Osama bin Laden: A Mental Diagnosis by Nicole Arocho Hernandez

Class: Creativity and Madness

Major: Writing, Class of 2014

Evil behavior is not berserk or random behavior: there is something calculated about it and because of this we are driven to search for the rule or principle that might account for its deliberate nature. However, typically this search is unsuccessful.

–David E. Ward

His picture has been seen throughout the world, and his extremist religious beliefs and actions made him one of the most infamous people in the world. For about ten years after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden survived in hiding. Last year, he was killed by the US military. The Western world celebrated the death of this dangerous man. Many of these people assume that he committed his crimes against humanity because he was a fundamentalist that had no scruples and no compassion for anyone. That he was crazy and evil. But what if he wasn’t really crazy? Psychiatrists have diagnosed him with different mental illnesses, yet not one of them is crippling like, say, severe schizophrenia. What happened in his life that made him become a terrorist? Finally, is Bin Laden considered a creative person?

Six days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, better know as 9/11, Dr. Aubrey Immelman, psychology professor at St. John’s University at Minnesota, published a diagnosis for Osama Bin Laden and any other terrorists involved in the events of 9/11. According to his evaluation, Osama suffered from the syndrome of malignant narcissism. This disease, coined by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, is composed of four core elements: pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits and unconstrained aggression.1 The most relevant component for this paper is that of pathological narcissism.  In his book Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond defines pathological narcissism as “one of the most pervasive, insidious human evils, [which], like anxiety, is highly correlated to anger and rage.”2 Many psychologists, including Kernberg, have established that the root of pathological narcissism is “inadequate, insufficient, or traumatic parenting or surrogate parenting prior to five years of age.”3 After years of living with unloving, rejecting and hostile parents, these children’s frustration builds up to the point of becoming narcissistic rage. In Heinz Kohut’s—one of the main developers of the psychology of the Self and author of The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders—words, narcissistic rage leads to a need of revenge, “for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims.”4

Osama did have a troubling childhood that could’ve been the starting point of his anger and evil behavior at adulthood. Bin Laden’s early years were full of wealth thanks to his father, yet the man never expressed love for his many children.5 The seventh son of construction billionaire Mohammed Awad bin Laden and his tenth wife, Osama was her only child, but his father’s offspring numbers were up to 50. His parents quickly divorced, and he grew up with a stepdad and four step-siblings. Osama Bin Laden could’ve been greatly affected by his parents’ divorce, and by his wealthy father’s neglect of love for him. Bin Laden could’ve been traumatized as well by his father’s sudden death in a plane crash when he was 10 years old. It is plausible that he kept these frustrations hidden; he was considered a shy student at his school in Jeda.6

It was thanks to his outstanding grades that he was invited to be part of an elitist small Islam study group when he was 14 years old. Unfortunately the radical group The Brotherhood influenced the teacher, and the group quickly changed its direction to teachings of radical Islam of a pure Islamic law. These radical sentiments grew as Osama graduated high school at 18, got married to his 14-year-old cousin and pursued a college degree in either public administration or civil engineering [sources do not agree on which one he truly pursued].7

Apart from the malignant narcissism diagnosis, Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists can also be considered what clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. J. Reid Meloy, calls ‘violent true believer.’ Dr. Meloy, along with some colleagues, came up with this term right after the 9/11 attacks in a genuine attempt to help the government understand how terrorists behave and why they pursue such terrible deeds. A violent true believer is defined as “an individual committed to an ideology or belief system which advances homicide–suicide as a legitimate means to further a particular goal.”8 The violent true believer is described as someone that uses suicide as a terrorist weapon, has impulses to destroy the “goodness” of the enemy because he or she cannot have it, feels omnipotent right before the suicidal-homicidal act, has a history of mental stresses, suffers from a sense of entitlement to kill others and himself, and possesses fantasies of grandeur of a pleasurable afterlife.  The violent true believer can become detached of any emotion and clinically paranoid of any attack on him or herself by the enemy.9 To prove his argument, Meloy used Timothy McVeigh as an example of a violent true believer.

