Terrorism and Cults

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 2, Number 1, 2003

Terrorism and Cults

Hal Mansfield, M.A.

Director, Religious Movements Resource Center

Fort Collins, Colorado


Although many observers see close similarities between terrorism and cults, there are also many important differences. Terrorist organizations have widely varying motivations and goals. Although thought reform processes may occur in some, they do not characterize many others. Even Al Qaeda training camps, which have sparked much of the speculation about similarities to cults, may have more in common with military training regimens than with cult indoctrination centers. To lump all terrorist groups as cults is simplistic.

The following thoughts and comments are related to how many professionals have been putting terrorist groups into the destructive cult category. These comments are in no way to be interpreted as the last word, or even the beginning. This subject is too broad to be summarized in a single paper, or even in a conference. There are too many terrorist groups/cells to cover here, and they do operate differently. To broad-brush all these groups would be, in my opinion, a disservice to understanding how they work. I will, consequently, refer only to commonly known groups or classes of groups; namely, terrorist groups tied to Al-Qaeda and similar organizations. My goal is to discuss some of the similarities and differences between cults and terrorists groups with a view to illuminating the complexity of the subject and the need to avoid facile comparisons.

First, we need to define terrorism. I find no one definition that all accept; however, for this paper, I use the definition from the U.S. Department of State, and specifically the definition in the Introduction to Patterns of Global Terrorism and the Terrorist Group Profiles (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/2419.htm):

  1. The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

  2. The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.

  3. The term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

Certainly, a case for comparison between cults and terrorism exists in some smaller terror groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, and in other small groups such as The Order, a violent, white-supremacy group. There do seem to be links within these groups to destructive cult methodology as described in Lifton (1961), in which the author describes eight themes of thought reform, with which most readers of this journal are familiar. (see http://www.csj.org/studyindex/studymindctr/study_mindctr_lifton.htm).

When we try to apply Lifton’s eight points to the larger, international terrorist groups, however, the parallels aren’t clear because one must take into account geopolitical and historical considerations when analyzing these groups. Now, I want to make clear, that such considerations do not excuse the activities of these groups. Indeed, we call them terrorist groups for a reason. Different groups, however, have different motives, which are subject to change.

Motives can be cash-based and include the use of kidnappings and guns for hire. An example of this methodology is Shining Path in South America, which mainly affects the countries of Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. Shining Path started as a rebel organization but recently became a guns-for-hire group used by the drug cartels that operate in the region where Columbia, Brazil, and Peru come together. Shining Path targets include police forces, Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, and military assets in the region. The group has posted bounties of thousands of dollars all over the region, with contracts to be paid by the cartel networks.

Ethnic cleansing, another motive, and another form of terrorism in its most disgusting shape, was carried out by many factions in the former Yugoslavia. Terror groups, in addition to regular military forces that were conducting similar operations, ranged all over the countryside in Bosnia and Croatia.

As these two examples demonstrate, applying Lifton’s points to terrorist groups across the board doesn’t always work out.

I have given a very brief look at a few areas, but now I will concentrate on the area of the world about which terrorism is commonly discussed, namely, the Middle East. We all see the pictures every day of horrific acts of violence in this region, and here is where we need to explore some geopolitical realities.

One of Lifton’s main points regarding behavior often associated with cults is information control, or milieu control. When we look at destructive cults, we always look for closed societies in which the leadership controls the flow of information into and out of the group. The group is effectively cut off from the outside world. This is not the case, however, in most of the terror groups we have come to know by name.

The acts carried out by terrorists are congratulated in some quarters and, in fact, the members of the groups receive acknowledgement from some governments. Not only are people rewarded by certain Arab governments, for example, but more moderate countries also raise money for survivors of suicide bombings. Mixed messages are plentiful. A prime example is an Arab summit at which the terror group Hamas had a representative with full diplomatic credentials. There is, of course, a religious element to consider in the Middle East. Many “schools” teach hatred of the West, and leading clerics are not willing to define the acts of terror as such. Anti-Western feelings, which have been prevalent in these areas for a long time, were compounded after WWI with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of artificial countries, such as Iraq. The Arabs fought along with British forces in the area, expecting to be able to form an independent Arab state after war’s end. Not realizing this goal made many in the Arab world bitter, and that bitterness has remained ever since (United States Air Force Command Staff College).

Other considerations also differentiate cults from terrorist groups. I will use general examples here, knowing full well that there are exceptions to the rule. These examples are meant to show a pattern rather than an absolute picture. I mentioned finances above, and that is a good place to point out a major difference between cults and terrorist groups. In cults, money is typically drawn from members either by direct means or “fundraisers,” all to the benefit of the cult leader. In Al Qaeda’s case, the financial arrangement is more top-down. Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda, was already wealthy and has provided major financing of the terrorist campaigns. Countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, and others have also provided money. State support to this degree is not something cults enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, more regional groups such as Shining Path, FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia), and others use kidnapping for ransom as their fundraisers. The leaders of such groups do not enjoy the lavish lifestyle we expect from cult leaders. Instead, they use most of their money to buy arms and supplies, and the rest to fund other operations.

Cult leaders tend to control all aspects of the cult, including people’s lives. No decision is made without the leader’s full consent, and, in many cases, direction by the leader is a matter of daily micro-management. Even high-ranking members have little or no discretionary influence. Yet we have plenty of evidence that Al Qaeda is still operating, despite separation from Bin Laden. This is not to say that communication has been totally cut off, but it has been severely degraded. New operations have been uncovered, as well as new training bases located in different countries, such as Malaysia. Thus, high-ranking members in the organization have the resources and authority to operate on their own. In the military, we call this arrangement decentralized execution. Cults typically do not operate under these parameters.

Recruitment also is different between cults and Al Qaeda. Cults recruit mostly under the guise of getting nearer to God, cleaning up the planet, and the like. In other words, recruitment is targeted to the higher or the nobler motivations within each of us, although these high-sounding goals typically serve as cover for hidden agendas. Not so in Al Qaeda, with maybe the exception of getting closer to God! There is no illusion about what joining Al Qaeda is for. You can point at training camps and possibly argue that mind control takes place. I’d argue that while some aspects of mind control may exist in these camps, members joined knowing up front what they were getting into. I’d also argue that the training in these camps is not that much different from the tactics used in Army ranger schools to build confidence, unity, and a working knowledge of how to carry out missions. Does Al Qaeda use deception? Yes, of course it does, tactically as well as internally. There is evidence that some of the 9/11 hijackers did not know they were on a suicide run. However, that fact doesn’t make much of a difference, because members, like soldiers in the military, would expect deception to be used as a military tactic. Deception thus serves a different purpose than it does in a cult.

As I lay out these considerations, I hope that you will see what a complex problem confronts those trying to make a lasting peace in the Middle East. The psychological considerations that are the focus of mind control analyses are only one class of considerations that must be taken into account. As I’ve tried to show as an example, what may look like mind control from one perspective is normal military training from another. Having said all of this, do I discount out of hand the theories of looking at operations conducted by these groups as “cult like”? No; to varying degrees, there are cult-like elements to look at and discuss. However, not all groups have the same operational levels, span of control, and so on. To lump all these groups together as cults is too simplistic.


Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: W. W. Norton.

United States Air Force Command Staff College. Course for command level officers)

United States Department of State. Patterns of global terrorism and the terrorist group profiles (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/2419.htm)

This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.