What makes Bin Laden tick?

As the character played by John Huston, said in Chinatown, 'Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.'  Beware, so do terrorists!  The world just witnessed the burial of one reconstructed murderer in Ramallah, and if we are not careful, we might reconstruct another.  It is high time to put Bin Laden in perspective. Islam is not his prime motivation.

Perhaps too much ink has been spilled trying to expose Osama bin Laden to a Western audience. As many writers have thoughtfully argued, we have created the myth of Bin Laden through all our media attention.  But while we know a great deal about this murderer, no one, until recently, has explained what makes him 'tick.' Why has he intentionally sought to become a global outlaw?  The reasons are perhaps not what you would think.

While some writers find that his early life does not fit into the stereotypical biographical or psychological profile of an international terrorist, it does resemble that of many infamous terrorists and notorious criminal figures. We need only remember 'Carlos the Jackal,' Venezuelan—born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a 'little rich kid' who also found a thrill in murder. 

Born in mid—1950's of a Syrian mother and a swarthy Yemeni father, Osama bin Laden was the 'umpteenth' son among fifty—some odd half—brothers and sisters.  Even though he was far down in the line of succession of his father's wealth, he was still brought up in a life of heady privilege. Like most of his companions, Bin Laden was spoiled, sexually frustrated and bored silly.  Although he grew up in the most fundamentalist and conservative Islamic country in the world, he is reputed to have enjoyed the nightlife of Beirut. Its famous Kornish district was the real Mecca for many exasperated desert youths and their 'Airport Wahhabi' friends.  Even today, Hamra Street offers alcohol, gratuitous sex, excitement and always a little violence.

Early on, Bin Laden appeared to be very non—confrontational; however, in 1979, the year he graduated from King Abdul—Azziz University, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and his life took a turn.  Bin Laden was enraged by the Soviet repression of the Afghans. As with the 1967 Arab—Israeli War and the fall of Jerusalem into Israeli hands, the Soviet invasion appeared to be another in a succession of divine punishments for those straying from the ordained path of Islam.  As we now know from many sources, he spent the next five years raising money and recruiting 'volunteers' to fight against the infidel Soviets. 

In an effort to be closer to the action and aid the fighters, he moved to Peshawar in 1984.  His guesthouse, Bait ul' Ansar, was the first way station of 'Arab' Mujahideen when they came to Afghanistan before going to the front or beginning training.  He also crossed into Afghanistan to oversee the delivery of construction machinery, which he placed at the disposal of the Afghans to dig tunnels and prepare ordnance storage areas. Bin Laden started spending more and more time in Afghanistan. Not content as a spectator, he wanted to train and command his own fighters, thus he created his own unit in order to direct their battles.  His first and last face—to—face encounter with the Soviet army, using pure Arab personnel, was Jaji or Ali Kheyl and according to independent accounts, was a disaster. [1]

What most Westerners do not appreciate is that the real fighters, the simple, oppressed Afghans, scorned the 'Internationalists,' 'Wahhabi's' or 'Arabs' as they were described in casual conversation.  To gain a sense of their cynical contempt, one needs only to read interviews with some of the Mujahideen's most successful commanders in The Other Side of the Mountain.  The Arabs, for the most part, enjoyed posing for war pictures, videotaping the 'Great Game,' and generally role—playing.  During one particularly sharp engagement on the border, they were begged to reinforce the beleaguered Afghan Mujahideen, but declined. Ask former Afghan Commander Akhtarjhan his opinion of these Arabs.  One remarkable photograph of a passing Mujahideen vehicle sums up the Afghan contempt of the Arabs with a sign stating, 'We are not Internationalists.'

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the relationship between the Afghans and the Arabs resembled the dynamics of a varsity sports team; there are players who are essential to the winning of the game and there are 'scrubs,' players who warm the bench.  The Afghans fought their own war and outsiders of any stripe were kept on the sidelines. The Bin Ladens of this conflict could build and guard roads, dig ditches, and prepare fixed positions; however, this was an Afghan Jihad, fought by real Afghans, and eventually won by real Afghans.  Bin Laden was forced to sit out the 'big one.'

To reconcile this profound psychological set back, Bin Laden recognized that he needed to start his own 'jihad.' [2]  In August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi royal family that he summon his Arabs to retake Kuwait from Saddam's army.  For his ludicrous proposal, he was smartly rebuffed and disgraced.  But in Bin Laden's mind, the United States had become to Saudi Arabia what the Soviet Union had been in Afghanistan: an infidel occupation force propping up a corrupt, repressive and un—Islamic government.  Now Bin Laden had his own "jihad."  He was finally alone on center stage.

