbey:                 ‘You w****r you. You’re a w****r’

Sonboly:              ‘…and now I have to buy a gun to shoot you’

Salbey:                 ‘A gun! F**k off! Your head should be cut off you a*****e’

The gunman and balcony man begin shouting at each other. 

Salbey:                 ‘He’s got a gun here the guy has one. F*****g foreigner. Ey! He’s got a gun! He has loaded his gun. Get the cops here. He’s walking around here the w****r!’

Sonboly:              ‘I am German.’

Salbey:                 ‘You’re a w****r is what you are’

Sonboly:              ‘Stop filming!’

Salbey:                 ‘A w****r is what you are. What the f**k are you doing?’

Sonboly:              ‘Yeah what, I was born here.’

Salbey:                 ‘Yeah and what the f**k you think you’re doing?’

Sonboly:              ‘I grew up here in the Hartz 4 (unemployment benefits in Germany) area.’

Salbey:                 ‘Yeah treatment is something for you’

Sonboly:              ‘I haven’t done anything here for (unintelligible) … ‘Please shut your mouth’

Salbey:                 ‘You c**t you’

Salbey:                 ‘Hey, he’s on the upper floor here.’

The cameraman goes into cover as the gunman starts firing. Balcony man calls him a c***t again.

Salbey:                 ‘They must have been s******g into your head’

Sonboly:              ‘They have not. They have not, that’s the thing. They have not.’ 

Confronted by someone else who stands up to him and belittles him, the narcissist gunman is lost and impotent. All the power that he suddenly tasted has now gone. Clearly cogent and able to converse, this shows the gunman is not in a crazed or psychotic state of mind, nor is he out of control. With no power over the witness, he resorts to telling him how he was bullied and how he grew up in the area, and has had to resort to killing people because of this.

The witness, quite rightly, has none of this and continues to berate the shooter, who, unable to control the witness with his gun due to his poor aim over distance, has to plead with him to stop shouting at him and for the filmmaker to stop the video. The pathetic character of the spree killer is quite apparent – lost, lonely and unable to relate to how ‘normal’ people view the world.

To capture what is going through the mind of a killer mid-spree is unusual, and the opportunity to study this should not be missed, but in many other respects the Munich shootings were just another killing of innocent people by an angry, disaffected, unstable narcissist who had chosen to arm himself and take revenge on a community.

Germany has witnessed worse killing sprees than this in the recent past, such as the Winnenden School massacre in 2009 by Kretschmer, and the Erfurt School Massacre in 2002 by Steinhauser, and the psychological similarity between all three perpetrators is stunning.

Find out more about studying psychology at Birmingham City University.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University