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The Nature and Nurture Of a Fanatical Believer

A Void Filled to the Brim With Hatred

By Ken Ringle Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, September 25, 2001; Page C01

What Jerrold Post wants you to understand is that, as new and frightening as the war against terrorism may appear, the psychological dynamics of the terrorist himself are essentially the same as those America battled in World War II and other conflicts of the 20th century.

The suicidal terrorist, he says, is simply an extreme example of "the true believer" described by social philosopher Eric Hoffer in a landmark book of that name half a century ago -- the individual whose inner sense of worthlessness, confusion or rage seeks refuge and validating rebirth within a charismatic mass movement.

Once the true believer marched to national martyrdom for Hitler. How much more exalting is martyrdom today in the name of God.

Post, a George Washington University psychiatry professor and co-author of 1997's "Political Paranoia -- The Psychopolitics of Hatred," has spent his whole career probing the terrorist psyche. He says the key to unlocking it lies in understanding the degree to which today's terrorist feels a need to subordinate his own weak personality to the demonizing charisma of someone like Osama bin Laden.

The subordination is, Post says, "a form of mental one-stop shopping" for excuses as to why the terrorist's life is less than he feels it should be.

Once inside that comforting mental box, the terrorist can be aimed like a missile, Post says.

Underlying this hunger to belong, the psychiatrist says, is a "fragmented identity" that may be rooted in a broken or troubled family; in economic, cultural or geographic dislocation, or in the spiritual emptiness of a modern world seen as amorphous and alienating.

As Hoffer pointed out in "The True Believer," Post notes, the same psychological needs have lured many to zeal in such diverse mass movements as communism, fascism, Zionism, militant Christianity and even pacifism.

"Faith in a holy cause," Hoffer wrote, "is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."

Post, a career political psychologist who served 21 years in the CIA, testified as an expert witness in the trial of Khalfan Mohammed, convicted in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He has compiled detailed psychological profiles of dozens of jailed terrorists in the Middle East and says the most disturbing aspect about them is how normal they appear.

Though rarely the hot-eyed fanatics of popular imagination, he says, they almost all see the world in absolutist terms -- all black or white, no gray -- whether from the ranks of the poor and undereducated or from the college-schooled middle class.

For example, several of those involved in last week's hijackings appear to have come from middle-class or wealthy families in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and had college degrees.

Although some may have been living under stolen identities, Post says, "the remarkable thing is that they were able to live for extended periods in the West without detection, exposed to Western culture, sustaining within them the commitment to destroy both others and themselves."

Post compares them to the terrorists of the Weather Underground who bombed the U.S. Capitol and other sites in the 1960s and '70s. Virtually all were college-educated children of the American middle class.

"At times of social stress," he says, "family dynamics often get played out politically. If the father is identified with a culture or regime viewed as corrupt or valueless, the youth who feels alienated or rejected can fight back by adopting a revolutionary mind-set."

If the parents are moderate Muslims, the reaction against them can be acted out in the Islamic fundamentalism espoused by bin Laden, himself the son of a wealthy Saudi family.

For more than 30 years, such Muslim fundamentalists have blamed every setback in the Islamic world -- from economic recession to Israeli victories -- on what they see as the corruption of classical Islam by Western culture, most of which they see rooted in the United States.

What is needed to counter those corrupting forces, they believe, is a purification of the faith (returning it to its non-Westernized fundamentals) and a revival of the religious practices and militancy they are taught characterized the "Golden Age of Islam" in the Middle Ages.

Once these fundamentalists are caught up in such a group rationale, Post says, it becomes to them not only morally permissible to strike out against this enemy, but morally imperative. Yet most religious zealots who strike out at external devils do so with rhetoric or political action or some other means short of spilling blood. What sets apart religious terrorists, Post says, is the way they rationalize the taking of innocent life in the face of their faith's laws against both suicide and murder.

In the case of Islam, the many tenets of the Koran that call for mercy, tolerance, patience and charity are simply overridden by those who see their faith in eternal holy war against infidels.

David Ronfeldt, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corp., speaks of the "time war" in the Islamic terrorist mind: an effort to challenge the 21st century with medieval ideals.

The peculiar genius of terrorists like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Osama bin Laden has been to persuade their followers that almost all aspects of modern culture -- from scientific rationalism to Hollywood movies and unveiled women -- are assaults on Islam for which the only antidote is violence.

In bin Laden's scenario, the death of a bomb-bearing terrorist is not suicide: It is istishad, an Arabic word meaning martyrdom in the service of Allah. And to such extremists, even the incineration of children can be rationalized in the jihad aimed at expelling the United States from the Middle East and thus purifying the faith.

Obviously, most Muslims don't agree. The Arabic word"jihad" literally means to struggle for the cause of religion. For a Muslim, the struggle involves striving to be a better person, donating money to the poor, fulfilling obligations toward the faith and, in extreme cases, fighting in defense of Islam.

Abdul-Moti Bayoumi of the Islamic Research Center at Cairo's al-Azhar University, mainstream Islam's top seat of learning, says for this last aspect of jihad to be legal, it must fulfill several conditions. Among them: A Muslim should not provoke the aggression; a Muslim should fight only the one who fights him; and children, women and the elderly should be spared.

"There is no terrorism in jihad or a threat to civilians," Bayoumi told the Associated Press after the hijacking.

Bayoumi is inclined to justify suicide attacks against Israel as the only available weapons in an unequal war, but the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, sharply disagrees. The country's chief interpreter of Islamic doctrine declared in April that suicide of any kind is "strictly forbidden in Islam."

Post says those terrorists imprisoned in Israel for arranging suicide bombings, far from regretting their actions, evidence great pride in them, even when the self-disintegrated bomber in question was a loved one.

They and other extremist Muslims interpret literally -- and frequently -- a passage in the Koran that promises martyrs of a jihad the choicest spot in Paradise -- a tranquil garden where streams flow with honey and decanters with non-inebriating wine, and each warrior is attended by scores of doe-eyed houris whose virginity is perpetually renewed.

Who wouldn't want that, they ask. For most such terrorists, it's their highest ambition.

"These are not people, for the most part, looking for their 15 minutes of fame," Post says. "Some 40 percent of terrorist attacks are never claimed by any group. They don't need to be, because to these people they have sacred significance. Allah has seen them and He's the only one who counts."

The most disturbing thing about today's world, Post says, is that so many faced with spiritual confusion, economic uncertainty and political upheaval in the Middle East find more comfort in the messianic militancy and lock-step obedience of terrorism than in the entrepreneurial opportunities of democracy.

Somehow, he says, America and its allies must find a way to reach out to alienated young Muslims and meet the psychological needs answered by membership in terrorist organizations. It cannot be simply a matter of killing them, he says.

He says there is a brainwashing component in the organizational psyche of terrorist groups that can usually be countered by education together with measures that demythologize successful terrorists, sow dissension within the organizations and facilitate the exit of recruits through rewards and other means.

But he says Americans need to understand that terrorism can't be eliminated in the United States without the government adopting the repressive measures of a totalitarian state. The best Americans can hope for, he says, is to reduce it to the occasional small incident they can live with -- another predictable risk of our all-too-unpredictable age.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 27, 2001


Simple analogy is to a cult as far as I'm concerned.

-- Uncle Fred (, September 27, 2001.

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