Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, seventeenth of fifty-two children. His billionaire father died in an airplane crash when Osama was 12, leaving a vast fortune to his numerous offspring. Osama, possibly bored with his cushy lifestyle, became radicalized around the age of twenty-two when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, financially supporting and physically fighting with the mujahideen (freedom fighters) in this eventually victorious David and Goliath contest. This success presumably inflated his ego and provided a sense of purpose and meaning that may have been previously lacking despite of, or due to, his economically and socially privileged position. He likely bitterly blamed materialism and Western values for his former existential vacuum, and continues angrily lashing out against it today. Radical Islam and violent terrorism (jihad) against the West and all it symbolizes--including perhaps his wealthy, thoroughly Westernized father--became bin Laden's raison d'etre.
Obviously, analyzing or profiling the personality of such a shadowy, enigmatic and elusive figure as Osama bin Laden is a difficult task. Nevertheless, in a paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology in 2002, Dr. Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at Minnesota's St. John's University, does just that.
Plugging bin Laden's known biographical data into a personality profile using the second edition of the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), Immelman concludes that "Bin Laden's blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon's ‘unprincipled narcissist' syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist's arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality's self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others."
Elsewhere, Immelman diagnoses Osama bin Laden--as does psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post, the renowned CIA political profiler-- a "malignant narcissist" : a term based on psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg's conception of malignant narcissism, the core components of which are pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and destructive aggression. Dr. Kernberg (1992) correctly recognizes that "hatred derives from rage," which is "the core affect of severe psychopathological conditions, particularly severe personality disorders, perversions, and functional psychoses." (I amplify precisely this same point in my own book, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)
Yet surprisingly, in the final analysis, Dr. Immelman finds that a "major implication of the study is that bin Laden does not fit the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features; rather, it suggests that bin Laden is adept at exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory."
While I agree that Immelman's diagnoses of malignant or unprincipled narcissist may be accurate, and that Osama's behavior, at least at first, was primarily self-serving, I strongly doubt the latter part of his commentary about bin Laden not being a closed-minded religious fundamentalist or devout, self-sacrificing martyr. Indeed, from everything I've seen, this is exactly--even archetypally-- what Osama seems to be.
Immelman does, however, mention Dr. Millon's syndrome of "puritanical compulsiveness." These individuals, writes Harvard psychologist and noted personality theorist Theodore Millon (1996), are "austere, self-righteous, [and] highly controlled." Their "intense anger and resentment . . . is given sanction, at least as they see it, by virtue of their being on the side of righteousness and morality." This resentment-based syndrome certainly closely resembles bin Laden's messianic character.
Is Osama bin Laden best understood as a narcissistic personality disorder? Antisocial personality disorder? Paranoid personality disorder? Psychotic? Some hybrid of each? Or is he, perhaps more crucially in this context, what I would call a fanatically religious cult leader with a major messiah complex? In my next post, we will consider several other messianic cult leaders like Hitler, Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, and more currently, "polygamist prophet" Warren Jeffs and Michael (Wayne Bent) Travesser, in order to better understand the underlying messianic dynamics of these dangerous states of mind in general, and to shed light on the critical case of Osama bin Laden in particular. What exactly is a "messiah complex"?