Psychiatrist: Suicide bombers not 'crazy'

By LOU MARANO  |  Dec. 7, 2001 at 4:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Muslim extremists who carry out suicidal attacks against Western targets are neither mentally disturbed nor deviant within their own cultural milieu, a specialist in political psychiatry said.

Moreover, suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network will not die with him, and the anti-American hatred being taught in Islamic schools even in "moderate" Muslim states serves the interests of the leadership of those states and will last for generations.

Jerrold M. Post spent 21 years with the CIA, where he founded and directed the Center for the analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. His address Thursday to a luncheon forum of the Women's National Democratic Club was "Killing in the Name of God: Osama bin Laden and Radical Islam."

Post played a leading role in developing psychological profiles of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in advance of the historic meeting at Camp David in 1978 that produced a peace treaty between the two countries. After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he developed a profile of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in advance of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Post has been developing a profile of Osama bin Laden for the past four years.

He testified at the New York City trial of bin Laden's al Qaida terrorists who bombed the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania in 1998. The political psychiatrist spent 16 hours interviewing one of those bombers, tracing the path on which the man was taken from his boyhood on the island of Zanzibar to what he came to believe was a mission for Allah.

Post drew his conclusions from such interviews and from those of 35 Middle Eastern terrorists incarcerated in Palestinian and Israeli jails. Twenty are radical Islamists from Hezbollah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad.

Post emphasized that the prisoners "are not psychologically disturbed people. ... It's very important not to think of them as crazed psychotics and suicidal fanatics. In their own cultural matrix, an increasing number of people want to do this."

Post said that in the Israeli Occupied Territories, the militant organizations are turning away volunteers who want to be suicide bombers "because they're not considered to be sincere enough," and the commanders "are seeking out normal individuals for the cause."

Post drew distinctions between suicide bombers in Israel from those al Qaida agents who operated in the United States.

In Israel, the terrorists were young, age 17-22, unmarried, unemployed and uneducated. Often they joined the militant organization only a short time before their mission, convinced by their masters that to become a human bomb would give meaning to their lives, that "they would be joining a hall of martyrs" and bring honor to their families, which would also receive financial benefits.

Those who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States were older than the Palestinian bombers. Some were well-educated, and came from comfortable backgrounds in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Most troubling, Post said, they had lived in the West for years and knew it well.

Islam is the world's largest religion, with more than a billion adherents, making up some 23 percent of the earth's population.

"It is for the most part by no means an aggressive religion," Post said, but quickly added that "it was born in conflict" and verses in the Koran can be interpreted to mean, "Striking out at the unbeliever."

Post described the Koran as "a merciful and compassionate text" that proscribes suicide in clear and unambiguous terms. Interviewers who asked the 20 Islamist radicals, the commanders of the young suicide bombers, how they could reconcile their actions with Muslim teachings were met with bridling indignation.

"This is not suicide," one said. "Suicide is selfish, weak and psychologically disturbed. This is ... self-sacrifice in the service of Allah."

In 1997, an Israeli military court sentenced Hassan Salameh, of Hamas, to 46 life terms for planning the three suicide bombings in 1996 that left 46 people dead, brought down the government of Labor Party Prime Minister Shimon Peres and resulted in the election of hard-line Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Salameh said a suicide bombing "is the highest level of jihad, and highlights the depth of our faith. The bombers are holy fighters who are carrying out one of the most important articles of our faith."

What about innocent victims?

"I am not a murderer," another commander retorted. "A murderer is someone with a psychological problem. Armed actions have a goal. Even if civilians are killed, it is not because we like it or are bloodthirsty. It is a fact of life in a people's struggle. ... The jihad must go on."

Post explained how "jihad of the sword," as interpreted by Islamist extremists, differs from other forms of terrorism.

He said that most terrorists seek to influence the West by calling attention to their cause through acts of violence. Hence, there exists a "red line" past which they will not go. Too horrific an act of catastrophic terrorism is counterproductive. He used the August 1998 bombing of the Northern Irish town of Omagah by the "Real IRA" that killed 29 people, many of them women and children, as an example of crossing the red line.

Formerly, Post said, terrorists could be divided into the radical separatist, or nationalist, factions and the Marxist-Leninist social revolutionaries. Both varieties wanted to call attention to their cause. However, he said, "In the past 10 years, 40 percent of terrorist action have had no responsibility claimed."


"We believe these are the acts of an increasingly dangerous and prominent group -- the radical, fundamentalist terrorist -- who are not trying to influence the West. They are trying to expel the West. So there is no constraint on their actions.

