Ever since 9/11 I’ve had people ask me how the Islamist terrorists can murder innocents and be willing to kill themselves in the process. The answer is that people who become fanatics in any cause have common personality characteristics that reveal a stunning degree of self-fixation. The 23-year-old Nigerian arrested in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner is a textbook example.
There’s an Islamic Forum website called “gawaher.com”. The Washington Post reviewed 300 online postings under the name “farouk1986.” That’s a combination of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s middle name and birth year. The postings contain Abdulmutallab’s deepest thoughts and feelings about love and marriage, his college ambitions, his horror of standardized testing and his inner struggle as a devout Muslim between liberalism and extremism. In postings between 2005 and 2007, he struggled to find friends online through Facebook and in other Islamic chat rooms: He wrote, “May Allah reward you for reading and reward you more for helping.”
A U.S. government official says that federal intelligence officials have not independently confirmed the identity of the posting’s author, but a good many of the biographical details in the writings match up with the would-be bomber’s biography. Farouk1986 wrote of being born in 1986 and having attended a fancy British boarding school in Togo. The postings also make reference to visits to Britain, the United States, Egypt and Yemen – all places that intelligence officials know Abdulmutallab visited. Farouk1986 wrote about considering applications to U.S. and British universities, including University College London, where Abdulmutallab enrolled in a three-year mechanical engineering program. Farouk1986 also wrote about his family’s wealth. Abdulmutallab’s father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, retired this year as chairman of First Bank of Nigeria.
So, the would-be bomber was Farouk1986, all right, and, yes, he was a conspicuous whiner. In the postings, Farouk1986 complained that he had no one to talk to, “no one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do.” Farouk1986 wrote often of his desire to study engineering at either Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley or the California Institute of Technology. He also wrote that he was disappointed with his performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. “I tried the SAT … It was a disaster!!!” He ultimately entered University College London. A classmate of his there, Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola, 22, told the Washington Post that Abdulmutallab graduated in May, 2008, after producing “the bare minimum of work … “He was pretty quiet and didn’t socialize much or have a girlfriend that I knew of.”
Abdulmutallab is the youngest of 16 children and the son of the second of his father’s two wives. He wasn’t used to being in charge of much of anything. Birth order traits aren’t necessarily destiny, but youngest children often are babied because the parents know that this is the last one. Psychologists say that youngest children often lack the drive of their older brothers and sisters and fail to develop sufficient levels of self-sufficiency. Last born or youngest children are more likely to be “loose cannons”, according to an article in Time magazine (“The Power of Birth Order”, Oct 29, 2007). Youngest children are more likely to be adventurous.
We don’t know for sure if any of this applies to our would-be bomber. We do know that he was susceptible to the fictions spread by jihadist websites, radical imams, Arab news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — that falsely claim that America, in a conspiracy with the Zionists, has declared war on Islam for the purpose of oppressing the Muslim world.
He was willing to eagerly swallow all that despite the fact that for two decades U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims from injustice and disaster. We’ve done it in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Pakistan after the Earthquake, Indonesia after the tsunami, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was willing to swallow it all even though most of the Muslims being killed today die at the hands of jihadist suicide bombers. He was willing to accept, against all available evidence, that 9/11 was the work of the Jews and that America’s unprovoked assault on Islam is the dominant motif in the world, and that the Muslims are the real victims.
Not that we’ve been perfect. A U.S. naval vessel shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake, killing a good many innocent people. Abu Ghraib spurred deep anti-American resentment. The fact is, though, that American soldiers and politicians have expended blood and treasure in copious quantities to give Arabs and Muslims a chance to elect their own leaders and to successfully enter the modern world. Despite all that, our would-be bomber bought the entire jihadist line. Why? How?
A wonderful thinker and writer, the late Eric Hoffer, explained in a fascinating little book, The True Believer, how people with certain personality traits can be swept up in myth and fiction and dedication to mass movements to the point where they’re willing to surrender reason, logic, their own identities and even their own lives – and the lives of others – to the sacred cause. The book was written in 1951 as a means of explaining the appeal of the Nazi movement. What Hoffer wrote about the personality types drawn to fanatical movements is as valid today as it was then. A few of Hoffer’s observations:
“Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.”
“Unity and self-sacrifice, of themselves, even when fostered by the most noble means, produce a facility for hating. Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerant toward those not of a like mind.”
“It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression.”
Hoffer wrote that the most dedicated members of fanatical mass movements tend to be people like Abdulmutallab, whose sense of isolation and lack of self-worth make them desperate to take actions that illustrate their value to others, and especially to the cause. Hoffer wrote: “The individual’s most vital need is to prove his worth, and this usually means an insatiable hunger for action. For it is only the few who can acquire a sense of worth by developing and employing their capacities and talents. The majority prove their worth by keeping busy.”
But why us, you ask? Why do these people hate us after all we’ve done for them? Again, Hoffer summed it up perfectly. For a mass movement to take root and prosper, generally in people who’ve never accomplished much in life and figure that they never will, the mass movement must be directed at an enemy. For the Nazis, the enemy was the Jews. For much of the Muslim world it’s still the Jews, but it’s also the people that the Jihadists view as the enablers of the Zionists – us. Moreover, we in the West are accomplished and rich, even in these hard economic times, while the Muslim world – which took just pride in its prosperity and scientific and cultural accomplishments five centuries ago in comparison to the relatively primitive West – has sunk into tribalism, failure and despair.
“Mass movements,” Hoffer wrote so long ago, “can rise and spread without belief in a God — but never without belief in a devil.