TCS Daily

Ignoring bin Laden

By Brian E. Finch - April 1, 2002 12:00 AM

America loves to personalize its conflicts. Whether it is King George III, the Kaiser, Hitler or Saddam Hussein, America has a history of singling out a foe to focus our rage upon and put a face to the evil. Our current war on terror is, understandably, no different, as the enemy du jour is Osama bin Laden. A great of deal of the public and political debate has focused on defeating bin Laden, and some (such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle) have even suggested America will have failed if we do not find bin Laden.

While personifying the enemy may be a good way to channel collective rage, it does not provide a useful measuring stick for the progress of a war. The capture or death of an enemy leader will not necessarily end the war - World War II did not end when the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was killed in a carefully planned air attack. Similarly, Adolf Hitler and his staff toasted the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945 as a turning point. A month later Hitler lay dead by his own hand and his vaunted military was crushed.

Personifying our war against terror as one against bin Laden is in many ways counter-productive. Capturing or killing bin Laden will not achieve our primary objective of securing America from future terrorist attacks. Perhaps more importantly, identifying bin Laden as the critical figure in our fight will only embolden him and his supporters. In fact, our best course of action lies with (at least publicly) ignoring bin Laden.

To understand why devaluing bin Laden is so important, one has to understand what makes him and his followers "tick." To aid in such an analysis, one has to turn to professional terrorist "profilers," whose job it is to examine terrorist behavior in order to understand why they act as they do and how such actions betray weaknesses that can be exploited. Such information can prove to be of great value in fighting terrorism.

One of the leading terrorist profilers in the nation is George Washington University Professor Jerrold M. Post. Dr. Post is quite fond of saying that with respect to terrorists "the cause is not the cause"; i.e. the stated cause (political grievances, religious motivations etc.) is not the reason for the violent acts. Dr. Post argues instead that underlying psychological issues drives terrorists. These psychological issues come in many forms, including aggressive sociopathic behavior, narcissism, and paranoia.

In the case of bin Laden, one sees the development of an extreme form of narcissism. In several interviews (including with Wolf Blitzer of CNN and the Australian Broadcasting Company) Dr. Post attempted to describe how bin Laden developed his self-anointed jihad against the West. According to Dr. Post, bin Laden has developed a "grandiose" view of himself, which was nurtured by his experiences in the Afghan/Soviet conflict of the 1980s. Bin Laden gained an incredibly loyal following in Afghanistan in the 1980s when he helped lead the fight against Soviet invaders. Bin Laden gave away millions of dollars to help the fight, and in return his followers adulated him and regarded him as a "messianic" leader. Dr. Post described the bin Laden of the 1980s as one part philosopher and one part king with a band of loyal, well trained fighters.

When the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan, however, bin Laden was a warrior king without an enemy. This "enemy deprivation" left bin Laden to find a new enemy lest his regal status disappear. He looked around and found his new foe: America (this was the same America that - despite bin Laden's claims otherwise - was so critical in helping bin Laden and others defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan). Bin Laden saw America, with its troops "occupying" Islamic holy land in Saudi Arabia, as his new enemy. America in his mind was leading the fight against Islam, causing pain and suffering for Muslims across the globe, and he saw himself as the only man who could stop this unholy threat. He had stopped the Soviets, why not America?

Dr. Post calls bin Laden's refocusing of enemies a hallmark of a "destructive charismatic." Such a person is able to identify a single enemy and point to all the discontent and unhappiness in the world as being its fault. According to such a leader, getting rid of that enemy will lead to unimaginable holy rewards.

Bin Laden tirelessly sounded the call of this new jihad in a message that resonated with a group of disaffected Muslims across the globe. Specifically, bin Laden's message appealed to the followers of an unusually radical form of Islam. Preaching to a pool of poor disaffected Muslims, clerics have been spreading a message for years that the secular West represents all that is evil and its purpose is to destroy Islam. This version of Islam exploits the lie that Muslims across the globe are being victimized, oppressed and slaughtered by the West.

These Muslims exhibit, according to Dr. Post, a "readiness to yield to authority, a readiness to be dependent in the service of a powerful, strong leader." Bin Laden exploits that readiness by acting almost as a "prophet" and focusing all their discontent and unhappiness on one foe - America. The people who believe this readily believe that bin Laden is the one to lead the struggle against the West, and if they destroy America, Allah will reward them. They have no ambivalence about their actions because they are carrying out Allah's will. Twisted interpretations of the Koran are offered by bin Laden and his clerics so that the traditional Islamic notion of tolerance is ignored, and the prohibitions against killing and suicide are explained away as being justified in pursuit of a jihad against infidels.

