Homeland Security

Deconstructing the Psycho-Political Profile of a Terrorist
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Issue Vol. 34.2 Apr-Jun 2019 | Date : 19 Jul , 2019

The term terrorism can be traced to the Latin word ‘terrere’, which means ‘to frighten’ and the French suffix, ‘isme’ – ‘to practice’. The term was used in ancient Rome and is nearly 2,100 years old. The continuum of discourse on terrorism projects the intriguing question of what makes one a terrorist. What profiles a terrorist? What makes him or her do the things he or she does and the most important being the why. Why does he or she do it? Is it ideology, money, importance, identity or an aspect of each? It is difficult to find a definitive explanation for this. The aim here is to explore the mindset of the terrorist; to put it crudely, ‘what is it that makes him tick’.

There seems to be socio-economic factors which really give certain amount of recourse to terrorists, using their own means, to achieve personal or political objectives. Of course, each of the cases are different, as is wont to be, but a common thread is dissatisfaction of their personal lives which manifests itself in their later political, ideological discourse. Michel Foucault, the French post modernist, has been hugely influential in shaping understanding of power, leading away from the analysis of actors who use power as an instrument of coercion and even away from the discreet structures, in which those actors operate, toward the idea that power is everywhere, diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1991). Truth is a thing of this world; it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint and it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regimes of truth, its general politics of truth.” (Foucault 1991)

Therefore, Foucault in Power, in a sense, almost points to the manipulations of the regimes of truth. The thread running through that the two have chosen, seemed to portray this kind of truth. Truth and Power which Foucault keeps revisiting in literature, science, psychology, labour, portray and intertwine with human experiences. Even with a certain amount of structuralism that Foucault accords himself; he still thinks that more attempts should be made to study the idea of truth, reason and power.

Indoctrination and propaganda were the means by which the Nazis aimed to secure voluntary support for the new regime…

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945)

Hitler, leading up to the Second World War considered himself a leader of the German people. Germany was badly defeated in the First World War and needed to sign the treaty of Versailles. The Treaty was thought of as an asymmetric one, presented by the victor to the vanquished since elements of it were like the demilitarisation of the Rhineland and the Saar region, the non-exploitation of the Ruhr mines, the problem of Alsace-Loraine and disbanding of the German army. This was to put Germany supposedly in its rightful place of never trying to be an aggressor again.

The Germans were bitter and the rise of Hitler was quick and effective. He emerged as the man of the hour and the liberator of the German people who, following a strong leader like Hitler were by and large regaining their identity and spirit lost in the First World War. Initially, it was his latent leadership qualities and later fear and much later, giving up their own thinking, and taking refuge in ‘we were following orders’.

Can Hitler Actually be Termed a Terrorist?

Adolf was born on April 20, 1889, in the small Austrian town of Braunau am Inn to Alois Hitler’s second wife Klara Pöelzl. She bore six children of which Adolf was the fourth. Hitler did not do particularly well in school. He started out as a leader, but lost his popularity and began enacting battles from the Boer War with younger children. At the age of 15, after he failed his examinations and left school in 1905 without a formal education.

After his father’s death, at the age of 18, he moved to Vienna with money inherited from his father in order to pursue a career in art, his best subject in school. His applications for admission to the Vienna Academy of Art and the School of Architecture were rejected. Were these the beginnings of the makings of a convoluted, rejected mind? May be so!

Not being psychologically secure increased his insecurities. However, it was at this time that Hitler became interested in politics and also observed how masses could be made to respond to certain situations. He was particularly impressed with the anti-semitic, nationalist Christian – Socialist party. It is said that his great-grandmother was Jewish! During the First World War, he fought in the German Army, became a Corporal and won several awards for bravery including the Iron Cross First Class. In October 1918, he was blinded in a mustard gas attack. Germany surrendered while Hitler was still in hospital. He became depressed about this.

The semantics of his terrorist mindset were well thought out as seen in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ with the underlying ‘do’s and don’ts’ of citizenship…

In 1919, Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers Party, an anti-Semitic, nationalist group as a spy for the German Army. He reluctantly gave his first speech which cemented his reputation as an amazing orator. The main theme of his speech mirrored the disappointment and injustices Germany faced as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. His speeches incited near hysteria and his own rising popularity. This gave him a boost up the ranks and by 1921, was the leader of the re-named National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi). Poor economic conditions, inflation and unemployment helped in the Party rising and by 1923, Nazi had 56,000 members and more supporters. One cannot but think that the people really did not know what they were getting into. The mere fact that a person wanted to lead them and seemed to have solutions to the problem served enough.