Like Bin Laden, McVeigh was an introverted student and had a superior range of intelligence (FSIQ: 120-129), and both men were born into very religious families (McVeigh’s family was Roman Catholic). As it is speculated happened in Bin Laden’s case, McVeigh experienced trauma in his childhood.  His parents divorced when he was 11, and his mother and older sister abandoned him at age 16. McVeigh described himself as the “ultimate warrior,” a persona he created by reading comic books throughout his parents’ separation.10 While Osama found a medium to express his rage and anger through religion, McVeigh’s medium was weapons. He can be diagnosed as suffering from malignant narcissism as well; he thought himself invincible throughout his career in the US Army and had no emotional connection with anyone, especially women. When he wasn’t chosen to be a member of the Special Forces of the US Army after Kuwait, and he was rejected for reentry to the US Army years later, he needed to find another “war” to fight in order for him to continue being the “ultimate warrior.” This experience distanced him from the US Army and the government, and, after the Waco siege in 1993, he started to actively organize a terrorist attack against what he considered a tyrannical government. In 1995, his terrorist attack, known as the Oklahoma City Bombing, killed 168 people and injured more than 500 people.11

Bin Laden and McVeigh were certainly suffering from narcissism and egotistical tendencies. Just as McVeigh’s ego and narcissism grew after his victories in the US Army (before he was considered unfit for the Special Forces), young Bin Laden’s first taste of military victory cemented his new radical Islamic beliefs. This occurred in 1979, when the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan, and he fought with the mujahideen (“freedom fighters”), a group of radical Muslims. He felt it was his duty as a Muslim to do so.12 Supported by the CIA, the resistance won. In 1989, Bin Laden moved back to Saudi Arabia as a hero to both the US and the Middle East.

It is in those ten years that, according to Dr. Diamond’s blog posting “Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists” at Psychology Today, Osama found a purpose in life that was lacking before the war because of his privileged past.13 He found something worth fighting for, and his radical beliefs were proven to be successful and righteous.

It was after 1989 that his status as hero began to crumble. He was exiled in 1992 in Sudan because of his protests against the corrupt Saudi Arabian government and the presence of the US Army in the country. By 1993 he had formed Al Qaeda, and the next year he lost his Saudi citizenship and was disowned by his family, leaving him without his yearly $7 million stipend.14 From then on, his terrorist acts began to take place, as his successes grew he was able to achieve the status of hero once again. This resembles McVeigh’s “ultimate warrior” mentality, which he wanted to establish formally with the Oklahoma City Bombing. To Bin Laden, that ultimate moment of glory was the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Dr. Diamond argues, in his blog posting “On The Violent Life and Death of Osama bin Laden: A Psychological Post-Mortem” that Bin Laden blamed materialism and Western values for the meaningless life he led before being trained into the ‘jihad’ (sacred Muslim war), and he directed his repressed anger towards the ultimate symbol of what his past life was: The United States of America.15 Shirah Vollmer, psychologist and writer of the blog Learning To Play, defines this process in her posting “Transference,” a term established by Sigmund Freud, as the actions that lead a person to unconsciously redirect feelings and attitudes from his or her childhood onto another person, object or idea later in life.16

Another psychological state that Dr. Diamond establishes as a possible factor behind terrorists’ behavior, especially those motivated by religion like Bin Laden, is “hypersuggestibility.” He defines it in his blog posting “Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists (Part Two)” as

a psychological state induced by a void demanding fulfillment; an intellectual or emotional vacuum inherently abhorrent to human nature; a desperate desire to decode, decipher or attach sometimes fantastic significance to unbearable chaos and confusion; an anxious grasping at straws of missing meaning due to decimating emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual upheaval. (…) In this perilous state of mind, the person is wide open to outside influence, including the influence of evil (understood in some religious circles as Satan or the Devil).17

