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May 4th, 2011

In view of the vital national security interests of the U.S. and its allies in the war on terror to accurately conceptualize the leadership role structure (terrorist types) in an organization such as al-Qaida and to interdict future attacks, I provide a summary of my analysis of the key leadership roles in global-reach terrorism operations.

Key Leadership Roles in a Global-Reach Terrorist Operation

Image: Al-Qaida members
Al-Qaida Rogues’ Gallery – Top row, from left: Ali Saeed Bin Ali al-Hooriyeh, Saif Al-Adel, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. Bottom row, from left: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Adam Yahiye Gadahn. (AP, Reuters, FBI handout file photos)

Personality Profiles of Three Al-Qaeda Leaders

Aubrey Immelman
Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
March 2005

Personality assessment of three al-Qaeda leaders in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States provides evidence for a rudimentary model of the leadership roles required for major terrorist operations. This model has implications for combating terror.

Osama bin Laden

Assessment of Osama bin Laden (Immelman 2002a), founder and leader of al-Qaeda, shows he is highly ambitious and exploitative (i.e., narcissistic), with adventurous and dissenting (i.e., antisocial) tendencies. Narcissistic leaders are bold, competitive, self-assured, and frequently charismatic; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Antisocial leaders are bold, courageous, and tough; are minimally constrained by the norms of society; routinely engage in high-risk adventures; are not overly concerned about the welfare of others; are skilled in the art of social influence; and are adept at surviving on the strength of their talents, ingenuity, and wits.

Bin Laden’s blend of narcissistic and antisocial personality patterns suggests the presence of the unprincipled narcissist syndrome. This character complex combines the narcissist’s arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality’s self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others.

A major implication is that bin Laden neither fits the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features; rather, it suggests that bin Laden is adept at exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory. In the war on terrorism, information operations can be used to undermine the moral authority of the charismatic leader.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Assessment of Ayman al-Zawahiri (Immelman & Kuhlmann, 2003), reportedly chief strategist for al-Qaeda operations prior to 9/11, shows that he is highly contentious and oppositional (i.e., negativistic), with highly dominant and controlling (i.e., sadistic) tendencies.

The amalgam of negativistic and sadistic personality patterns in Zawahiri’s profile suggests the presence of the abrasive negativist syndrome. For these personalities, minor frictions easily exacerbate into major confrontations and power struggles. They characteristically take the moral high ground, dogmatically and contemptuously expose their antagonists perceived hypocrisy, and contemptuously, derisively, and scornfully turn on those who cross their path.

The study offers an empirically based psychological framework for conceptualizing Ayman al-Zawahiri’s antagonistic negativism, single-minded commitment to a cause and inflammatory rhetoric. The major implication is that it highlights the importance of a committed, persuasive, “true believer” in a strategic position close to the charismatic leader.

Mohamed Atta

Assessment of 9/11 hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta (Immelman 2002b) indicates a highly conscientious (i.e., compulsive), introverted (i.e., schizoid) individual with secondary self-denying (i.e., masochistic) features.

Atta’s personality profile suggests the presence of the puritanical compulsive syndrome. This composite character complex is rooted in deep ambivalence between obedience and defiance, and characterized by the dual ego defenses of reaction formation against forbidden thoughts and sadistic displacement of hostile impulses. The masochistic elements in Atta’s profile provide a partial, personality-based explanatory framework for his willingness to sacrifice his life as a martyr for his cause.

The major implication is that political socialization experiences that produce a compulsive character structure — one manifestation of which is the classic authoritarian personality — may predispose a person to suicidal acts of terror (so-called “martyrdom”) when molded by a political culture that promotes religious fanaticism. In the war on terrorism, the ability of security personnel to identify the external features of this personality pattern can increase the probability of detecting terror operatives inside the United States and at our borders.

Summary and Formulation

Collectively, these three studies suggest three critical roles in terrorist organizations: (1) A narcissistic, charismatic leader devoid of core values beyond personal self-interest, adept at exploiting others in pursuit of their grandiose ambitions; (2) strategic-thinking “true believers” without constraints of conscience in the levels of violence they are willing to employ in their single-minded pursuit of mission; and (3) unobtrusive, disciplined operatives willing to sacrifice themselves for a “higher cause.” The presence of such radically different personality types occupying key roles in a terrorist organization has practical implications for fighting terrorism.


Immelman, A. (2002a, July). The personality profile of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Berlin, Germany, July 16–19, 2002. Retrieved from Digital Commons website:

Immelman, A. (2002b, July). The personality profile of September 11 hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Berlin, Germany, July 16–19, 2002. Retrieved from Digital Commons website:

Immelman, A., & Kuhlmann, K. (2003, July). “Bin Laden’s Brain”: The abrasively negativistic personality of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Paper presented at the 26th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Boston, MA, July 6–9, 2003. Retrieved from Digital Commons website:


Topical reports on this site

Image: Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi
Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, AKA Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani
(Photo credit: Al Jazeera)

CIA Bomber’s Tangled Web (March 4, 2010)

New Details in CIA Bombing (Jan. 10, 2010)

Balawi Fit Suicide Bomber Profile (Jan. 5, 2010)

CIA Zawahiri Team Decimated (Jan. 4, 2010)

Osama bin Laden Personality Profile (Dec. 6, 2009)

Ayman al-Zawahiri Personality Profile (June 3, 2009)


Terrorist Profiles Developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

The Personality Profile of Al-Qaida Leader Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden

“Bin Laden’s Brain”: The Abrasively Negativistic Personality of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri

The Personality Profile of September 11 Hijack Ringleader Mohamed Atta

File:Mohamed Atta.jpg


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — May 4, 2010

Iraq-Afghanistan Casualties

One year ago today, I provided my weekly report of U.S. military deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Army 1st Lt. Salvatore S. Corma II, 24, of Wenonah, N.J., died April 29, 2010 at Forward Operating Base Bullard in Afghanistan after waving aside 18 other soldiers to isolate an improvised explosive device.

A 2008 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the commanding general of Fort Bragg, recommended that Corma receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — May 4, 2009

Bachmann Watch -- Bachmann vs. The Truth

Bachmann Fundraising Letter

Two years ago today, on May 4, 2009, I reported that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann responded to the launch of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) “Bachmann Watch” site with a fundraising appeal — and countered with an appeal of my own for campaign contributions to help defeat Bachmann in the 2010 Republican primary.


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8 Responses to “Al-Qaida Leadership Roles”
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  5. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » American-Born Terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki Killed in Yemen Says:

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