On November 8 and 9 in 1923, Hitler adopted the Nazi Beer Hall Putsch. He hoped to have the Bavarian Government work with the Nazis and march together on to Berlin. This attempt having failed, Hitler was tried for treason and jailed. His major treatise, ‘Mein Kampf’, which formulated his political ideas and strategy, was written in jail. By 1930, 6.5 million votes were ascribed to the Nazis. In the Presidential elections of 1932, Hitler came second. On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg was forced to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, because of his popular support. Hitler set about consolidating his party and his position. He regained emergency powers. This is how he eliminated all opposition and after the death of Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler secured his position in Germany. It was after overturning the Weimar Republic or rather doing away with the constraints of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 that Hitler personalised power in the name of the Führer. It meant destruction also of the independence of trade unions, the judiciary and professional bodies. The whole process was accomplished by a policy of enforced coordination (Gleichschaltung) which imposed officials into all layers of the system; this meant the building of new structures – political, economic and policing. The entire purpose of these changes was to build a people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) which rested on racial principles and targeted minorities that had been ideologically ‘rejected’.

By disabling the legislature, Hitler assumed power and infused gratitude in the German people by withdrawing from the League of Nations in 1933 and getting Saar to reunite with Germany. Rhineland was reoccupied in March 1936, the Anschluss in April 1938 and State (Länder) representation was given a short shrift. Actually, an elaborate process emerged, de-institutionalising most institutions and setting up new ones. Hitler’s Nazi ideology was based on power and race. The Aryans were to be the race to perpetuate themselves. Those close to leaders, carrying out his orders and coming into some of their own were Goebbels, Himmler, Goering, Borman and Rosenberg. They all subscribed to a totalitarian state and anti-Semitism.

One has to introspect as to whether Bin Laden’s iconic stature was the consequence of an overreaction by the US…

Indoctrination and propaganda were the means by which the Nazis aimed to secure voluntary support for the new regime. Coercion and terror were reserved for those individuals or groups who failed to respond or those who were not included in the scope of the People’s Community or “Volksgemeinschaft’’. The former process was dominated by Joseph Goebbels and the latter by Heinrich Himmler. It was strategised, manipulated thinking cleverly done by both Goebbels and Himmler. The youth were exposed to repeated propaganda. Theatre, music, the arts were fully exploited as resources to set their minds or change them.

The Gestapo became the official arm of the government to keep an eye on all activities and report misdemeanours. It resulted in declining educational standards. This was due to the distortion of the curriculum and the purges undermining academic standards and creating a vacuum for leadership. During 1933 to 1939, pragmatism diluted ideology. Hitler’s propaganda became more and more the idea of a master race and of trying to conquer the world.

The SS Schutzstaffel became the worst unit; the others, the Gestapo, the secret police and the SD were active in tracking down the Jews and taking them in droves to concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec and Chelmo. Is it his childhood? His sense of rejection and alienation combined with the mistaken fact that he had the vision to lead the world? He managed to have a strategy to move Eastwards. He had the qualities whereby the Western nations – Britain, the US and France were able to look away and actually came with the appeasement policy to pacify Hitler. Hitler took it as a ‘go ahead’ and went Eastwards to take over Poland first.

There is an anomaly here. As Hitler was part of the government, why is he being projected as a terrorist? Actually, the mindset is a terrorising one; the cult he headed, a dangerous one. He was part of the establishment that made the laws to supposedly protect the citizens, but he also strategised that the Jews lost their lives, unprotected and in a brutal manner. The semantics of his terrorist mindset were well thought out as seen in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ with the underlying ‘do’s and don’ts’ of citizenship. He thought of himself as a man with a mission and a leader with a massive following; others thought so too. No terrorist is born; he becomes one. So was the case with Hitler.

Osama Bin Laden was able to extend his influence to Pakistan and induce hatred among the citizenry to create militancy within the state and in Kashmir…

Osama Bin Laden (1957–2011)

Osama Bin Laden as a profile in the psycho-political lexicon seems to be different icon. His childhood, early years, grooming as a mujahideen, all seem to be at variance. What did Osama Bin Laden stand for? Was it just the CIA-led anti-soviet asymmetric war that sucked him and many others like him into what became Al Qaeda, or was it the idea of jihad that he thought would be the first step in a journey towards establishing Islam’s authority over the world or was he a psychopath, an abnormal person, driven by delusion and suffering from complexes? The report of the 9/11 Commission released in 2004, probably reflects the best compilation on the life of Bin Laden, a perspective that obviously varies from that of many radical Muslims for whom Bin Laden symbolised the ‘resistance to an oppressive US-led West’. While a large number of Muslims may tend to believe in the victimhood of Muslims at the hands of the West, a narrative that Al Qaeda and its allies propagate, yet the majority certainly doesn’t subscribe to the militant remedies that Bin Laden’s organisation advocates as a means to achieve its ends.