"Moreover, they don't need the New York Times headline or a CNN story. Their audience is God, and God knows. So this is a very different kind of group, and in my judgment by far the most dangerous." This is because they are not conflicted about violence, and as true believers they accept the authority of religious leaders who tell them, "This is God's will."

"In a jihad, there are no red lines," Post said.

He traced the odyssey of bin Laden to show how the suspected terrorist leader has become a romantic figure in the Islamic world.

Bin Laden was only 11 years old when his father, a multi-billionaire died. (Another source puts his age at 13.) At age 16, he was given $57 million, his portion of the estate, Post said. He was the only child of the least-favored of his father's 10 wives, with whom he produced 51 children.

"A leader really isn't formed until he encounters his followers," Post said. "The follower-ship that Osama bin Laden encountered in Afghanistan was of fundamental importance in transforming him psychologically and provided the foundation of a destructive charismatic movement."

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the young Osama organized a group of Arabs to fight in that mountainous country. Post said that initially 5,000 men of bin Laden's group came from Saudi Arabia, 3,000 came from Algeria, and 2,000 came from Egypt.

"And there they really did adore him. Here was this man from an opulent background, living in caves, giving them his fortune to build clinics, hospitals, to buy ammunition, and preaching all the time, although he has no religious credentials.

"And with the significant help of the United States, ironically, they succeeded in bringing a superpower down. In Islam, it is said that Allah is on the side of the weak and the helpless. How could this small, ragtag group bring down one of the superpowers unless Allah was on their side?"

Post said this success gave bin Laden and his followers a special sense of mission and the confidence to go forward. "He carved out the mission at this time to reconstruct the Islamic nation around the world. ... But there was a problem. He was by now a warrior king with his loyal band of followers, and they had lost their enemy. There's nothing worse for a warrior king than to lose his enemies.

"So he goes back to Saudi Arabia at the time of the Gulf crisis in 1991, finds to his horror the American infidel encamped on holy Saudi lands, and we become the new enemy."

This eventually resulted in bin Laden's 1998 fatwa that said God has instructed all Muslims to kill any Americans wherever they can be found and to plunder their property.

Post called attention to what he called bin Laden's "remarkable spiral of triumphs": the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers U.S. barracks at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the 2000 attack on the USS Cole; and finally the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Surely this could not have been accomplished without Allah's help," Post said. "In an explosion of narcissism, bin Laden now sees himself as the commander in chief of the Islamic world against the secular modernizing 'crusaders' George Bush and Tony Blair.

Post said that those Western leaders, "to their credit, are working very hard to convey that this is not a war against Islam but a war against terrorists." Bin Laden, however, "has been quite successful with his own constituency, where he is seen as a romantic hero with the courage to strike out against the most powerful nation on earth."

The former CIA analyst said that unlike other radical movements, the end of bin Laden and the Taliban would not be the end of al Qaida.

"He is the CEO of a holding company of semi-autonomous terrorist organizations," Post said, estimating the number of cells at 30-55 around the world. "This is only the tip of the iceberg of the phenomenon of radical Islam that has been growing with great power, a major threat to moderate modernizing Arab nations, a virulent brand of anti-American Islam" that is taught to children in madrassas (religious schools).

"It is hatred bred in the bone," Post said, "and it's going to take generations to turn the tide against them."

In Egypt, which receives some $2 billion in U.S. aid per year, "there is a virulent anti-American press which isn't at all constrained by the leadership." Saudi Arabia also is threatened by radical Islamic fundamentalism, but it also supports the madrassas in which children are taught to hate America and the West.

In both cases, Post said, it is convenient for the leaders of those countries to deflect hatred from their own unpopular regimes to the United States. He said, "There's a tie-in with the regimes" and their Muslim clerics, which explains why those imams have been "strangely mute" about ultra-violent Islamist fundamentalists and do not criticize the curricula at the madrassas.

Asked why the United States is the object of such hatred, the psychiatrist replied: "It's an unfortunate consequence of being the most powerful nation on earth." The powerful are always envied and resented by the powerless, he said.

The thinking goes: "It's not us; it's them. They are responsible for our problems. And if you kill them, it's not only not immoral, it is God's imperative and you will be rewarded.

"We have not seen the end of this and will not with the death of bin Laden," said Post, who played down the possibility of cooperation between al Qaida and Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a highly rational calculator, Post said. The Iraqi strongman probably would not give weapons of mass destruction to a group not under his full control because of the danger of U.S. retaliation.

Based on FBI sources, Post said he believes the origin of the recent anthrax-contaminated letters is not Iraq but from within the United States. He said he does not "favor swiftly changing course from going after bin Laden to Saddam Hussein in a military fashion." This would be a "highly destructive thing to do that would promote outrage in the Arab world, where we are beginning to build some bridges."

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