Osama bin Laden’s Evil Legacy
Even though Bin Laden/Zawahiri of Al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of ISIS are dead, on anniversaries of 9/11 -- and now Hamas’s October 7th event -- a haunting and important question lurks. Why do many young Arabs, Muslims, and even Americans continue to become entranced with Osama bin Laden's Pied Piper music of radical fascist fundamentalist Muslim Jihad? Via TikTok, thousands of American youths recently embraced Osama bin Laden's twisted "Message to the World" over social media.
It is also important to try to understand the uniquely chilling social-psychological fit between the religiously saturated but distorted charismatic leadership of a man like Osama bin Laden/Al Qaeda/ISIS, and the group psychology of communities where he and his colleagues and mentors recruit devoted terrorists. Afghanistan is once again becoming an Al Qaeda and ISIS haven as is Yemen, where Bin Laden’s father was born.
It is a serious mistake to glibly label and dismiss deceased men like Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri, or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as simply dead mass murderers, psychotics, thugs, psychopaths, or criminals. In painful truth, they are often perceived as Robin Hood-like figures and spiritual Pied Piper spiritual heroes for many people in the unreformed fundamentalist Muslim world. Even American homegrown terrorists who want to attack America and the West often express profound admiration for the martyred Osama bin Laden. For American leaders to imply that Al Qaeda, Hamas, or ISIS are defeated because their leaders are killed is like saying Christianity died when Jesus Christ was crucified.
We can see in Osama bin Laden`s life trajectory evidence of what has been called “Dark Epiphanies” in destructive cult leaders. (Olsson, 2017, Malignant Pied Pipers of Our Time p. 11-12). These later life experiences reify and magnify their earlier molding experiences of disappointment, neglect, shame, and humiliation influenced by parents and other childhood defective role models. In adolescent or young adult life phases, antiheroes are often chosen to rebel against and counteract disappointment or humiliation/shame experiences with parental figures and home communities.
Hamas, ISIS, and Al Qaeda’s appeal has a potential unique “fit” for normal adolescent rebelliousness. Anna Freud said of adolescents, “On the one hand, they throw themselves enthusiastically into the life of the community, and on the other, they have an overpowering longing for solitude. They oscillate between blind submission to some self-chosen leader and defiant rebellion against any and every authority. They are selfish and materially minded and at the same time full of lofty idealism.” [Freud, A. Pp 137-138.) What would be normal adolescent rebellion and protest for some young people, becomes terrorist actions under Hamas, ISIS, and Al Qaeda’s tutelage. The Arab world’s turmoil creates many young adults who are in the phase of what psychoanalysts call “prolonged adolescence.”
In addition to enlisting well-educated youth as future leaders, radical Islamists like Osama also recruit poor and less-educated Muslim “foot soldiers” through religious Madrassah schools and some young-adult mosque programs and activities. Osama’s personal suffering, use of his and his father’s wealth to help fellow Muslims, his supposed bravery and heroism in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan, made his rebellious jihad appealing to disaffected Arab and Muslim youth. The Madrassah-type “schools” in Pakistan for example, offer economic advantages and spiritual inspiration to families and Muslim communities that have few alternatives. Even via TikTok, many thousands of American youths recently found Osama bin Laden’s treacherous and destructive “Letter to the World” bizarrely inspiring.
Osama bin Laden’s role as a terrorist leader allowed him to act out his unconscious inner narcissistic rage at his father, mother, siblings, rejecting homeland and Saudi Arabia’s oil customer/ally/friend America. In this sense, he became like most destructive cult leaders. Their deepest motives have to do with power, control, revenge, and overcoming a desperate fear of aloneness and meaninglessness. They gain a sense of power and mastery over their own childhood psychological deformities and feelings of insignificance by becoming overwhelmingly significant and powerful in the lives and destinies of their followers.
Apocalyptic Scenarios: Group-Self Death and Rebellious Martyrdom in Terror Cults
Rebellious charisma in a terror leader meshes with the followers’ masochism and narcissistic passive-receptiveness to his charismatic influence. The leader-follower patterns in terror cults like Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIS are remarkably similar to what is seen in apocalyptic cults like those of Jim Jones and David Koresh.
The group death or martyr scenario gives the terror-cult group a special, exciting, and dramatically triumphant defining martyr myth. It becomes a source of “underdog” heroism, and paradoxical group cohesion and identity. For bin Laden, the motivating apocalyptic scenario was his assertion that all Muslims in the world are being threatened by the West, particularly by Americans and Jews. In a book bin Laden wrote in 1998, he called the faithful to a global jihad, a “new vision” that demands the deaths of all Americans and Jews, including children. To attain this cynical and religion-perverting vision, any violence is justified, from terrorist bombings to suicide missions.
Evil is defined initially by the leader bin Laden via fatwa, but gradually becomes co-authored within the group-self as their own group salvation death myth. The codependent leader holds the martyr death myth out to the followers as magical reward. The terror cult leader also holds the death myth over the heads of the followers to magnify the special domain of his “mana” power and self-importance. The leader is needed for the dramatic destructive action that is being planned, for which no one individual takes personal responsibility. The leader experiences the ultimate “celebrity” and fantasized triumph over his lifelong insecurity, hurts, and fear of aloneness.
The future generations of Hamas, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezb’allah’s terror cult franchises will not be eliminated by bullets, missiles, or “smart bombs.” The future foreign policies of America need to be informed about the social-self psychology of the terrorist group and its leaders’ spiritual-political power messages. Devastated communities, families, and wounded group-selves in war-torn nations continents away are ignored at our peril. Billions of military aid dollars given to Middle East “friends” may not be worth the enemy-accumulating consequences. “Nation-building” may be impossible, but we cannot just walk away from financially and spiritually devastated societies. Genuine foreign aid helps wounded world communities find ways to rebuild their own dignity and group self-confidence. Hopefully without the “help” and inspiration of malignant Pied Pipers like Osama bin Laden and their heirs. Our own American youth require the charisma and spiritual leadership and inspiration of our diverse founding father heroes who need to be read and studied and not torn down by spiritually empty professors.