It is truly both wondrous and shocking that Bin Laden gained a huge following for killing thousands of Americans indiscriminately. How he was able to shape beliefs and spread the message, seizing on symbols, past greatness and restoring pride to the people who thought they had lost theirs. Confronted by the twin of modernity and globalisation, he seemed to be the Messiah with the answers. He protested the support of the US for Israel, his rhetoric selectively draws from multiple sources – Islam, history and the region’s political and economic malaise. The anger misplaced or not against the US was skillfully gathered by him. The US troops in Saudi Arabia and the holy sites of Islam, along with the suffering of the Iraqi people because of the sanctions imposed on it at the end of the Gulf War, were grist to the mill.

One of the scholars from fourteenth century, from whom Osama Bin Laden selectively quotes; Ibn Taimiyyah, condemned both corrupt leaders and the clerics who failed to criticise them. He urged the Muslims to read the Quran and the Hadith for themselves and not to depend on interpretations. A very believable proposition was that the extreme Islamist version of history blames the decline from Islam’s golden age on the rulers and people who turned away from the true path of their religion, thereby leaving Islam vulnerable to encroaching foreign powers eager to steal their land, wealth and even their souls.

The fact of the matter is that though Bin Laden has claims to universal leadership, he appeals mainly to Arabs and Sunnis. According to the Commission report, too, he draws upon fundamentalists who blame the eventual destruction of the Caliphate on leaders who abandoned the pure path of religious devotion. For those looking at a different level of existence, he offers the Caliphate; for the others, simplistic conspiracies to explain their world. Bin Laden also relied upon the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who himself borrowed from Mawdudi. Later, Dr Ayman al Zawahiri, head of Al Queda too, adored Qutb as mentor of modern Islamist thought. Qutb, was executed in 1966, on charges of overthrowing the government, to put out a superficial analysis of Western history and thought. Having been to study in the US in the late 1940s, came back with a loathing of Western society and history. He dismissed Western achievements as entirely material, arguing that Western society possesses “nothing that will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence”.

The line of thinking was more of an Islamised nation state rather than a Western democracy. Two important questions Americans asked ‘Why do they hate us?’ and also ‘What can we do to stop these attacks’? Bin Laden and Al Qaeda gave the following answer. To the first, they say America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims – Israel and Palestine, Russia with Chechens, India in Kashmir and in the Philippines, the ethnic Muslim problem. To the second question as to what should or could America do, Al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture. A ridiculous demand indeed! He made himself the hero of myths which were spun – being militant, irrational and unnecessarily anti-Western. “The success of Al Qaeda operations and America’s ability to respond to them effectively emboldened Osama and increased his stature in the Muslim World,” writes Thomas R Mockaitis.

Islamisation will take a shape of its own and form the basis of contemporary, highly frightening forms of terrorism…

Bin Laden was born in 1957, as the seventeenth of the fifty or so children of Muhammad Bin Awad Bin Laden. His father, a construction magnate, was well connected to the Saudi royal family. After schooling at Al Thagr High School in 1968, he studied Economics at the King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah, without getting a degree. His father died in a plane crash in 1967. He spent his childhood away from the Bin Laden compound, where most of his half brothers and sisters lived. Osama’s first marriage with cousin Najwa Ghanem also took place in Jeddah, followed by three more, that is with Umm Hamza, Umm Khaled and Umm Ali. Umm Hamza was a professor of child psychology and Umm Khaled taught Arabic grammar, according to Lawrence Wright. His wife Najwa Bin Laden and son, Omar Bin Laden collaborated with Jean Sasson to write the book ‘Growing up Bin Laden’. They told her their story. This was published by One World Publications in 2010 and reprinted in 2011.

The book is dedicated to all those who suffered pain or lost their life in terror attacks throughout the world and the families who continue to suffer and mourn them. They prayed for peace all over the world. Najwa has talked poignantly of her life and Omar, though he admired his father in many ways for his bearing with physical discomfort, his focus and other things, but has no idea why he hated people and governments so much. Young Omar was willing to take life that much but not more. His exceptionalism is reflected in the rejection of his father’s ideology and use of violence. Fascinating instances describe Osama Bin Laden, through Omar’s telling of his life both in Khartoum and Afghanistan, especially moving from civilised Jalalabad to the mountains of Tora Bora.

The mystery of why Osama carries his Kalashnikov on his left shoulder and was always thought to be left-handed, is actually in the fact that he almost lost his right eye and has no vision in that, making him comfortable being left handed. A little more about Najwa and Omar in this paper, a glimpse into their secret world makes a fascinating analysis of how Osama turned out the way he became. Osama’s birth in Riyadh may have exposed him to puritanical ideals, and it being in Najd region behoves it to draw from strict interpretations of Islam. But there were others in his family exposed in much the same manner. Why did they not take to the walk in life Osama did? He did not really qualify at anything, neither in Islamic studies, engineering or management. But a plausible explanation could be that the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, 1967, made deep impressions on his ideology as having inflicted humiliation on the Arab world.

