The Psychology of Terrorists (Pt. 2): The Messiah Complex

How might the personalities of bin Laden and al-Baghdadi be similar?

Posted Sep 26, 2014

We have considered some of the factors that render individuals susceptible to be recruited by ISIS or Al-Qaeda (see Part 1), and some of this also applies to the leadership of these groups. What motivates terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed head of ISIS? Clearly, the answer to such a question is complex, and varies to some extent from person to person. However, like bin Laden, al-Baghdadi seems to exhibit some sort of messiah complex. He reportedly sees himself as the successor to Muhammed, the founder of Islam. To understand better the psychology of someone like al-Baghdadi, about whom very little personal information is currently available, we might do well to look at what we knew and thought we knew about his late predecessor, Osama bin Laden. Here is a previous piece posted on the day the death of bin Laden was announced to the world by President Obama back in 2011:

"Tonight, on this warm, sunny May Day, the world was informed by President Obama that infamous Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed last week by U.S. forces during a firefight in northwest Pakistan. Bin Laden wanted to die as a martyr. In this sense, his wish has been obliged. Whether bin Laden's martyrdom will serve to strengthen and incite Al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to lash out or disintegrate remains to be seen. In light of this news, I thought it would be worthwhile to review some of my writings about Osama bin Laden's psychology several years ago.

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, did 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 concluded 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 diagnosed Osama bin Laden--as did 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: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity (SUNY Press, 1996).

Yet surprisingly, in the final analysis, Dr. Immelman found 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 have become. A religious and political martyr.

Immelman did, 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."

Does al-Baghdadi suffer from some mental disorder? Could the ISIS leader, like the late Osama bin Laden,  be best understood as a narcissistic personality disorder? Antisocial personality disorder? Paranoid personality disorder? Delusional psychotic? Some hybrid of each? Or is he, perhaps more crucially in this context, like bin Laden before him,what I would call a fanatically religious cult leader with a major messiah complex? (See Part 3.)