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Conference Proceeding

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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 Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States.

Bin Laden’s primary personality patterns were found to be Ambitious/exploitative and Dauntless/dissenting, with a secondary Distrusting/suspicious orientation, and subsidiary Dominant/controlling and Conscientious/dutiful features.

Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Dauntless individuals are bold, courageous, and tough; minimally constrained by the norms of society; routinely engage in high-risk activities; not overly concerned about the welfare of others; skilled in the art of social influence; and adept at surviving on the strength of their talents, ingenuity, and wits.

Bin Laden’s blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of the “unprincipled narcissist” syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist’s arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality’s self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others.

A major implication of the study is that bin Laden neither fits 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.


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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