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Criminology | Defense and Security Studies | Leadership Studies | Near and Middle Eastern Studies | New Religious Movements | Other Political Science | Peace and Conflict Studies | Personality and Social Contexts | Terrorism Studies


Personality assessment of three al-Qaida leaders in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States – Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mohamed Atta – provides evidence for a rudimentary model of the leadership roles required for a global-reach terrorist operation: (1) a narcissistic, charismatic leader devoid of core values beyond personal self-interest, adept at exploiting others in pursuit of his grandiose ambitions (e.g., bin Laden); (2) a strategic-thinking “true believer” without constraints of conscience regarding the level of violence he is willing to employ in his single-minded pursuit of mission (e.g., al-Zawahiri); and (3) unobtrusive, disciplined operatives willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause (e.g., Atta). The presence of three such radically different, distinctive personality types occupying key roles in a terrorist organization has important practical implications for combating terror.


The research was conducted at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics (USPP), a collaborative faculty–student research program in the psychology of politics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minnesota, directed by Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, who specializes in the psychological assessment of presidential candidates and world leaders.

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