Bin Laden may have been in a state of hypersuggestivity when he was introduced to the radical Islam group in his teenage years due to a lack of motivation, desire and/or purpose in life. Maybe this state was even greater during his training period with the “freedom fighters.” Again, all we can do is speculate with an individual that was never evaluated personally. Dr. Diamond specifically mentions the 9/11 attacks as something that could’ve been the product of hypersuggestibility:

God can be subjectively perceived as exerting influence over the person’s cognition, affect and actions: guiding, prodding, or in some cases, commanding them to commit some often socially or morally unacceptable act, such as killing their parents, shooting strangers in the street–or perhaps even blowing up an airplane with three-hundred passengers and killing oneself in the process.18

Another psychological state that fits Bin Laden’s persona well is the messiah complex. The name implies the meaning of this psychological diagnosis; the individual believes him or herself to be the holy savior of humanity sent by God himself, either to a certain group or sect or the whole global society. In Bin Laden’s case, however, this complex seemed to be “inflated.” Diamond defines inflation in his blog posting “Messiahs of Evil (Part Three)” as “a pathological over-identification with the Messiah archetype.”19 It is understood by psychologists that a “disastrous form of ego-inflation”20 heightened Bin Laden’s case of the messiah complex and his narcissism, the root of all his psychological issues.

With all this information, we have established many different possibilities for the case of madness in Osama Bin Laden, yet we haven’t evaluated the other side of the spectrum, the issue of his possible creativity. Bin Laden was indeed a creative man, but the way we think about creativity doesn’t let us recognize him as such. The first obstacle in us seeing him as a creative individual is that we associate creativity with goodness, and positive results, while discarding negative results as a result exclusively of madness.

Rollo May, an influential American existential psychologist of the 20th century, states, “Creating always involves destructive as well as constructive aspects… Every experience of creativity has its potentiality of aggression or denial toward other persons in one’s environment or towards established patterns within one’s self.”21 Dr. Diamond, on the other hand, explicitly defines creativity as a state of mind that coexists with evil in every individual. In his book, Diamond recognizes the limiting social association of creativity with good: “Creativity cannot be unequivocally equated with good—though the one is commonly perceived to include the other. On the contrary, no quantity—no matter how colossal—of creativity and good can ever completely preclude evil.”22

Thus, creativity cannot be only associated to people who positively apply their creativity; those who use their anger and rage to fuel “evil creativity” shouldn’t be banned as simply mad. Diamond shows that we are all creative individuals who express our creativity in either positive or negative ways. If we let our anger and rage take control, the results of creativity will be evil; if we take control of our rage and manipulate it for our own purposes, the result is “good.” Creativity doesn’t eliminate evil; creativity alleviates it by letting the individual express repressed emotions and experiences, both negatively and positively.

Bin Laden fits the evil creativity spectrum because, as the maximum leader of a considerably large terrorist group, he was constantly coming up with new ideas and strategies of attack and innovative ways to fool whole countries’ security. As horrible as his crimes were, Bin Laden was a highly creative individual. He survived for ten years by creatively finding hiding spots while simultaneously leading Al-Qaeda and luring more individuals towards his jihad against the Western world.

Dr. James C. Kaufman, author of The Dark Side of Creativity and psychology professor at the California State University at San Bernardino, recognizes the “malevolent creativity” (term he uses for evil creativity) involved in the 9/11 terrorists attacks in his blog at Psychology Today, “And All That Jazz:”

The terrorists of 9/11 were technically creative. Using planes as bombs hadn’t been done before. And as the newness wore off (i.e., three planes had already been used), the heroes in the fourth plane were able to learn about them and thereby work to prevent further destruction. Terrorists who would now use planes as bombs are not creative – and, I believe, would be less likely to “succeed” than if they used something completely different.23

Creativity implies the use of innovative concepts and ideas to solve a problem; according to Kaufman, that is exactly what Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda did for the 9/11 attacks. He also shows how the newness of bombing with airplanes has dwindled after 9/11; terrorists must now think of other creative resources. It’s a creativity chain that continues on and on as long as malignant creativity is nourished.