Bin Laden also exploits his followers by spinning tales of prophetic dreams. For instance, Prof. Sulayman Nyang, professor of Islamic and African Studies at Howard University, noted how in one videotape released to the Western media, bin Laden speaks of dreams in order to manipulate potential and actual followers. In those tapes, bin Laden discussed how he and others had dreams foreseeing the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, bin Laden was able to plant the thought that he was somehow a favorite of Allah because he saw into the future. These "prophetic" dreams (which according to Prof. Nyang were no doubt self-fulfilling prophecies) serve as "powerful associations in the minds of unsophisticated and unschooled Muslims." By making it appear as though Allah has selected him as a leader, bin Laden has sown fertile ground in which to develop more followers.

This pool of recruits has only grown more adoring of bin Laden over the past decade as his string of successes against the West and America grew longer. Bin Laden ordered attacks against U.S. embassies and military targets served as undeniable evidence that he was the person to lead the Islamic world in its struggle to protect itself. Adding to bin Laden's stature was the ineffective reaction of the West, and in particular America. bin Laden and his followers saw how America recoiled in horror to 18 deaths in Somalia and slinked away ingloriously. Similarly, the cruise missile strike against bin Laden in 1998 enhanced bin Laden's status. Not only did the vaunted American military fail to harm bin Laden, it also (in his mind) showed that it was not willing to confront him but instead only strike with the "weapon of cowards" - cruise missiles.

Bin Laden further developed his following by seizing upon popular issues in the Muslim world. For example, bin Laden has identified his struggle as one in part designed to save oppressed Palestinians and lift the "genocidal" sanctions on Iraq. In truth, according to Dr. Post, neither issue actually "gripped" bin Laden. He had never previously identified with either cause, and in fact has drawn significant anger from Palestinian leaders for identifying himself with their fight. Dr. Post calls bin Laden's actions "opportunistic" ways to gather more causes under his umbrella and further expand his base.

Thus, bin Laden is at heart a runaway narcissist, with delusions of being the "commander in chief of radial Islam." In that role, bin Laden sees himself as leading the fight against the corruption of the modernizing, secular West that poses such a threat to his version of a "pure" Islam. This narcissism and his grand belief in himself (so much so that he almost identifies himself with Allah) compels him to fight the U.S. and the West, and he exploits rather adroitly feelings of hatred amongst his followers. As he is singled out more and more as a threat, so grows his stature and the readiness of Muslims to follow him.

Understanding then what makes bin Laden tick, what lessons do we draw from that? First and foremost, according to Dr. Post we must avoid personalizing the fight with bin Laden. Doing so only plays into his hands, and expands his grandiose thoughts. One way to depersonalize the conflict would be to reduce the reward on bin Laden's head from $25 million to a single dollar. Dr. Post argues that such a large reward only gives credence to the claim that he is a courageous leader in the Islamic world for standing up to a giant superpower (a mistake Dr. Post argues we also made with Saddam Hussein). By deemphasizing bin Laden, the U.S. helps to transform the fight into a war against terror, not a man or even a religion as a whole. Reducing the bounty on bin Laden's head would go a long way to deflating his grand vision of himself. (For another view on the subject of bounties, see Randall Lutter's articles on the economics of bounty hunting here and here.)

At the same time, Dr. Post emphasizes how bin Laden is utilizing the highly radical form of Islam to build his following. In order to counteract these virulent sentiments, Dr. Post suggests that the U.S. has to act early in order to preclude disaffected Muslim youth from being indoctrinated into this distorted view of Islam. To inhibit the pool of recruits, the West needs to counteract the growth of the radical Islam bin Laden exploits. This will mean confronting radical Islam's main sponsors - such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- and forcing them to quiet the voices that support the notion of the West as the enemy. Sadly, according to Dr. Post, mere exposure to Western culture is not enough. Citing the example of Mohammed Atta (the 9/11 ring leader) he notes how his followers put themselves in a "psychological cocoon" when exposed to the West and its values. They have become captives to their view of radical Islam, and they simply ignore notions of freedom and democracy when exposed to them just as Atta did.

Understanding that bin Laden is an opportunistic leader who exploits whatever political ill is available in order to enlarge his following and build upon his vision of himself as the grand protector of Islam, the U.S. must do what it takes to destroy that vision. To that end, the U.S. and in particular the media has to (in a sense) forget about bin Laden. There should be no more headlines simply about the "Hunt for bin Laden" or how "Bin Laden Evades U.S." or how the "U.S. Ratchets Up Search for bin Laden." Instead, the U.S. should focus on fighting terror across the globe, how it is steadily dismantling terrorist groups and decreasing threats with each day.

Fundamentally bin Laden is nothing without a following, and if the U.S. can squash his current support and drain the swamp in which his followers are bred, it will go a long way in winning the fight against terror. This however requires resisting the temptation to single out bin Laden. The U.S. may be many things to bin Laden, but the last thing it needs to be is his enabler.

Brian E. Finch is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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