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Osama bin Laden: Al Qaeda’s Chief Executive Officer


Osama bin Laden: Al Qaeda’s Chief Executive Officer

When one is asked to name effective leaders in history, names like George Washington, Ronald Reagan, and Gandhi most readily come to mind; however, a successful leader can also rise as a menace to society: Osama bin Laden. Possessing a university education, individuals cannot view bin Laden as a seemingly ordinary terrorist. While a personality profile diagnoses him as an unprincipled narcissist, one cannot deny he maintained a clear and uniform vision, served as a catalyst for the growth of Al Qaeda, and allowed himself to appear relatively equal to those he led.

Before closely examining bin Laden’s leadership style, students of history must understand the terrorist leader’s history and the foundations behind the jihadist beliefs he possessed. While his exact birthdate is unknown, some say he was born in the early 1957; most certainly, he was born into one of the richest families in the world. His father was a construction mogul who “courted [Saudi Arabia’s] religious leadership, the Wahhabi ulema (clerics), who had been aligned with the Saudi family since the eighteenth century” (Riedel 40). The fundamentalist Wahhabi faction of Islam denounced the worship of saints, local deities, shrines, and holy sites. Indeed, for the Wahhab, “Islam had to be simple and pure: and expression of complete devotion to one God” (Riedel 40). This proved extremely important because bin Laden would almost certainly been present at the meetings and banquets his father hosted in the leadership’s honor.

Bin Laden continued his spiritual growth and was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood while attending the business management school at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He soon dropped out of school to help take over his father’s construction business but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion. Indeed, “he became a major financier of the mujahedeen, providing cash to the relatives of wounded or martyred fighters, building hospitals, and helping the millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to the border region of Pakistan” (Riedel 40).

Soon after the Soviet invasion, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Saudis knew an attack was imminent (Riedel 48). Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan that “he would raise an Islamic army of Afghan veterans to defend the kingdom. All he wanted was the royal family’s approval to do so and then assistance with the logistics and financing” (Riedel 48); instead, the Saudis accepted President Bush’s offer to deploy a quarter of a million soldiers to defend the kingdom. Bin Laden viewed America more evilly than Saddam and promptly broke away from the Saudi royal family.

Bin Laden soon declared war on America. In a letter written to the entire Islamic faith, bin Laden writes that the “greatest disaster to befall the Muslims is the occupation of Saudi Arabia, which is the cornerstone of the Islamic world, the place of revelation” (Garrison). Indeed, bin Laden believed the House of Saud to be corrupt and supportive of the “oppression, hostility, and injustice [committed] by the Judeo-Christian alliance (Garrison). These Islamic extremists had declared an unambiguous and public war on America.

Now that one as a basic understanding of bin Laden’s history, he can better understand the motivations and characteristics behind the man as a leader. A personality assessment conducted by the University of St. John’s psychology department classified bin Laden as an “unprincipled narcissist” exhibiting an arrogant sense of self-worth, an indifference to the welfare of others, and a fraudulent social manner” (Immelman 19). Viewing the diagnosis from a political standpoint, one quickly sees unprincipled narcissists possessing a view of the world as “divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on a belief system in which conflict is viewed as inherent in the international system” (Immelman 20). These leaders are “not averse to using the ‘enemy’ as the scapegoat and their rhetoric may be hostile in tone” (Immelman 20).

The psychological profile suggests that “bin Laden fits neither 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” (Immelman 21).

Keeping the psychological profile in mind, some posit that much of bin Laden’s success resulted from his ability to maintain a consistent vision. He felt a deep hatred for the United States and believed its culture extremely threatening to the Muslim religion. Through meticulous training, discipline, and inciting rhetoric, bin Laden took advantage of this Muslim rage and translated it into productive action.

Bin Laden believed America to be an “unjust, criminal, and tyrannical” (Garrison). His hatred stemmed from his formative years in which he took a fundamentalist path of belief: “we have declared Jihad against the United States because in our religion it is our duty to make Jihad so that God’s word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries” (Garrison). Al-Qaeda and bin Laden view American capitalism as disgusting and prideful. Islamic fundamentalists purport that these things are sinful, and as a result, need to be eradicated from the world; the name of Allah holds prominence over all things.

