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Conference Proceeding

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This paper presents the results of a posthumous, indirect assessment of the personality of Mohamed Atta, apparent ringleader in the September 11, 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, from the conceptual perspective of Theodore Millon.

Information concerning Mohamed Atta was collected from media reports in the one-month period following the attack and synthesized into a personality profile using the second edition of the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), which yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications congruent with Axis II of DSM–IV.

The personality profile yielded by the MIDC was analyzed on the basis of interpretive guidelines provided in the MIDC and Millon Index of Personality Styles manuals. Atta’s primary personality patterns were found to be Conscientious/compulsive and Retiring/aloof, with secondary Reticent/inhibited and Aggrieved/self-denying patterns. In addition, his profile revealed the presence of subsidiary Dominant/asserting and Distrusting/suspicious features.

Atta’s profile suggests the presence of Millon’s “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 (Aggrieved) 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 of the study 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 (“martyrdom”) when molded by a political culture that promotes paranoid fanaticism and buttresses religious values that engender an expectation of redemption as eternal reward for “wielding the sword of righteousness.”


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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