Evil Charisma: Osama Bin Laden, Hitler and Manson Had It

Psychologists say grandiosity and narcissism can lure cult-like followers.

May 3, 2011, 4:16 PM

May 4, 2011— -- How did Osama bin Laden get hundreds of young recruits to strap bombs to their bodies and persuade well-educated men to fly suicide planes like missiles through the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

Three days after the death of the world's most notorious terrorist, it's useful to ask how some humans have the capacity to spur others into action, especially when it results in the deaths of thousands of innocents.

"I viewed him as a charismatic figure," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, 76, who was co-chairman of the 911 commission, in an interview with New Jersey Network.

"People come along some time who can move crowds who by their personality can attract other people to a movement," he said. "That's what he did. He was one of those people driven by half-genius, half-mad genius, half religion, and he created a lot of trouble in this world. And a lot of people who died in this world because of Osama bin Laden -- in fact, mostly Muslims."

Bin Laden, soft-spoken and somewhat shy, was not conventionally charismatic.

Complete coverage of the death of bin Laden.

Mark Stern, professor emeritus of Iona College in New York and an expert in the psychology of evil and Messianic figures, believes bin Laden was different from other evil charismatics, such as Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson and Jim Jones.

"He had more of a political world view -- more like a desire to save the world than to destroy it and rebuild it in his image," said Stern.

He was a "witness" to the fundamental cause. "The message found him," said Stern. "He didn't find the message."

History is littered with Osama bin Ladens -- former President George W. Bush called them the "evil-doers" -- who wield mesmerizing power over their devoted followers and often possess qualities of grandiosity and charisma.

"We live in a world of social and psychological influence," said Steve Hassan, founder of the Boston-based organization Freedom of Mind and an expert on brainwashing. "Agents of influence are effective at what they do. But some people come along who have a personality type and are often described as narcissistic."

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel ruminated on the same question when he analyzed Hitler: "How did this unstable paranoid find it within himself to impose gigantic hope as an immutable ideal that motivated his nation almost until the end?" At the end of World War II, Germany was devastated by war and 6 million Jews had been exterminated.

"The fact is that Hitler was beloved by his people--not the military, at least not in the beginning, but by the average Germans who pledged to him an affection, a tenderness and a fidelity that bordered on the irrational," said Wiesel in an 1998 essay in Time magazine. "It was idolatry on a national scale. One had to see the crowds who acclaimed him. And the women who were attracted to him. And the young who in his presence went into ecstasy. Did they not see the hateful mask that covered his face? Did they not divine the catastrophe he bore within himself?"

Charles Manson, a Cincinnati-born songwriter and ex-convict, emerged in the turbulent the late 1960s, instructing his "family" of followers -- mostly women -- to kill pregnant actress Sharon Tate and shopkeeper Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary to promote an apocalyptic race war he called "Helter Skelter," a term he coined from the popular Beatles song.

Another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, orchestrated the mass suicide of more than 900 church members in 1978, as well as the killing of five others at a nearby airstrip in Jonestown, Guyana. Until Sept. 11, 2001, it was the single greatest loss of American civilians in a non-natural disaster.

Cult expert Hassan knows all too well about evil leaders. At the age of 18, he was a follower of Sun Myung Moon, the charismatic Korean founder of the Unification Church. Moon believed he was the second coming of Christ.

His parents intervened after Hassan was immobilized in a car accident and had him deprogrammed.

"It comes back to the lack of successful organized attachments with the mother," said Hassan, author of the book, "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves."

"Basically, because of a lack of healthy attachment, they have an inability to have empathy...They can't put themselves in another person's shoes."

Figures like Hitler, Manson and Jones need the blind adoration of their followers -- their narcissistic supply -- a "compensation goes on wanting to feel love," according to Hassan.

Bin Laden was the son of a wealthy construction giant who had close ties to the Saudi royal family. His father died when he was 13. He was university educated and influenced by two father figures who taught Islamic studies.

In 1982, he turned his back on his family and went to Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen fighting against the communists. He eventually obtained a fatwah from a senior Islamic scholar that deemed training and combat readiness as a religious duty and convinced 4,000 men to train at the camps he had created. Al Qaeda is Arabic for "base."

Bin Laden had good manners, humility and a serious and dominating personality. Still, his followers saw "a lot of aura on him and show(ed) great voluntary respect to him," according to a Frontline report. "For some reason, that falls short of a proper charisma."

Hassan said he may have been "manipulated and influenced" by his father figure, Al Qaeda's second in command and likely successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In general, cult leaders exert their control by lying, withholding information, creating conformity within the group and separating followers from their families. "They inculcate a new belief system," he said.

"If you have an authority figure, they are perceived to be valid," he said. "We are wired as a human species to obey our parents, policemen, teachers or therapists."

"There are two mind control devices: thought stopping or the deliberate implantation of irrational fears if you question the leader, like you lose your spiritual life or get cancer or your family will be hunted down and killed.

"In terrorist groups that is an actual threat," he said.

But psychologist Stern said that bin Laden must be understood in the Middle East world where he grew up.

"He lived as an honored person within his own context of extreme Islam," he said. "He was always an exile, forever a stranger hoping for theological revolution and revival."

Bin Laden saw himself as a prophet or messenger, and was sheltered by others because he was a "symbol" of the cause. Stern said that he lived close to the World Trade Towers and knew someone who was killed in 9/11 and, "as an American, I see him as the enemy."

"But I don't think he claims a lot of charisma," he said. "He's not a Ghandi."

"He is the captain of the team," said Stern. "We make more of him than they did. He influenced [the movement] but he hadn't led it and didn't claim it. Thousands will succeed him."