The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is being hailed as a major victory in the war on terror. But al-Baghdadi and ISIS fit a pattern known as “the toxic triangle” — destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments — that can explain how tyrannical leaders with personality disorders come to power and maintain it. Personality disorders are key to understanding how the toxic triangle operates, but the focus is on a system much larger than just the leader alone—both the system of followers and their ideology, and the larger social system out of which they arise.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Such systems don’t just generate one disordered leader, but an abundance of potential ones. Which is why al-Baghdadi’s death can be so profoundly misunderstood, and why I wanted to ask an expert on the toxic triangle to explain it from that perspective.
I turned to Ian Hughes, author of the new book “Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy.” As he explains in his introduction, he grew up in Northern Ireland as it was engulfed in the barbarity of "the Troubles," the political and sectarian conflict that saw more than 3,600 people killed over three decades. The Troubles began at the same time as the first Moon landing — his earliest memory, “This book has grown out of my experience of growing up in such a violent society,” he wrote. “It is rooted in a childish passion to make sense of how violence can coexist with wonder.”
It’s the depth of sense-making that sets “Disordered Minds” apart, drawing on a wide range of research and reflection that has gone before. Hughes' first chapter presents a well-integrated picture of what’s known about three different kinds of dangerous personality disorders that predispose people to violent or excessively selfish behavior. Psychopaths can’t see others as people, only as things, thus committing an inordinate amount of serious crime. Narcissists can’t see others as equals, admiring themselves “for qualities for which there is no adequate foundation.” Paranoids can’t see others as anything but threats. Many disordered minds combine two or three such disorders.
Hughes then devotes two chapters to historical examples: Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot, each of whom was surrounded by similarly disordered lieutenants atop a large organization whose core membership was similarly disordered. Each came to power, Hughes writes, because of terrible conditions that drove normal people to support extreme measures in hope of a better future. The specific ideology is irrelevant to the basic process.
These dangers dramatize how democracy can be understood as a system of protections against the threat of such disordered minds — an outlook Hughes develops in Chapter 4, which informs the remainder of his book. This view of democracy provides a uniquely insightful perspective on humanity’s struggle to secure a better future. “The majority of people the world over crave peace, justice, and freedom from oppression and discrimination,” Hughes writes. “It is only by reducing the influence of the minority with these disorders that we will begin to see this truth more clearly.”
With that in mind, I turned to Hughes for insights on the occasion of al-Baghdadi’s death that his perspective affords.
The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is being hailed as a major victory in the war on terror. But your book draws on the framework of the toxic triangle — destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments — to explain how tyrannical leaders with personality disorders come to power, in a system that's much larger than just the leader alone. This made me question whether his death might be overvalued, especially since the large-scale examples you cite all involve a significant inner circle of similarly disordered individuals. How can ISIS be better understood in terms of the toxic triangle?
ISIS can only be understood within the larger context of the war within Islam that has been raging between Sunni and Shia Muslims for more than three decades now. The two major protagonists in that war are Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran. A deadly proxy battle with global consequences has been raging for decades between these two regimes for predominance in the Islamic world. This war began with the revolution in Iran in 1979 and with Saudi Arabia’s response to it, in spreading its hard-line version of Sunni Islam around the globe. The sectarian violence has spread across the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has also affected the Philippines and Indonesia. This war, not the so-called war between Islam and the West, has been the defining war of modern times, but it is seldom acknowledged in this way.
As you mention, the toxic triangle allows us to understand the rise of dangerous leaders in terms not only of the leader himself (it is always a "he") but also in terms of a critical mass of like-minded followers and, crucially, the environment that allows such a leader to emerge. In the case of ISIS, this conducive environment encompasses, so far, six wars — the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, currently, the war in Syria. It also encompasses the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as ISIS. The cost in terms of lives lost — mostly innocent Muslims — has been immense, with conservative estimates of several million dead. In the context of such brutal and protracted violence, it is to be expected that extremist organizations headed by vicious, psychopathic leaders will emerge and grow in power.
What major misconceptions tend to confuse experts, media commentators or the general public?
Media coverage tends to focus, in general, on short-term developments and major incidents, like the death of al-Baghdadi. As a consequence, the general public is not given the broader framing that is needed to understand and effectively respond to ISIS and the wider problem of entrenched violence in the Middle East.
I think we need to focus more on three underlying issues. First, that this is primarily a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and international pressure needs to be brought to bear on those regimes to resolve the fundamental conflict between them that is fuelling the violence that gives rise to ISIS and al-Qaida. The U.S. and Europe should work through the UN, together with other nations, to try to address this problem directly.
Second, this is a sectarian conflict and in such a conflict, continuing violence empowers extremists on both sides. The only hope for reducing the extremism is first to stop the violence.
And third, a huge contributing factor in the support for groups such as ISIS, al-Qaida and the Taliban is the deep political and economic injustices that mark the countries in which these groups are active. Those underlying structural issues form a crucial part of the toxic triangle and need to be addressed if the violence is to be reduced.
How do the shared outlooks of those with disordered minds help them function more cohesively?
I grew up in Northern Ireland during the sectarian violence of the so-called Troubles there. There are two lessons from Northern Ireland that I think apply to any sectarian conflict, including the Middle East. First, sectarian conflicts can give those with dangerous personality disorders an easy path to power; second, religion can be used as a potent justification for the most brutal forms of violence.
As I have written in “Disordered Minds,” religious extremism provides those with paranoid personality disorder with the perfect outlet for their talents as cheerleaders in whipping up hatred against a "godless enemy." It provides narcissists with the comforting illusion that they are speaking for God. And it provides psychopaths with unlimited opportunities to kill and maim countless innocents and be proclaimed heroes for doing so. As author Reza Aslan has put it, these aspects of religious extremism can transform those who should be considered murderers and thugs into soldiers sanctioned by God.
While the leadership structure of ISIS is poorly understood, could you explain what kinds of factors might actually make ISIS more dangerous and destructive rather than less so after al-Baghdadi's death, because of the kinds of personality disorders its leadership is likely to share?
Jihadist groups, including al-Qaida and ISIS, are predominantly Sunni Muslim. They believe that God wills an immediate, divinely-sanctioned war in order to establish his will on earth. This demands a cleansing of the world of all debasing elements, which includes not only Christians, but Shia Muslims as well. It is an annihilationist doctrine that views the murder of millions of people as God’s will, and it is a doctrine rooted in hatred. As Osama bin Laden wrote, “The Lord Almighty has commanded us to hate the infidels and reject their love…. “This [hatred] is part of our belief and our religion.”
Given that the leadership of jihadist organizations will be the most ardent adherents of this extreme ideology, the character of individual leaders is less important than the circumstances that might empower them. It has been clear for a long time that increased violence, chaos and disorder are the most empowering conditions for ISIS, which is why it continually tries to create them.
What mistaken assumptions are being made (or have commonly been made) by not understanding the toxic triangle that can lead to mistakes in risk assessment and strategy in reaction to his death?
The biggest mistake being made by virtually every actor in this tragic situation is the conviction that violence will solve the problem. The media response to al-Baghdadi’s death is one small example of this. The media are generally reporting this as one of the great milestones of Trump’s presidency, just as the death of bin Laden was reported as one of the great milestones of the Obama presidency. These may be milestones in terms of eliminating profoundly dangerous and evil men, but they do not move the needle at all on terms of the underlying causes of conflict. In fact, depicting the killings of such leaders as "victories" further fuels what theologist Walter Wink called the "myth of redemptive violence." This is the idea that violence can save us, that war can bring peace, and that violence can be readily justified. Over three decades of brutal Middle East wars provides adequate proof of the fallacy of this myth.
One of your book's main arguments is that democracy can be understood as a system of defenses against the threat of leaders with these disorders, including the preconditions that make their rise to power more likely. You write, "This system of defenses comprises the rule of law, electoral democracy, the principle of liberal individualism, social democracy, and legal protection for human rights."
9/11 was a horrific crime, but rather than rely on the rule of law, America responded by launching the "war on terrorism" — which bin Laden claimed had been his intent. From the perspective developed in your book, was this a mistake?
I think it is widely accepted that it was a mistake. As you say, it was bin Laden’s intent to invoke a violent response from the U.S. that would create even more violence, chaos and disorder — the conditions within which support for extremism thrives. This is ISIS’ intent too in its attacks in Europe — to provoke a violent response and to create tensions within European countries and antagonism towards ordinary Muslims in Western societies. I think the "war on terror," with its ramping up of violence and its framing of extremism as an enemy of the West, has played into that script.
What’s the deeper reason why it was a mistake?
I think the "war on terror" is misguided because it too plays into the myth of redemptive violence, when in fact violence prevents the underlying causes from being resolved. It fulfills Hannah Arendt’s prediction that while the practice of violence undoubtedly does change the world, the most probable change that it brings about is a more violent world. The "war on terror" is misguided because it acts essentially as a blueprint for a never-ending spiral of violence that leaves the root causes of conflict unaddressed.
What could or should have been done instead?
Instead of a "war on terror" there needs to be a concerted international effort to address injustice, oppression and political kleptocracy across the Middle East. As Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, the United States currently spends around $700 billion per year on defense, or roughly $2 billion per day. The U.S. share of the regular UN budget equals roughly seven hours of Pentagon spending. The reallocation of some of this military spending to tackle the causes of conflict in the countries where ISIS is active should really be a no-brainer.
The last two defenses — social democracy and legal protection for human rights — were significant developments in response to World War II. But this system has only had limited reach. As you explain, the Arab Spring, a decade after 9/11, was a mass uprising attempting to secure these protections. How should America have responded to the Arab Spring?
The Arab Spring, and its partial re-emergence now in Lebanon, should be seen clearly as a demand from the local populations for an end to the sectarianism and kleptocracy that have mired the region for decades. It should have been seen then, and still should be seen now, as a clear signal that a new Middle East peace process is urgently needed aimed at healing the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and that moves towards democracy are urgently needed across the region.
Despite initial success, the Arab Spring was eventually crushed outside of Tunisia. How did this failure produce even more fertile ground for ISIS and its affiliates?
The failure of the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, and continued oppression in Egypt and elsewhere, have crushed the hopes of millions and helped swell the numbers of those seeking to bring about change through violent means. The major beneficiaries have been religious extremists who argue that strict religious morality is the only solution to the gross immorality exhibited by the region’s governments.
The failure of the Arab Spring also illustrates that a more just and democratic Middle East is not in the interests of many powerful players in the region and beyond, and that many of those players, and not just violent extremists like ISIS, will use violence to oppose the very reforms that would lead to a peace and stability.
Your book suggests that the whole "war on terror" approach is profoundly misconceived, because it does nothing to support and spread the system of defenses you describe, and that our policy, allying with repressive regimes, is doing more to fuel the problem than to combat it. What should be our guiding principle in taking a new approach that properly understands the nature of the threat we face — not just from those currently identified as U.S. enemies, but from the destructive forces of disordered minds more generally?
The peace process in Northern Ireland, and peace processes around the world, show that an end to violence gradually allows the values of the majority population — values which include tolerance, empathy and compromise — to replace the values of intolerance, hatred and intransigence that prevail when violence is still raging and a pathological minority hold power. The onset of peace denies psychopaths the opportunity to become heroes through the slaughter of innocents. It denies narcissists the opportunity to presume to speak the language of hatred on behalf of millions of "their people." And it denies those with paranoid personality disorder the environment in which to scapegoat innocent people as "problems" deserving of annihilation. In short, peace denies those with dangerous personality disorders the brutal environment that they need to continue their hold on power. It sounds like a cliché but it also happens to be the truth — the guiding principle in defeating ISIS should be seeking peace and creating justice across the region.
Donald Trump's election in 2016 can be seen as yet another consequence of the failed "war on terror" approach. He falsely presented himself as a leading critic of the Iraq war, to cite just one facet of how that played out. He's now empowering other disordered leaders both throughout the region and beyond. What should be done to counter what he's doing?
Trump represents a clear threat not only to democracy in the U.S. but also to peace, stability and progress in the world. The path he is leading us is, in so many ways, diametrically opposed to the direction in which we should be moving.
Instead of resolving to tackle the threat of climate change, he dismisses it as a Chinese hoax. Instead of acting to address the chronic levels of inequality that are the cause of so much division and disillusionment in the U.S., he seeks to reward the rich, punish the poor and increase inequality even further. Instead of strengthening the international alliances needed to solve the world’s most urgent problems, he seeks to fragment the world into isolated nations, each pursuing their own narrow self-interests. Instead of helping to build a global consciousness that we are all part of a single humanity and that we rise or fall together, he sows discord and seeks to divide us along every line imaginable — nationality, religion, race and gender. Instead of leading us towards a converging world where disparities in health and wealth are falling, he seeks to assert American hegemony and prevent other nations from catching up. Instead of empowering democrats and strengthening the rule of law, he is empowering dictators, flouting the law and dismantling U.S. democracy from within.
In “Disordered Minds” I write that toxic leaders are never able to rise to power alone, but toxic leaders enabled by an authoritarian party and supported by a critical mass of followers who see democracy as expendable are often impossible to stop. For the sake of U.S. democracy and world peace, Trump must be stopped — either through impeachment or in the 2020 election. His re-election would empower him to continue to reshape our world to reflect the anger, conflict and division that characterizes his own disordered mind, at enormous cost to us all.