Indeed, the terrorist leader never wavered from this vision. He spoke it repeatedly in interviews and letters, spreading his message of hate across the world. As such, he attracted thousands of young jihadists ready to martyr themselves in the name of Allah. In his profile of Osama bin Laden, FBI counter-terrorism expert Michael Eber states that “successful mass-movements are more self-sacrificing than self-fulfilling” (Eber). Bin Laden instilled a deep desire for Paradise amongst his followers promising them that “there is a palace of pearls in Paradise…and on every bed, seventy mattresses of every color and on every mattress a woman” (Mahoney 101). These terrorists were praised and elevated to martyr status.

Next, a careful examination of Al Qaeda’s organizational structure reveals it extremely decentralized. This structure allowed bin Laden to serve as the leader of the terrorist consortium: leading, training, and inspiring his followers. As time progressed, bin Laden faded into the background and let global subsidiary groups take an increased role in the administration of their individual organizations. Such a decentralized structure made it difficult for authorities to apprehend these extremists and defeat Al Qaeda.

In organizations with decentralized leadership structures, ideas flow more freely and innovation tends to occur at a faster pace. Al Qaeda needed innovative, fresh ideas to spread its message globally while also bringing America to her knees. One such idea was suicide bombing; never in history had suicide bombing been more prevalent. It became the modus operandi of the organization and was designed to create maximum terror. The World Trade Center attacks surely followed from one of these brainstorming sessions. One must ask how an idea such as that even comes to mind. This decentralized leadership structure has allowed “the longest, most violent, and sustained struggle” against Western Civilization in the modern era (Riedel 109).

Finally, although Westerners knew bin Laden had an extensive education, he most likely did not share this with those he recruited. These recruits viewed bin Laden as relatively equal to themselves. Bin Laden did not intimidate with coercion or violence and instead led through a continual emphasis of their uniting factor: death to America. He did not live in opulence or excess and shared the same conditions of his men. By not elevating himself above the group, bin Laden garnered the respect and admiration of his followers. As suggested by the personality profile, unprincipled narcissists “attempt to present an image of cool strength, acting arrogant and fearless. To prove their courage, they may invite danger and punishment; however, rather than having a deterrent effect, it only reinforces their exploitative behaviors” (Immelman 20).

In fact, Osama often fought alongside his men against the Soviets and later the Americans: “by most accounts he was a brave soldier on the battlefield, standing up to the hardships of the Afghan weather and the danger of war along with the others” (Riedel 44). He shied away from modern comforts actually welcoming the “hardships of bad food, extreme temperatures, and violent death” (Riedel 44). Such actions gave him an apparent credibility among his men. They knew he was enduring the same conditions and respected (revered?) him.

Removing the lens of human morality allows one to objectively analyze a leader. Leaders like Washington, Reagan, and Gandhi spread positive hope to their followers; leaders like Osama bin Laden spread negative hope to those he led. While he was an unprincipled narcissist, one cannot deny he maintained a clear vision, served as a catalyst for the growth of Al Qaeda, and appeared not to elevate himself above his men. The combination of these traits allowed bin Laden to become a successful leader, effectively spreading his message across the globe.

Works Cited

Eber, Michael. "Profiling Osama by a Counter Terrorist Expert."Ethan Frome: Profiling Osama by a Counter Terrorist Expert, Michael Eber. New York University, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Garrison, Carla. "Why Did Osama Bin Laden Hate Americans, Jews and Christians?"Washington Times Communities. Washington Times, 11 May 2011. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Haussler, Phil. "4 C-Suite Leadership Skills from Osama Bin Laden."4 CSuite Leadership Skills from Osama Bin Laden Comments. Quantum Workplace, 23 May 2011. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Immelman, A. “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.

Mahoney, Susan. "Missing the Mark."Google Books. IUniverse, 2005. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Riedel, Bruce O.The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008. Print.

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