The January 1979 Iranian Revolution and the siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque that year, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December also may have left imprints on his psyche, helping shape his world view. This was probably the chance he saw to realise his ideals in Afghanistan. The turning point was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In short, a tangled web was woven and the Soviets driven out, stemming the expansion of Communism. The Mujahideen fought armed by the US, thinking of themselves as the redeeming army. The ensuing expansion of the Mujahideen led to Kabul being captured. Also, it led to a brutal power struggle representing religions (Islamic) or nationalistic Afghan interests. When this ended, Bin Laden offered the Mujahideen to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to stem the Iraqi expansion. He also told him not to let the US on Saudi territory. King Fahd spurned Bin Laden’s offer and requested the US administration to dispatch its forces to the Arab peninsula. More and more Bin Laden was convinced of US hegemonic stance in the world and especially controlling the Muslim rulers. Bin Laden, in the face of his Saudi non-response, had to flee to Sudan in 1992. Thus began his serious terrorist career. He built both a business and a terrorist network in Sudan. It was from here that he orchestrated the first World Trade Centre attack in New York (February 1993); an assault on the US forces in Somalia (October 1993); and two strikes on US forces in Saudi Arabia (November 1995 and June 1996). As Saudi pressure increased, he left for Afghanistan. In October 1994, when the Taliban seized power in Kandahar, he happened to be in Jalalabad. It was from here with ease and being hero worshipped that Bin Laden planned some deadly attacked attacks on the US Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), and the USS Cole aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Aden, near Yemen (2000) and it was from here he worked out the parallel attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Financially, he was well off with the Bin Laden money of a sum of 250-500 million net assets chalked out for him.

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His wealth, organisational set-up gave him a headstart to finance terrorist activities. Sudan showcased his business prowess with several companies as startups and then flourishing – in construction, fruit growing, and tannery. These are a part of his biography, but what made him really a heroic figure was his commanding personality. His piercing eyes, ramrod straight mien, his frugality and asceticism projected a severe ideologue, a true believer showing the path to a true global Islamic Empire. His son Omar, recounting the days in Jalalabad and in Tora Bora says he, Osama, would lay down the law and everybody followed. They seemed to be overwhelmed with his personality, and seemed to want to follow him without any reservations. His command structure was de-centralised and not hierarchical. He gained stature and command in Afghanistan and spread his influence as a true Islamic, jehadi in Pakistan. The semantics of ‘non-state actors’ came into being, forming a force by itself. One of his admirers as well as cohorts was Mullah Omar of Afghanistan and he, at the behest of Osama Bin Laden, destroyed the two giant eighteenth century statues, the Bamiyan Buddhas, which evoked international ire and condemnation. One has to introspect as to whether Bin Laden’s iconic stature was the consequence of an overreaction by the US? Whatever the answer, one has to admit that he became a transnational terrorist heading almost a multinational terrorist corporation. Osama Bin Laden was able to extend his influence to Pakistan and induce hatred among the citizenry to create militancy within the state and in Kashmir where the incited groups were thinking they were fighting a just war. From the memories of his son Omar, it is apparent that Osama adored his mother and was distanced from his biological father, as his parents had divorced, but he was fondly brought up by his stepfather. Nevertheless, he did stay away from the Bin Laden family. Did he feel alienated? Did his later years link up with early childhood and youth?

This is what stuff of Jung and Freud is made of but as Omar, his son, recounts the jihadis were extremely poor, did not have much of a back up and were looking towards gaining status as jihadis in paradise. This dream Osama seemed to fulfil. Profiling Osama’s life, his ‘prophetic foresightedness’ and strategy showed his spartan, sacrificial inner being, thereby, inducing a whole group of followers to admire him and follow in his footsteps, this was his legend.

The personalities and acts reflect each other and quaintly enough, both the personas are very different. Hitler with his Germanic background leading the Nazis in their bid for power, Osama as messiah for Islamic fundamentalism, preaching fervent Islamisation and in his own way, inspiring loyalty amongst his followers and creating a special and specific breed of Islamic soldiers. In this day and age, Osama showed that he could exist without technology; yet he manipulated technology and gained admiration from admittedly the twisted marginal section who applauded Bin Laden’s fight against the Western powers.

Unfortunately today, it gives rise to the myth of an extreme form of xenophobia in almost all countries. The vast majority of nations now have conventional rightist governments, flagging the rightist ideology. So studying the above, seems to make good fodder for understanding what is to follow. It can then be argued, that Islamisation will take a shape of its own and form the basis of contemporary, highly frightening forms of terrorism.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Veena Ravi Kumar

was a senior faculty member at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. She taught international relations, India’s foreign policy and comparative politics. 

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