Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



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


This paper presents the results of an indirect assessment of the personality of Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network at the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States and allegedly chief strategist for al-Qaida operations and personal physician to Osama bin Laden.

Al-Zawahiri’s primary personality patterns were found to be Contentious/oppositional and Dominant/controlling, with secondary features of the Dauntless/dissenting and Ambitious/self-serving patterns.

The amalgam of Contentious (negativistic, or passive-aggressive) and Dominant (aggressive, or sadistic) patterns in al-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 are quick to spot inconsistencies in others’ actions or ethical standards and adept at constructing arguments that amplify observed contradictions. 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 major implication of the study is that it offers an empirically based personological framework for conceptualizing Ayman al-Zawahiri’s antagonistic negativism, single-minded commitment to a cause, inflammatory rhetoric, and forceful persuasiveness — qualities instrumental in Osama bin Laden’s insidious campaign to propagate diabolical enemy images of the West as a catalyst for incubating a political culture contrived to inculcate religious extremism in the Islamic world.


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.

More information and updates:

Related reports

The Personality Profile of al-Qaida Leader Osama bin Laden »

The Personality Profile of September 11 Hijack Ringleader Mohamed Atta »

Key Leadership Roles in the 9/11 Terrorist Attack »

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi Fit Suicide Bomber Profile »

Al-Qaida_Leadership-roles.pdf (348 kB)
Key leadership roles in terrorist operations