Osama Bin Laden has been defined as a psychopath, a ‘crazy’ person, a man without feelings, a fanatic, an extremist… the list goes on and on. Some of those terms do apply to Bin Laden, but we have to keep in mind that he was of flesh and bones just like us, and he had a turbulent past that turned his encounter with radical Islam into an escape route of escape from a meaningless life. Religion is something dear to millions of people worldwide. It is when belief is taken too far that issues such as jihad (holy war) occur. We also know that Bin Laden never had a direct psychiatric evaluation from any doctor or specialist. His life in exile didn’t permit it, and, because of this, the diagnoses of many psychiatrists and psychologists are based on what they read in the media. We have to question their accuracy because this information may be biased, and thus the diagnosis comes out flawed.

However, I do believe that Bin Laden wasn’t just a madman; he was a calculated man that used his creativity negatively because he let his repressed anger and rage get the best of him. In the profile of Timothy McVeigh published by BBC News in 2001, the last part of the article, psychiatrist John Smith declared that McVeigh “was a decent person who had allowed rage to build up inside him to the point that he had lashed out in one terrible, violent act.”24 Dr. Diamond reminds us of the “less obvious” close relationship between rage and creativity: “There exists as close a correlation between anger, rage, and creativity as there does between anger, rage, and evil. The determining factor depends upon what the individual does—or does not do—with his or her anger and rage.”25 Bin Laden decided to express his rage in negative ways, while others, like Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle with her “shooting painting,” uses her rage to create art that reflects her emotions without causing harm to others—in a positive way that allows her to heal.26 Bin Laden’s repressed anger and rage led him to both creativity and madness, but he never healed his emotional injuries, and thus used, until his death, these negative emotions to fuel his evil creativity and his madness.


1. Aubrey Immelman, “Malignant Leadership,” in Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, accessed April 9, 2012.

2. Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 151.

3. Diamond, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, 152.

4. Diamond, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, 152.

5. “Osama Bin Laden Biography,” Biography.com, accessed April 16, 2012.

6. “Osama bin Laden Biography.”

7. Ibid.

8. J. Reid Meloy, “Indirect Personality Assessment of the Violent True Believer,” Journal of Personality Assessment (2004): 138.

9. Meloy, “Violent True Believer,” 139.

10. Ibid, 141.

11. “Profile: Timothy McVeigh,” BBC News UK, accessed April 18, 2012.

12. “Osama Bin Laden Biography.”

13. Stephen Diamond, “Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists” in Evil Deeds, Psychology Today, accessed April 2, 2012.

14. “Osama Bin Laden Biography.”

15. Stephen Diamond, “On the Violent Life and Death of Osama bin Laden: A Psychological Post-Mortem,” in Psychology Today, accessed April 2, 2012.

16. Shirah Vollmer, “Transference,” in Psychology Today, accessed May 1, 2012.

17.  Stephen Diamond, “Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists (Part Two)” in Evil Deeds, Psychology Today, accessed on April 2, 2012.

18. Diamond, “Radical Embitterment. (Part Two).”

19. Stephen Diamond, “Messiahs of Evil (Part Three)” in Evil Deeds, Psychology Today, accessed on April 2, 2012.

20. Diamond, “Messiahs of Evil.”

21. Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, 260.

22. Ibid.

23. James C. Kaufman, “Constance McMillen vs. Itawamba Agricultural High School: Evil Creativity vs. Good Morality,” in And All That Jazz, Psychology Today, accessed on May 1, 2012.

24. “Profile: Timothy McVeigh.”

25. Diamond, Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, 259.

26. Ibid.


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