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Being Osama

By Henry Schuster
CNN
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Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's investigative unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

(CNN) -- Imagine yourself inside the mind of Osama bin Laden.

Not controlling his actions like in that movie, "Being John Malkovich," but pretending to be him and answering questions as him.

I tried this recently and found it both thought-provoking and not a little unnerving.

The role-playing was part of a project by Charlotte Sullivan, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, who decided to look at the differences in motivation between Osama bin Laden and suicide bombers as part of her dissertation.

Sullivan is a systems engineer by training and wanted to take an analytical approach to her research that could go beyond psychological profiles.

She read up on bin Laden's speeches and watched videos left by suicide bombers. And then came the role-playing.

Thinking like the enemy

Sullivan's exercise is a variation of what is known as the "red cell" approach -- a common tactic for today's intelligence and military communities.

During the Cold War, the military used to have certain teams, sometimes from Special Operations, pretend they were an enemy unit and try to penetrate a high-security target.

The unit, known as a "red cell," would role-play the enemy.

American pilots would do something similar to train against Soviet planes supplied by defectors, getting a chance to hone their skills against enemy tactics as well as the equipment.

Off the battlefield and on the playing field, pro football teams do this each week to prepare for their next opponents and Sullivan decided that to "red cell" bin Laden and suicide bombers would be a worthwhile approach.

"We use a lot of physical measures to fight terrorism, and I believe there are some means that go beyond military tactics. Part of that involves using the brightest minds together to get a consensus of thinking, what all these people currently know," she told me.

Sullivan is asking experts on both bin Laden and suicide bombers to be part of her research and has devised two questionnaires - one for those being bin Laden, another for those being a suicide bomber.

Thinking like Osama

I've written before about the oddity of voicing the English translations of bin Laden's words for CNN, but here you have to put yourself in his position and answer why and how you are doing what you're doing.

It starts out easily enough: Where are you currently hiding? Having recently returned from the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, I think about that mountainous terrain.

Then the questions move on to tactics: How do you identify potential suicide bombers (referred to during the questioning as martyrs) and where do they come from? Why haven't you attacked inside the United States since 9/11? Why are you attacking the West?

Gradually, as the questions keep coming, I found myself thinking like bin Laden. My experience was common, says Sullivan, who has noticed that about a third of the way into the survey, the participants become caught up in the role-playing.

Some have been surprised by their responses and how aggressive they become, especially when asked about getting the U.S. out of Muslim lands.

My bin Laden, I suppose, was calm -- because that has always struck me as his mien -- but unyielding.

Reading back over what I said when I was bin Laden, I noticed I was speaking as him, not me.

I answered one question by saying the West needs to end its war against Muslims and withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. A truce is possible as long as we get our way. On that, there can be no compromise.

Sullivan had expected that individuals would project their own backgrounds and perceptions into the answers, but has found, at least in her preliminary analysis, a striking consensus in several areas with some interesting policy implications.

"I am finding are there is a very strong religious component to the responses," Sullivan says about those playing the bombers.

"These people [suicide bombers] aren't crazy, they aren't doing it because they need money or hate the US. They are doing it because they fundamentally believe this is their religious task."

Similarly, those role-playing bin Laden also said, almost as one, that his motivation is not about American freedoms or SUVs or Hollywood, but responding to a war against Islam.

Thinking it through

Sullivan believes her research is yielding at least one important lesson. "We have been attacking the problem but we haven't been as effective as we can be," she says.

"I hope people say, 'Here is some more information, and how can we use this?' Maybe it causes some adjustment, and we shouldn't be referring to it as a war on terrorism."

When I ask if some people might interpret this as academic appeasement to terrorists, she considers that carefully and says she hopes it doesn't merit such a verdict.

"I realize thousands of people have been injured or killed through terrorist violence, and I understand the anger that exists as a result.

"But it is for these very reasons that the issue of terrorism must be studied from all sides, using whatever new tools or theories researchers identify. Doing anything less runs the risk that potential solutions are not realized, and existing hostilities may continue to perpetuate yet more violence and death."

Looking at the world through bin Laden's eyes, or the eyes of a suicide bomber, doesn't mean you justify their actions. Not in the least.

But you come away understanding that bin Laden and his kind don't view themselves as crazy. Instead you get a sense why, as a recent tape shows, Mohammad Atta can be smiling one minute, then talk calmly for the camera about why he will commit the atrocity we will come to know as 9/11.

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Osama bin Laden sits next to his AK-47 in an Afghan hideout in November 2001.

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