Osama bin Laden’s Preoccupation with Death

News Abroad

Mr. Reid is writing a book on terrorism and is the author of "Terrorism in the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, 1821-1878," Journal of Modern Hellenism, 12-13 (1995-1996).

My interest in the history of terrorism began when I replaced a professor whose house had been bombed by terrorists from one of the Lebanese militias. I dealt with that circumstance for four years, during which time the class was affected by an assassination near campus, and numerous other problems. Finally, a young man who had attended my classes for four years had been caught with a bomb, and went to prison. Eleven years after the end of the first situation, I received death threats from Bin Laden supporters at another American university.

From 1975, when hidden terrorist cells of a few individuals each committed limited acts of violence--bombings, assassinations, hijackings (without the suicidal final run into a building)-- until the present, terrorism has evolved into ever-more aggressive actions. Historically-speaking, my eyewitness observation of terrorists over that time indicates that prior to 1991, terrorists existed very much in the underground. They did not seek to betray themselves through very overt actions. By 1994, when I taught the second class and received the death threat, Muslim terrorists had become much more open about their intentions.

The lesson of 9/11 is that this terrorism has gone to a stage of even higher violence. For this reason, it is imperative to capture some of these individuals and study their psychology. Keep them alive for a time by the means suggested, and then, once we have learned the lessons they can give us, execute them.

As a historian who has studied the question of Middle East terrorism at its incipient stages in the early to mid-nineteenth century, it is my view that summary executions would prove self-defeating. The leaders of Al-Qa'ida, if we can capture them alive, are mines of information about the terrorists they have trained. Even if they reveal nothing about the networks they have developed, it is possible to understand their psychological orientations by examining them.

For example, as one who has studied the psychology of violence in warfare and terrorism, I can say that Osama Bin Laden has developed to the highest stage of what Erich Fromm called necrophilia. The poem Bin Laden composed on the bombing of the USS Cole indicates this high level of malignant aggression in his fantasy about the disintegration of the sailor's bodies into atomized bits. As a necrophiliac fantasizing about the dismemberment of human bodies, he has also infused the death idea into most of his writings and pronouncements. In an interview with the Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, he stated that he lives for death. Al-Qa'ida represents a perversion of Islam, and Osama Bin Laden has founded a Death Cult with an Islamic mask. He has infused his followers with the idea of killing, preferably large numbers of Americans, including American Muslims willing to live and participate in American culture.

As for his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he possesses a different psychological orientation, but has also developed a high degree of malignant aggression in his attitudes.

The phenomenon of the suicide bomber has extended to such a broad grouping of people, going beyond Bin Laden's network, that any insight into the psychological orientations of these killers willing to take their own lives will assist in preventing further attacks. The only way to learn about these terrorists is to make psychological explorations into the minds of captured terrorists.

Several commentators have noted that these suicide bombers seem"normal." Anyone who has committed himself to the killing of large numbers of other human beings, with the intention of killing himself at the same time has entered into the world of ABNORMAL BEING. There can be no question that a terrorist who commits to planning a destructive act has become paranoid in an abnormal sense at the very least. Bin Laden's diseased mind has reached the highest possible degree of the murderer's disorder. Muhammad al-Turabi of the Sudan has called Bin Laden"normal" in a recent interview. Bin Laden, however, fantasizes about causing death on a large scale, as noted above, and is therefore extremely sick.

Some news commentators have said that terrorism did not exist before September 11, 2001. Those not blessed with an historical consciousness will say such things. As one who has had the unfortunate personal experience of confronting the possibility of terrorist attacks in his own classes in American universities, such assertions that terrorism did not exist before 9/11 are merely proof that many Americans have developed an exceedingly short memory.

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Comment - 12/6/2001

Osama Bin Laden is not an especially abnormal character. It is just that
in wartime, death becomes normal, because everyone reasonably expects to
die soon.
American policy in the middle east has always been to get the oil
without paying very much for it. There has been no suggestion that the
oil was worth a commitment to bring the general standard of living in
the Middle East up to American levels and keep it there. On the
contrary, the United States inherited a British policy of balkanization
and indirect rule, aimed at avoiding the necessity of dealing with a
united Arab nation. Most of the oil sheikdoms resemble the independent
principalities of India, which the widely admired liberal nationalist
prime minister Nehru suppressed when India gained its independence. In
this, he was aided by the outgoing viceroy, Lord Mountbatten.
Without going into who hit who first, Arab terrorism has grown with
American military involvement in the middle east. The United States has
shortsightedly chosen to pursue policies which widen the scope of wars
in the Middle East. The most basic error of course was to become
dependent on Middle Eastern oil. This meant that the demands of
expediency would force us into making war on the Arab people.

Andrew D. Todd
West Virginia University