Entries in Peoples Temple (1)


Inside the Mind of Osama Bin Laden, Other Cult-Like Followers

AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- How did Osama bin Laden get hundreds of young recruits to strap bombs to their bodies and persuade well-educated men to fly suicide planes like missiles through the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

"People come along some time who can move crowds who by their personality can attract other people to a movement," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, 76, who was co-chairman of the 911 commission, in an interview with New Jersey Network. "That's what he did. He was one of those people driven by half-genius, half-mad genius, half religion, and he created a lot of trouble in this world."

Bin Laden, soft-spoken and somewhat shy, was not conventionally charismatic.

Mark Stern, professor emeritus of Iona College in New York and an expert in the psychology of evil and Messianic figures, believes bin Laden was different from other evil charismatics, such as Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson and Jim Jones.

"He had more of a political world view -- more like a desire to save the world than to destroy it and rebuild it in his image," said Stern. He was a "witness" to the fundamental cause. "The message found him," said Stern. "He didn't find the message."

History is littered with Osama bin Ladens -- former President George W. Bush called them the "evil-doers" -- who wield mesmerizing power over their devoted followers and often possess qualities of grandiosity and charisma.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel ruminated on the same question when he analyzed Hitler: "How did this unstable paranoid find it within himself to impose gigantic hope as an immutable ideal that motivated his nation almost until the end?" At the end of World War II, Germany was devastated by war and 6 million Jews had been exterminated.

"The fact is that Hitler was beloved by his people--not the military, at least not in the beginning, but by the average Germans who pledged to him an affection, a tenderness and a fidelity that bordered on the irrational," said Wiesel in an 1998 essay in Time magazine. "It was idolatry on a national scale.

Charles Manson, a Cincinnati-born songwriter and ex-convict, emerged in the turbulent the late 1960s, instructing his "family" of followers -- mostly women -- to kill pregnant actress Sharon Tate and shopkeeper Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary to promote an apocalyptic race war he called "Helter Skelter," a term he coined from the popular Beatles song.

Another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, orchestrated the mass suicide of more than 900 church members in 1978, as well as the killing of five others at a nearby airstrip in Jonestown, Guyana. Until Sept. 11, 2001, it was the single greatest loss of American civilians in a non-natural disaster.

"Basically, because of a lack of healthy attachment, they have an inability to have empathy,” said Hassan, a cult expert and the author of the book, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. “They can't put themselves in another person's shoes."

Figures like Hitler, Manson and Jones need the blind adoration of their followers -- their narcissistic supply -- a "compensation goes on wanting to feel love," according to Hassan.

Hassan said bin Laden may have been "manipulated and influenced" by his father figure, al Qaeda's second in command and likely successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In general, cult leaders exert their control by lying, withholding information, creating conformity within the group and separating followers from their families. "They inculcate a new belief system," he said.

"If you have an authority figure, they are perceived to be valid," he said. "We are wired as a human species to obey our parents, policemen, teachers or therapists."

"There are two mind control devices: thought stopping or the deliberate implantation of irrational fears if you question the leader, like you lose your spiritual life or get cancer or your family will be hunted down and killed.

"In terrorist groups that is an actual threat," he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio