Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D.

Deborah Schurman-Kauflin Ph.D.


Profiling Terrorist Leaders

Common characteristics of terror leaders

Posted Oct 31, 2013

Excerpt from my book Disturbed: Terrorist Behavioral Profiles (2008)

Profiling works because human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to have a daily routine that we follow. We most likely drive the same way to work every day. We shop at the same grocery stores. We buy the same foods. One can do a quick profile by looking at the person in front of you at the grocery store. How does she put her items on the conveyer belt? Are the cold foods grouped together? Are soup cans organized neatly? Are the items simply tossed on? Those who are organizing things tend to live that way in their everyday lives. In contrast, those who are not paying attention to their items are more likely to be dealing with lots of things a once. One can also look at the state of a person’s car to read him as well. If the car is full of dents and has trash strewn about, that person is likely to be a more reckless individual.

Behavior reflects personality. A man who has one wife is different than the one who feels the need to have several to bolster his ego (i.e. I am successful to be able to have and take care of multiple women). A billionaire who still engages in cut throat business deals in order to get more money is different than a small business owner who lets sick workers take extra days off to get well. Their behaviors reflect who they are in their lives. Their behaviors reflect their personalities.

In the 1970s, the FBI undertook a massive study into the lives and crimes of sexual offenders. FBI agents went into prisons and interviewed 36 convicted sex offenders. Twenty nine were serial killers, and the remainder consisted of one time sex killers. From this research which focused on interviews with the offenders and examinations of their crimes and background, they created the Organized/Disorganized profiling dichotomy. Simply, organized offenders planned their offenses, took precautions not to leave evidence, stalked their victims, were employed, were educated beyond high school, and often had families. Disorganized offenders, on the other hand, were just that: disorganized. They did not plan their crimes. They were disheveled in their appearances. Most were high school drop outs that did not have wives or children (Ressler et al, 1988).

As it concerns terrorists, most tend to fall into the organized side of the dichotomy. By their very nature, terrorist organizations must plan their activities carefully. They must stalk, practice, study their victims, raise money, train recruits and carry out extensive and debilitating attacks. For this reason, they must be well kept in appearance. They cannot risk standing out or raising suspicion. Many of them have families and graduated high school. Followers are more likely to be high school drop outs, but one will find very well educated individuals at all levels of the organization. Like serial killers, they tend to have psychopathic tendencies. They have no compassion or sympathy for the suffering of their victims. They objectify the enemy, making human beings into things. Success is seen in terms of how many bodies pile up because large casualties are likely to bring change. And there is no remorse. Furthermore, much like the organized serial killer, the terror leader is a very charming talker who has an ability to electrify an audience.

When looking at those who rise to leadership positions in terror organizations, one sees that they are naturally charismatic. People are drawn to them. After interviewing Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, writer Richard Beeston stated “it was easy to be charmed by the man who is suspected of masterminding this week’s bloody hostage siege,” (2004). Those who met al-Zarqawi in prison said he was regal and drew people to him. Prisoners would call Allahu Akbar when they saw him, their ‘prince.’ A fellow inmate stated “He had an uncanny ability to control, almost hypnotize; he could order his followers to do things just by moving his eyes,” (Weaver, 2006).

Leaders can be soft spoken in private life, but they light up in front of a group. Their passion is their belief system, and it shows when they speak. As children, the future leaders think they have a call go greatness. There is something about them that is special, and even family may fawn over them with such statements. This is a sign of megalomania, where self perceived superiority is ingrained. As such, they search out others who have been ‘special’ or great. Accordingly, they spend a lot of time alone and are drawn to revolutionary figures who they try to emulate. Timothy McVeigh was interested in Hitler as was Aum Shinrikyo’s Shoko Asahara. Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil LTTE, was known to be enthralled with Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Shubhash Chandra Bose, and Bhagat Singh (Lawson, 2000). Bose and Singh were revolutionary figures and Indian leaders who engaged in violence against Britain for independence.

Successful revolutionary figures have such dramatic impacts that there are those who will always want to be just like them. Islamic terrorists are drawn to Sayyid Qutb. So they read everything they can find about their preferred hero. Books. Magazines. Manuals. When you add in a radical friend or relative, this reinforces a revolutionary influence.

Because they spend so much time alone, they enjoy intricate fantasy lives. Though they usually come from larger families, they are aloof from brothers and sisters. They choose solitude over socializing, and this is something that seems to work for them within the family unit. Since they come from very traditional and conservative families (almost militaristic), being a quiet, withdrawn, and cooperative child pays off. They learn to have a controlled anger because if they show emotion, they are either punished or do not get their way. Vellupillai Prabhakaran was described as “shy” and “bookish.” Al-Zawahiri was said to be quiet and conscientious. Bin Laden and Shamil Basayev were described as being soft spoken. Martin McGuinness of the IRA is described as being calm, straight forward, and even toned in his responses.

These are very observant individuals who learn to watch human behavior. They tend to carry this reserved nature into adulthood and it becomes more pronounced as they become more serious about their causes. Those who knew Timothy McVeigh said those around him questioned why he was not a ‘partier.’ He kept to himself, especially as he got older (Stickney, 1996). Imad Mugniyah was very in control of himself and during a heated argument among fellow terrorists, he actually laid down on a couch and went to sleep. Martin McGuinness does not drink, smoke, or engage in unprincipled social behavior. The leaders are driven to reach their goals, and being distracted by drinking, doing drugs, or having parties is just not in the plan. It would take away from what they have spent their lives trying to achieve.

It is also important that leaders live ‘pure’ lives so that they do not put the group at risk. If they were to drink or carouse with women, this could lead to information being leaked and jeopardize follower support. While in prison al-Zarqawi physically covered the televisions sets so other prisoners could not see uncovered women (Weaver, 2006).

Leaders must keep plans and organizational structure closely guarded. To be effectively guarded, one must be in control. Better to stay sober and lead by example than to be careless and risk one’s life work. If a leader has a past which could jade the group, members work hard to hide it and portray the leader as pious. The Tamil Tigers LTTE had a female leader who followed this pattern. Lieutenant Colonel Selvy was a female college student at Jaffina University when she joined the LTTE. She was adamant that those around her follow the rules of the Tamil Tigers. In fact she was feared for her fervent commitment to the cause. Like other leaders, she was known to weave stories and speak of ancient Tamil traditions along with war legends to inspire fighters (Tamil Guardian, 2008). Even men listened to her because she was so passionate and dedicated to the LTTE cause.

Those close to terror leaders will say that they are true to the cause, and if their word is given, they will honor it. There is an old saying that there is no honor among thieves, but this is not so true within terror organizations. One of the things that make these groups so effective is that there is a trust among high level, lifelong members. There has to be. Thus, when the leader gives his word, it is his bond. He wants to keep his promises in order to show followers and other members that he can do what the group needs done. If it involves the group’s success, he will keep his word.

But just because the high level leaders seem quiet and often unassuming does not mean that they are not filled with rage and very familiar with death and pain. There is usually some form of domestic violence within the families when they are growing up, and those who rise to terror leader positions are adept at avoiding the danger. They are silent when it is beneficial, and when they speak, their words become powerful. In essence, they study violence at home and in their communities and through ‘reading’ people, they become skilled at avoiding abuse/violence by hiding and/or using words. This theme is prevalent throughout their lives.

It appears as if the family unit from which they come is strained. The parents tend to be unequal in the marriage, and the males wield more control. Males are treated better than females, and this makes them feel as if they are entitled. They can believe that they are unique and therefore meant to do something big with their lives. But boys will not completely escape familial abuse. In fact, many times, when the adult males are away, the female head of house can take out her anger on her sons. If they are unable to run or verbalize their way out of the abuse, this becomes terribly traumatizing for them. It produces an unshakable hatred for women due to the fact that the boys have been taught that they are superior to females. If a female is abusing him, what does that say about him? This is particularly true in Islamic cultures.

Table 13 : Terrorist Leaders Ingredients


+ Speaking Skills

+ Cunning

= Potential Leader

As they grow, they become better at choosing their words. When younger, they are more apt to speak without thinking, and radical statements come charging out. But with age comes wisdom, and they learn that running the mouth is not always the best course of action. When looking at the families of those who become terror leaders, one often finds a serious illness or accident within the family. The future leader himself may become sick, or he may lose a close relative. What one sees is that the pain produced from this incident is channeled. Whereas followers who suffer a setback in life are more likely to fall apart, the future leaders use it to become strong. Shoko Asahara’s partial blindness drove him to become a skilled manipulator. Ayman al-Zawahiri had such poor eyesight that he could not do much in a battle field except provide medical help. But he overcame this obstacle with his feisty enthusiasm and dedication to his cause (Williams, 2005). Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was paralyzed as a teenager and spent most of his time at mosque learning and inspiring (Levitt, 2006).

Those who dedicate their lives to inflicting violence on an ‘enemy’ most assuredly have been hurt. That drive to ‘get even’ comes from somewhere. It does not just happen.  For the terror leader, everything from child abuse, bullying, and having an illness/injury put him into a vulnerable position. Whatever his personal injury, he is humiliated by it and does not want people to know. It is secret for him.

Having such a strong personality, he does not like having been a victim. In fact, he makes a decision that he never wants to be put into that position again. Anger builds, and at some point, he begins trying to manipulate others to see how it feels. Small animals, other children, and even objects become targets as he tries to release his rage. But he is usually very good at keeping this proclivity quiet as he has learned the value in being invisible to threats (parents, uncles, adults, other children). He masters the art of disappearing when he needs to and capturing attention when necessary.

When they reach this point, future leaders come across a mentor, someone who is radical and well entrenched in the terror group. Very often, this mentor is a relative who has radical tendencies. The mentor is vocal about his beliefs, and often, his ‘eccentricity’ is downplayed by the family. Though many times, those who are related to terror leaders know more than they tell. Most often, the families have to live and work in society, and if they openly state their support for a ‘terrorist’ it puts them at risk. It is much safer to remain quiet or say that such behavior is not condoned. However, there is at least one family member who is supportive of extremist actions. This gives him a sense of being right.

