Terrorism and Cultic Dynamics

ICSA Today, Volume 6, Number 1, 2015, pages 12-15

Terrorism and Cultic Dynamics

Michael D. Langone, PhD

As many commentators have pointed out, terrorism is a tactic. To say that the United States is engaged in a “war on terrorism” is to say that the nation is waging war on a tactic, which sounds silly. What, then, is the nature of the problem to which the United States and other Western countries devote so many resources? I believe that this problem, when stripped to its essentials, can be described in six propositions in which "we" and "us" refer to Westerners in general and to the West’s institutional authorities in particular:

Many thousands of people, who call themselves jihadists, are willing to die in order to kill us, because they believe that we as members of Western civilization are so evil that we need to be exterminated, subdued, or converted to Islam.

9/11 and events since 9/11 have demonstrated that we don’t understand these people nearly as much as we should.

Therefore, we don’t know how to stop them, other than to kill them.

Killing them, however, appears to motivate more Muslims to join the jihad against the West, thereby perpetuating and possibly even exacerbating the problem.

When they succeed in killing us, however, that too appears to motivate more Muslims to join the anti-Western jihad.

If we are to defeat this self-perpetuating jihad that seems to flourish so long as somebody—Muslim or Westerner—dies, we must identify nonlethal methods of deterring those who want to kill us and of preventing others from joining their ranks, even as we continue to use lethal force when necessary.

Consideration of cultic dynamics, which focus on complex relationships, rather than abstract and misleading theoretical categories, such as terrorism, may help shed light on the phenomena to which the phrase war on terror shakily points without identifying or illuminating.

Cults can arise in any religious tradition and even in nonreligious settings (e.g., psychotherapy cults). There are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cults. ICSA, the organization that I serve as executive director, has information on more than 1,000 groups, many of which some people might classify as cults. Moreover, during the past 30 years, we and other cult-awareness organizations have received inquiries about more than 5,000 groups.

Cults can sometimes be violent. The Jonestown tragedy of 1978, in which nearly 1,000 people were murdered or committed suicide, is perhaps the most famous example. Other examples have included the Heaven’s Gate suicides; the Solar Temple murder/suicides in Canada, France, and Switzerland; and the murder of more than 1,000 people in Uganda by the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Often overlooked is the fact that two cultic groups have used biochemical weapons in terrorist acts. In 1984, in the state of Oregon, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, in an attempt to control a local election, dumped cultures of Salmonella that had been grown at their medical facility into salad bars in 10 restaurants in the surrounding county and made 750 citizens ill. In 1994, the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and injuring thousands.

A cult, like a religion, has a belief system. Like a religion, a cult also has leaders and followers who relate in certain ways. But there are significant differences between a cult and a religion. A religion, especially one that has existed for a long time, meets, for the most part, the needs of its followers; the religion wouldn’t have survived if it didn’t. In a cult, followers serve the needs of leadership, which typically has hidden, self-aggrandizing agendas.

In cults, leaders achieve their goals by manipulating followers’ emotions and natural human needs so as to convince them that compliance with leadership’s directives serves some noble purpose, frequently something other than the actual, often disguised goals of the organization. Leadership also manipulates the belief system of the group in order to provide followers with explanations for any doubts or questions that may arise, in or outside of the group. Cult leaders, for example, will be conveniently literal in their reading of the group’s scripture when a literal interpretation suits their purpose; yet they will ignore or interpret, in a most unliteral way if necessary, scriptural passages that run counter to their ends.

When outside observers evaluate a cult solely on its beliefs, the observers overlook the core of the cultic dynamic, which is the psychological manipulation of followers and the highly selective use of foundational texts, such as scripture in religious cults, to advance the leader’s goals. An observer may be especially off the mark when the cult’s professed belief system resembles a mainstream group of which the observer disapproves, or if the observer knows little about the cultic group’s mainstream reference culture (e.g., Salafism, fundamentalist Protestantism). The International Churches of Christ (ICC), for example, has a fundamentalist Christian belief system that is similar to that of the Church of Christ, a mainstream fundamentalist denomination. A casual outside observer who disapproves of fundamentalist Protestantism may recoil from both organizations and may not see much that differentiates them. However, they are different precisely in the ways I described in the previous paragraph. Indeed, the Church of Christ has been one of the most vocal critics of the ICC. Its explanations of how the ICC twists the scripture that they both claim to embrace, for example, has been extremely useful to nonsectarian exit counselors working with parents trying to help their adult children to reevaluate their commitment to the ICC cultic group.

As with Christian cults, Muslim cults (which include extremist groups that may mistakenly be equated ideologically with schools of theology within the Muslim mainstream, as the ICC may be confused with the Church of Christ) also twist their scriptures to serve hidden agendas. Some have become aware of this aspect of the cultic dynamic and have instituted programs of counterindoctrination to rehabilitate terrorists and prevent recruitment of would-be terrorists (Craigin & Gerwehr, 2005). These programs tend to focus on ideological analyses and, according to reports, have not been very successful (Morris, Eberhard, Rivera, & Watsula, 2010).

This lack of success is not surprising. Decades of clinical work with former cult members, who are the best source of intelligence concerning what goes on in cults behind the scenes, has taught cultic-studies experts that one must pay attention to much more than scripture twisting to understand and respond constructively to cultic conversions. The public ideology of a cultic group may be a tool to gain credibility. Frequently, “back-stage” behavior, or a lived ideology, may distort or even contradict the public ideology aimed at gaining recruits and outside support. One might say that the public ideology is aimed at perceptions, while the lived ideology is aimed at behavior.

The lived ideology is embedded in manipulative group dynamics that over time alter followers’ identities in fundamental ways. Once followers have successfully imbibed the lived ideology of the group, they will use their native intelligence to construct rationalizations to counter theological arguments that assail the belief system to which they are loyal. Many followers, and probably most, are tightly attached to their group because of emotional manipulations that create and fortify affective bonds among members and between leaders and members. Clinical experience suggests that, for the majority of cultists, ideological loyalty derives from emotional bonding more than it derives from intellectual argument. Hence, rationalization will usually prevail over reasoning. Or, as often has been said, “My head says ‘no’; my heart says ‘yes’; my heart wins.” Deradicalization efforts that focus only on the head are doomed to fail.

Given this analysis, cultic-studies experts ought to be able to help terrorism specialists improve the effectiveness of deradicalization programs in two important ways. They can work with Islamic experts to expose the public ideology: that is, to show how radical Muslim groups, like their Christian analogues, are theological frauds—i.e., “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” But more importantly, cultic-studies experts can help explain the psychological dynamics that enable Muslim cult leaders to gain high levels of influence over their followers, instilling a lived ideology of the kind that inspires people to give up their children or their lives; and they can help defectors from radical Muslim groups deal with the specific psychological issues involved in recovery from cultic experience.

Although an understanding of cultic dynamics is far from sufficient to explain the causes, effects, and implications of terrorism, the perspectives and insights of cultic-studies experts may be a necessary part of an explanation that does justice to the complexity of the phenomenon.


Craigin, K., & Gerwehr, S. (2005). Dissuading terror: Strategic influence and the struggle against terrorism. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Morris, M., Eberhard, F., Rivera, J., & Watsula, M. (2010, May). Deradicalization: A review of the literature with comparison to findings in the literatures on deganging and deprogramming. Research brief from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions.