Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of the Terrorist

New York: Arcade Books, 2002
by Adam Robinson
296 pages
ISBN: 1559706406
Hardcover, $23.95
Adobe e-book, $11.16

reviewed by Ted Goertzel, Ph.D.

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This review was published in Clio's Psyche, March 2002.

This book is not a psychobiography, but it provides more information on Osama bin Laden's childhood and personal life than previous sources, the best of which to my knowledge is a biographical sketch available online from PBS. Adam Robinson, an author and journalist who has lived for ten years in the Persian Gulf area, conducted interviews with members of bin Laden's family during the year before the World Trade Center attack. Osama bin Laden has been estranged from his family for some time and they were eager to knock him down from his pedestal by telling stories of his youthful partying with alcohol and prostitutes and of his involvement with drug smuggling in Afghanistan.

Perhaps more revealing for psychohistorians are things the family took for granted about life in the home of a polygamous oligarch. Bin Laden's father, Mohammed bin Laden, was a phenomenally successful construction entrepreneur, an immigrant to Saudi Arabia who developed close ties with the royal family. He took full advantage of the indulgences permitted wealthy and powerful men under Islamic law. He had 54 children, more or less, born of 10 or 11 wives. The fact that his biographers are not even sure of the number of his wives and children highlights the unimportance given to women in Saudi culture. The competition for Mohammed bin Laden's attentions was fierce, and family members generally idealized him. Islamic law allows four wives, but Mohammed circumvented this rule by maintaining three long-term wives and reserving the fourth slot for a series of short-termers. When he divorced a fourth wife, he continued to support her and her children on the family compound at Jeddah, but in a diminished status. Osama bin Laden's mother was in this situation when he was born.

Osama's mother, Hamida, was a beautiful young Syrian woman who caught Mohammed's fancy late in life. Married at the relatively late age of 22, she had lived a relatively modern lifestyle in Syria, including shopping trips to Damascus. She had an independent streak, and found life within the bin Laden compound confining. She did not like covering her face with a burka, and was scorned by the other wives and ex-wives. By the time Osama was born, she was ostracized by the other women. They referred to her as "the slave," in reference to her resentment of her status. Osama was known by the nickname, "son of the slave."

Osama was raised largely by nurses and nannies, with his mother kept in the background and sometimes not even living at the compound at Jeddah, but at other family residences. The nurses and nannies were, of course, of even less importance to Saudi culture than the wives, and no information is available about them. The label "son of a slave" never left him, and he was shy and generally rejected by his brothers. He sought attention through mischief and pranks, but he was careful to be dutiful and obedient when in the presence of his father. He loved camping in the desert, and his father was pleased with his outdoor skills. Most of his brothers hated the desert and went only the placate the oligarch.

The relationship with his father was probably the most important thing in Osama's life as a young boy, and he felt abandoned when his father died in a helicopter crash when he was only ten.

The household was dispersed, and he was sent to live with his mother, whom he hardly knew. He felt more and more that he was the black sheep, the only victim of the dispersal of the family. His mother tried to reach out to him, but he kept his distance. Within a few months, there was almost no interaction between them.

As an adolescent, Osama had almost no contact with women. He overcame his shyness and learned to make friends with young men outside the family, who knew or cared little about the taunting he experienced at home. He became friends with several of King Fahd's sons, with whom he enjoyed many adventures in the countryside. He also picked up their attitudes toward women as objects to be enjoyed for recreational purposes and as status symbols. He was educated at home with private tutors, along with his brothers and sisters. He was a bright child, and was eager to excel in school work, including Islamic studies and memorizing large passages from the Koran.

He was sent to Lebanon to high school, where he was free from the restrictions he had known all his life. He had a generous allowance and a luxurious life style, include his own Mercedes Benz and a chauffeur. He spent much of his time in fashionable night clubs with other wealthy young playboys, often in the company of blonde prostitutes. He had been married, at the age of 17, to a Syrian girl who was a relative, but this placed no limits on his behavior. Osama's Beirut revelry was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. The family brought him back home and sent him to the university in Jeddah, one that had been largely funded by his father.