The mentor recognizes the charisma which emanates from the future leader. The child has something special. He is different. He is well read and understands the terror group’s struggle. He asks a lot of questions and is never satisfied with a ‘brush off’ answer. He wants more and is angry about the group’s plight. This anger is transference of the deep seated rage that leaders feel because of low self esteem. Though they appear as if they are in charge and have no self doubts, terror leaders suffer emotionally. Remember that they can believe that they are supposed to do something of note in their lives because they can be spoiled. But if they are not achieving, they feel like failures. They question themselves ad nauseum, but always strive to accomplish more to build their egos. This emotional turmoil helps propel them to be more aggressive and to keep searching for answers. This impresses those who meet him, even when he is young. An apt word to describe the terror leader is driven.

With his background and strict family upbringing, the future terror leader becomes very interested in the Military. He likes the power associated with a force that can bend people to its will. For some, there is an interest in the government military, and future leaders may try to enlist, like Timothy McVeigh. He enlisted for the U.S. Military with the hopes of becoming an Army Ranger. He was a sharp shooter and was considered good at his job. He ended up in the Persian Gulf fighting Iraqis, and his anger and paranoia increased after his tour of duty. (Stickney, 1996). His life was wrapped up in being a soldier, and that was how he saw himself.

This is similar to Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev who came from Dyshne-Vedeno which is a small village in south Chechnya. His family was conservative and had a strong belief in rebellion. In fact, the family named their son Shamil out of respect and honor for Imam Shamil who led Chechen troops in war against Russia. Like other leaders, he had a mentor/hero in his grandfather who was a warrior himself. It was devastating for Shamil to learn that his own family had been deported during WWII like so many Chechens. With his long family history of fighting, he was drawn to law enforcement, and after school, he joined the military of the Soviet Union. He was used as a firefighter and seemingly relished his role (Beeston, 2004).

The Military symbolizes power, and that is what a terror leader craves. Being in a position of having awesome weapons and the ability to decimate is fascinating to such individuals. Future leaders enjoy the chain of command in such an environment. This gives them ideas as to how best to run their own groups and which recruits to pick. Timothy McVeigh met Terry Nichols in the U.S. Military. McVeigh saw a man he could influence and dominate. Very often, terror leaders meet future followers in these settings.

If the future leader does not want or cannot join the government military, he turns to either the preferred terror group, a fringe group, or he may even start his own cell/group.

Being daring is what gets the attention of those in high level positions. Future leaders are self starters who will ‘go it alone’ if necessary. Anyone willing to risk himself for a cause is a force with which to be reckoned. At this point, people take notice and may give them nicknames that describe their persistence or bullish tendencies.

The mentor who has watched this quickly guides the youngster and introduces him to others who are radical. These mentors instigate trouble by feeding the future leader even more inflammatory rhetoric which serves to entrench the child/teen in the group mentality. Remember, this socialization helps, but it is not the best predictor of terror involvement. The individual’s personality has so much more to do with the desire to kill than group think. Stable people generally do not plan or execute mass murder.

Once accepted into the fold, militancy grows. The future leader wants to attend schools to be with others like him. Or he wants to drop out of school to spend time with the group. Either way, he is searching for ways to insulate himself from moderates and other influences. He becomes more intolerant and very traditional. If he is a Muslim, he may give up alcohol or music and become very ritualistic. If he is Tamil, he may begin intense physical training. If he is Christian, he might begin quoting scripture and chastising those who do think the same way he does. If IRA, he may also give up drinking and avoid bars. Whatever the belief system, those who become terror leaders become increasingly strict in their beliefs and behaviors. They will even begin criticizing others of the same belief who are not as ‘loyal’ because they do not follow rules to the letter.

The leader sees himself as the police and is perfectly comfortable sitting in judgment. Because of his adamant militancy and his charismatic ways, others in the group, as well as people who meet him, are drawn to him. As people gather to him, he begins asserting new ideas for the group. Whether it is a new plan of attack, or ways to infiltrate the enemy, he brings something different to the terrorist organization. Because of his personality, people are willing to try his idea, and usually, it works. This serves to solidify his position and raise him even higher. He moves rather quickly up the ranks.

Leaders are never satisfied and could be considered emotional gluttons. Those who feed their egos go up the chain with them. They are very astute at surrounding themselves with those who are ‘taken’ with them. They want to be admired, and as they are increasingly asked for help by more powerful people, their actions become more reckless. Leaders want to prove themselves, and simply making one big splash is not enough for them. After the leader introduces and implements his new ideas, he is constantly looking for other ways to manifest his power. He expects complete submission and loyalty, and his ‘lieutenants” are usually his muscle. Though he is intelligent and careful, he wants protection. Therefore, he will enlist those who have pledged themselves to the cause to guard him. He never wants another leader at his side because such a person would try to usurp him. Instead, he surrounds himself with intelligent but less ambitious group members.