Today, Bin Laden sees the evil hand of America everywhere, from Serb ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, to Central Asia and to the US liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Even after his escape from Afghanistan and the defeat of his Taliban hosts, he continues to direct his al—Qa'ida operatives by financing and supporting groups from Algeria to the Philippines.  How direct his control is irrelevant; what counts to Bin Laden is that this activity is attributed to him and it is his "jihad."

Wherever he hides, he basks mentally in the limelight that was once the exclusive domain of great Afghan warriors — commanders like the late Abdel Haq and Ahmad Shah Massoud.  At the moment, Bin Ladin reclines against some mud hut wall, his ever—ready assault rifle at his side, dressed in the 'jihad chic' of the day, trying to oversee a loose confederation of like—minded castoffs from the Muslim world.  Planning operations and making tapes for the media, he will not miss this moment of glory or play second fiddle.   Bin Laden missed the noble Jihad and subsequently needed to start his own sordid little war. 
Captured on videotape, Bin Laden describes how the planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center towers did far more damage than ever imagined. 'We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy.... I was the most optimistic of them all.'   He craves center stage.  Dr. Jerrold Post, a renowned CIA analyst who has devoted his entire career to the field of political psychology, recently labeled Bin Laden as a 'malignant narcissist,' a personality overflowing with narcissist—excessive self—admiration.  He exudes grandiose self—importance; possesses a messianic sense of mission; demonstrates an inability to empathize with others; and, most threatening to the West, rages internally at being upstaged by our Iraq focus.  

Bin Laden's ego is his raison d'ętre and will be his downfall.
 
Afghan Mujahideen heroically fought to liberate their country against an invading army of a totalitarian atheistic superpower in the '80's.  Conversely, Bin Laden proudly kills the innocents of the world and attempts to instigate a clash of civilization between Islam and the world to liberate only his ego.  What makes him "tick" is not religion — it is self—adulation.

Notes

[1]  Marc Sageman, "Understanding Terror Network."  Dr. Sageman was a CIA case officer in Pakistan and had direct contact with the Afghan Mujahidin during the Soviet occupation.
[2]   I use the term "jihad" here not in the correct Islamic sense.  Bin Laden is fighting "Hirabah", an unholy war, and a forbidden war against society. 

Andrew Nichols Pratt, Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps (Ret.), is now Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency during its support of the Afghan  Mujahideen's fight against the Soviet Army.

As the character played by John Huston, said in Chinatown, 'Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.'  Beware, so do terrorists!  The world just witnessed the burial of one reconstructed murderer in Ramallah, and if we are not careful, we might reconstruct another.  It is high time to put Bin Laden in perspective. Islam is not his prime motivation.

Perhaps too much ink has been spilled trying to expose Osama bin Laden to a Western audience. As many writers have thoughtfully argued, we have created the myth of Bin Laden through all our media attention.  But while we know a great deal about this murderer, no one, until recently, has explained what makes him 'tick.' Why has he intentionally sought to become a global outlaw?  The reasons are perhaps not what you would think.

While some writers find that his early life does not fit into the stereotypical biographical or psychological profile of an international terrorist, it does resemble that of many infamous terrorists and notorious criminal figures. We need only remember 'Carlos the Jackal,' Venezuelan—born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a 'little rich kid' who also found a thrill in murder. 

Born in mid—1950's of a Syrian mother and a swarthy Yemeni father, Osama bin Laden was the 'umpteenth' son among fifty—some odd half—brothers and sisters.  Even though he was far down in the line of succession of his father's wealth, he was still brought up in a life of heady privilege. Like most of his companions, Bin Laden was spoiled, sexually frustrated and bored silly.  Although he grew up in the most fundamentalist and conservative Islamic country in the world, he is reputed to have enjoyed the nightlife of Beirut. Its famous Kornish district was the real Mecca for many exasperated desert youths and their 'Airport Wahhabi' friends.  Even today, Hamra Street offers alcohol, gratuitous sex, excitement and always a little violence.

Early on, Bin Laden appeared to be very non—confrontational; however, in 1979, the year he graduated from King Abdul—Azziz University, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and his life took a turn.  Bin Laden was enraged by the Soviet repression of the Afghans. As with the 1967 Arab—Israeli War and the fall of Jerusalem into Israeli hands, the Soviet invasion appeared to be another in a succession of divine punishments for those straying from the ordained path of Islam.  As we now know from many sources, he spent the next five years raising money and recruiting 'volunteers' to fight against the infidel Soviets. 