In Jeddah, Osama was given considerable religious instruction, and Adam Robinson believes that he felt guilty about his indulgent excesses in Lebanon. He became excited about the war in Afghanistan, and eagerly sought an opportunity to join in the fighting. According to Robinson, he was recruited and supported by the CIA in fulfilling this dream. Fighting for Islam met his needs for purpose in life, and purged him of the sins of his youth. He told an interviewer from Time Magazine that "in our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad. One day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque."

He played a leadership role in Afghanistan, in part because of his wealth and family connections, and in part because of his interpersonal skills and sense of dedication. After the victory over the Soviets, he returned to Jeddah as a hero, saying he intended to work in the family construction business. This was largely a cover; his primary activity was building an international network of fundamentalist Islamic warriors.

The rest of the book covers military and political events that are generally better known, and that are of less interest psychohistorically. Osama broke with the Saudi leadership when they brought American troops into the country and joined with the international coalition to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. He offered to mobilize 10,000 mujahideen from his network, and was certain they could defeat the Iraqi armed forces. The Afghani mujahideen's success in defeating the Soviet Union had given him feelings of omnipotence. He was certain that the superior dedication of the religious true believer could overcome any of the world's "paper tigers."

In his exultation about the World Trade Center bombing bin Laden (2001) identified himself and his agents with "God Almighty," and proclaimed that "what the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years. Its sons are being killed, its blood is being shed, its holy places are being attacked, and it is not being ruled according to what God has decreed. Despite this, nobody cares."

This is typical terrorist rhetoric, the most revealing psychologically is his complaint that "nobody cares." The terrorist attacks forced the whole world to pay attention to his complaints, just as his acting out on the family playground helped him to stand out from his 54 siblings. Western psychologists have had little experience with people who grew up with a mother who shared her husband with 10 other wives and ex-wives. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, however, Freud speculated that the earliest human groups may have been led by a dominant male who monopolized all the woman. When the younger men banded together to kill this leader, Freud speculated, they felt guilty or afraid and replaced him with an idol. Freud believed that this may have been the historical origin of religion. It may also have something to do with the psychology of ideological groups, as I speculate in chapter 5 of Turncoats and True Believers.

Freud's psychohistorical model has a striking relevance to Osama bin Laden's life, and to the culture in which he functioned. It is a culture where wealthy, powerful men monopolize the young women, leaving a horde of wifeless young men. These young men are apparently so horny that they cannot be trusted even to see a woman's face or the shape of her body. Religious doctrines are used to justify this situation to them and to the women, while holy wars purge the society of unwanted and potentially disruptive bachelors.

Given the closed nature of Saudi society, Adam Robinson is to be thanked for digging up as much personal information on bin Laden as he did. There are, however, many frustrating gaps. Bin Laden's own wives and children, and his relationship with his mother, are only occasionally mentioned. It is known that his third wife, taken to cement his political alliances in Afghanistan, was the daughter of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. Nothing whatsoever is known about the woman, however. There is a conflict between bin Laden and his mother over his treatment of his wives and children. Hamida believes he should allow them to live normal lives in Saudi Arabia, while he keeps them in hiding "almost as hostages on the verges of his life."

From his point of view, Osama's attack on the World Trade Center cannot be viewed as an irrational act. It brought him the fame and recognition he craved, and there was certainly a chance that it might have succeeded in uniting much of the Moslem world under his leadership. Indeed, he and his advisors might well have been guided by the work of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington who posited the clash of civilizations as the emerging trend in world history. Osama sought to be the leader of the Muslim civilization against the Christian civilization of the west. If the western leaders had not read the same books and carefully avoided casting the conflict as one between Muslims and the west, he might have succeeded. Many of the young men who have sacrificed their lives to his holy war are unquestionably driven by personal frustrations, a lust for adventure and sincere religious beliefs. Osama shares some of these motivations, but he is most important for his skill in organizing and manipulating the emotions of others.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University at Camden. He is author of Turncoats and True Believers and Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics. His bibliography and many of his writings are available at: