Islamist Terrorist Cult Recruitment

Theories of cult induction may best explain much of what we are seeing today in terrorist groups, better than theories regarding marginalization and poverty. Understanding Islamist terrorist cult recruitment and induction can provide us with tools for helping young people resist the charms of the cult leader. First, let us look at some of the claims for terror motivations, then at cult recruitment dynamics. Finally, I suggest what we can do to combat the phenomenon.

In spite of claims of some politicians, poverty has already been shown to be unrelated to terrorism. It is certainly a valuable ethic to help families rise out of poverty and be able to feed, clothe, shelter and educate their kids. However, recent research, and twitter images of some of the perpetrators of terror in Israel have shown that it is, in fact, middle-class educated youth who become terrorists.

A sense of “alienation” has been suggested by academics, journalists and politicians as having “infected” youth who join terror groups. However, a sense of alienation and a search for the meaning of life is something that “infects” all young people who do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. In fact, middle-class educated teenagers and young adults spend a lot of their time reading about, reflecting on, and discussing with peers the purpose of life; it seems that those who have not done so during their late high school and university years have skipped over an important rite of passage. At this stage of development, many are, by nature, highly vulnerable to those who come along and offer them brilliantly packaged solutions to their many existential questions.

Theories of Cult Recruitment and Induction

The exploration of cults began with Margaret Singer’s theory of mind control regarding American prisoners of war in Korea. Since then, the conditions promoting undue persuasion and induction of individuals into the various cults around the world have been studied with mostly qualitative as opposed to empirical methodologies. Robert Jay Lifton wrote a book on the Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo that has relevance for our discussion. In it, Lifton describes how the cult guru, Shoko Asahara, perverted, among other things, the Buddhist concept of poa* to justify mass murder supposedly for the victims’ sake, whereby they transformed the victims’ bad karma by means of what Lipton called “altruistic murder”. The guru also predicted worldwide destruction except for spiritually enlightened Aum members; following this destruction, the world would be a better purer place. (Sound familiar?)

Most of those recruited to Aum were highly educated and idealistic individuals looking for a spiritual home. In fact, he attracted scientists from many disciplines in Russia, the USA, Germany and Taiwan as well as Japan. Lifton discusses the conditions that allowed the Asahara to control his cult members:

  1. Milieu control: communication with the outside world was severely restricted; the cult became the new social environment and contact with others outside the cult was disapproved of, promoting dependence on the cult. Discussion of particular topics with outsiders was forbidden.
  2. Mystical Manipulation: all authority came from Asahara, who claimed supernatural powers and enlightenment; he manipulated and controlled information to which his followers were exposed, reinterpreting outside information according to his personal system of deceptions and lies. By means of meditation, chanting, sleep deprivation, and increased sugar intake, for example, he promoted altered states of consciousness among Aum members, claiming these to be mystical experiences.
  3. Demand for purity: Asahara claimed to be the only pure being – all others, including his high ranking followers were still struggling between good and evil and Asahara defined what was pure and what impure.
  4. Ethos of confession: rituals of confession that included humiliation, potential or actual loss of privilege, intense guilt and anxiety. These implied humility but, in truth, showed the arrogance of the cult – we are better than everyone else in the world.
  5. Loading of language: changing the meanings of common words to jargon used only by members of the cult. This made communication with outsiders cumbersome and less satisfying at best, to impossible at worst.
  6. Sacred science or sacred knowledge: only the cult had access to truth; everyone else in the world operated under deception and ignorance. The cult destabilized the individual and reduced his or her confidence in his or her own experience of the world in order to adopt the cult’s version of reality.
  7. Doctrine over person: doubts about the group or the guru were redefined as impurity and members had to subordinate their feelings and thoughts to the ideology as presented by Asahara.
  8. Dispensing of existence: Asahara defined who had the right to live and who did not. Anyone who considered leaving the cult was threatened with disaster: physical or mental illness, drug addiction, suicide, economic failure, etc

We could replace Aum Shinrikyo with the name of any other cult and the name Shoko Asahara with the name of any other charismatic cult initiator. The methodology is exactly the same. Some cults are benign, some try to bring positive change to the world by nonviolent means and some are decidedly nihilistic and violent. Of course Islamist terrorist organizations belong to the latter group.

Using Our Understanding of Islamist Terrorist Cult Recruitment

We have to work to actively prevent Islamist terrorist groups from recruiting our most promising young people around the world. The best way to arm children and adolescents to safely resist the charms of cult predators roaming the streets, pubs, schools and social media looking for our children is by teaching them critical thinking. This means teaching children and teens to question everything, including our very own authority– parents, teachers, youth leaders must be ready to answer difficult questions and to accept independent thinking among those tendered to our care until they reach maturity.

Teaching critical thinking is not comfortable because that means there is no more place in our lives for: “Do this because I told you to.” Instead, we need to be able to say: “This is important because . . . “ or “I don’t know, let’s look it up together” or “I think I am right but maybe I am wrong; I will find out more” and even “You know what? I think you are right and I have changed my mind about that.”

It is clear that this is more difficult for some cultural and religious groups than others. Community leaders need to understand the perils of raising children today by enforcing compliance rather than by encouraging questioning, independent information gathering and reaching their own conclusions. Groups that are confident in their intrinsic worth will find this somewhat less threatening; however, it is clear to all of us that the enticements of the mass media-entertainment-consumerist society that offers immediate gratification exerts a huge pull on young people. In the spiritual vacuity of this mass “culture”, young people still seek meaning and values. They need to know how to critically assess all the promises offered by gangs and cults that exploit their naivety and offer a quick fix to their pressing questions.

It is important for parents and community leaders to realize that children taught to make their own decisions will often gravitate back to the values upon which they were raised once they want to settle down and build a stable family life. Toward this end, communities need to support members whose children are rebelling so that parents are not alone on these choppy waters.

Furthermore, communities and families need to provide a healthy welcoming environment to which young people can return if cult predators try to sink their claws into them. If parents and teachers have always allowed questions rather than blind obedience, these very same parents and teachers will later be turned to when the world outside confuses and frightens them. When the terror organization/cult cannot drive a wedge between a child and his or her family, that child is less vulnerable to recruitment.

Finally, we need to approach the problem of Islamic terror as a problem of a huge and growing Islamic cult phenomenon, no more and no less. This Islamic terrorist cult has as much to do with Islam as Aum Shinrikyo has to do with Buddhism, as Christian cults have to do with Christianity and psychological cults have to do with psychology. And the only ones who can delegitimize Islamic cults are Muslims, just as Buddhists, Christians and psychologists are best equipped to refute the claims of cults that purport to offer legitimate interpretations of their classic texts.   

*Poa refers to the change of consciousness at the time of death.

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This article was first published on Israel Diaries.

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  1. Thanks for the reference. This is an excellent analysis

  2. I agree that poverty and social problems aren’t direct drivers of terrorists, but I think that they contribute to terrorism, in that they make the surrounding community less likely to be keeping the phenomenon in check. So the relation is there to terroriSM, but not to terroriSTS.

    That’s my take, anyway.