In an effort to be closer to the action and aid the fighters, he moved to Peshawar in 1984.  His guesthouse, Bait ul' Ansar, was the first way station of 'Arab' Mujahideen when they came to Afghanistan before going to the front or beginning training.  He also crossed into Afghanistan to oversee the delivery of construction machinery, which he placed at the disposal of the Afghans to dig tunnels and prepare ordnance storage areas. Bin Laden started spending more and more time in Afghanistan. Not content as a spectator, he wanted to train and command his own fighters, thus he created his own unit in order to direct their battles.  His first and last face—to—face encounter with the Soviet army, using pure Arab personnel, was Jaji or Ali Kheyl and according to independent accounts, was a disaster. [1]

What most Westerners do not appreciate is that the real fighters, the simple, oppressed Afghans, scorned the 'Internationalists,' 'Wahhabi's' or 'Arabs' as they were described in casual conversation.  To gain a sense of their cynical contempt, one needs only to read interviews with some of the Mujahideen's most successful commanders in The Other Side of the Mountain.  The Arabs, for the most part, enjoyed posing for war pictures, videotaping the 'Great Game,' and generally role—playing.  During one particularly sharp engagement on the border, they were begged to reinforce the beleaguered Afghan Mujahideen, but declined. Ask former Afghan Commander Akhtarjhan his opinion of these Arabs.  One remarkable photograph of a passing Mujahideen vehicle sums up the Afghan contempt of the Arabs with a sign stating, 'We are not Internationalists.'

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the relationship between the Afghans and the Arabs resembled the dynamics of a varsity sports team; there are players who are essential to the winning of the game and there are 'scrubs,' players who warm the bench.  The Afghans fought their own war and outsiders of any stripe were kept on the sidelines. The Bin Ladens of this conflict could build and guard roads, dig ditches, and prepare fixed positions; however, this was an Afghan Jihad, fought by real Afghans, and eventually won by real Afghans.  Bin Laden was forced to sit out the 'big one.'

To reconcile this profound psychological set back, Bin Laden recognized that he needed to start his own 'jihad.' [2]  In August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi royal family that he summon his Arabs to retake Kuwait from Saddam's army.  For his ludicrous proposal, he was smartly rebuffed and disgraced.  But in Bin Laden's mind, the United States had become to Saudi Arabia what the Soviet Union had been in Afghanistan: an infidel occupation force propping up a corrupt, repressive and un—Islamic government.  Now Bin Laden had his own "jihad."  He was finally alone on center stage.

Today, Bin Laden sees the evil hand of America everywhere, from Serb ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, to Central Asia and to the US liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Even after his escape from Afghanistan and the defeat of his Taliban hosts, he continues to direct his al—Qa'ida operatives by financing and supporting groups from Algeria to the Philippines.  How direct his control is irrelevant; what counts to Bin Laden is that this activity is attributed to him and it is his "jihad."

Wherever he hides, he basks mentally in the limelight that was once the exclusive domain of great Afghan warriors — commanders like the late Abdel Haq and Ahmad Shah Massoud.  At the moment, Bin Ladin reclines against some mud hut wall, his ever—ready assault rifle at his side, dressed in the 'jihad chic' of the day, trying to oversee a loose confederation of like—minded castoffs from the Muslim world.  Planning operations and making tapes for the media, he will not miss this moment of glory or play second fiddle.   Bin Laden missed the noble Jihad and subsequently needed to start his own sordid little war. 
Captured on videotape, Bin Laden describes how the planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center towers did far more damage than ever imagined. 'We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy.... I was the most optimistic of them all.'   He craves center stage.  Dr. Jerrold Post, a renowned CIA analyst who has devoted his entire career to the field of political psychology, recently labeled Bin Laden as a 'malignant narcissist,' a personality overflowing with narcissist—excessive self—admiration.  He exudes grandiose self—importance; possesses a messianic sense of mission; demonstrates an inability to empathize with others; and, most threatening to the West, rages internally at being upstaged by our Iraq focus.  

Bin Laden's ego is his raison d'ętre and will be his downfall.
 
Afghan Mujahideen heroically fought to liberate their country against an invading army of a totalitarian atheistic superpower in the '80's.  Conversely, Bin Laden proudly kills the innocents of the world and attempts to instigate a clash of civilization between Islam and the world to liberate only his ego.  What makes him "tick" is not religion — it is self—adulation.

Notes

[1]  Marc Sageman, "Understanding Terror Network."  Dr. Sageman was a CIA case officer in Pakistan and had direct contact with the Afghan Mujahidin during the Soviet occupation.
[2]   I use the term "jihad" here not in the correct Islamic sense.  Bin Laden is fighting "Hirabah", an unholy war, and a forbidden war against society. 

Andrew Nichols Pratt, Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps (Ret.), is now Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency during its support of the Afghan  Mujahideen's fight against the Soviet Army.