Terrorist Motivations, Extreme Violence, and the Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 5, Number 2, 2006, pages 244-267

Terrorist Motivations, Extreme Violence, and the Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Jaime Gomez, Jr.

This essay examines the rationale behind terrorists’ attempts to use weapons of mass destruction. The essay explores this theme by comparing Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda in order to assess the extent to which their actions were the result of strategic choice or the expression of internal group dynamics. Groups such as al Qaeda, which are motivated by strategic choice, are more predictable, if their goals are properly understood, and more likely to respond rationally than are groups such as Aum, which can reflect the idiosyncratic psychopathology of the leader. However, since both types of groups can pursue weapons of mass destruction, the most important goal in counterterrorism should be to make WMD technology and existing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons more difficult to obtain. Succeeding in this goal will reduce the probability of a catastrophe; however, it will not eliminate the lesser but nonetheless horrific destruction achievable through conventional weapons, especially when creatively used as on 9/11. To make progress on this front, we must continue to increase our understanding of how the varieties of terrorist and other destructive groups operate, psychologically as well as politically and strategically.

Mohammed Hafez cautions that “Western responses to Islamist violence must be measured and well thought out. Misconstruing the underlying causes of Islamist rage or overacting to Islamist violence may only intensify militancy, not temperate it.” [1] For policy-makers, understanding the source or cause of discontent serves as the best hope to remedy the ills that lie beneath what some refer to as “sacred” terrorism or religious terrorism. Basic questions arise: What would extremists hope to achieve by resorting to such violent acts? Is terrorism ever rational? Can terrorism be deterred? All too often, our analysis of extremist motives begins with our reaction to the terrorist act itself. However, for certain extremist organizations, successful efforts to identify and isolate the root cause of such events rests on a deeper understanding of the subtle processes that foment such profound actions, in particular suicide terrorism and the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

In a recent review of Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God, Jeff Goodwin stated that few studies probe deeply into the cause of terrorism and, as a result,

. . . it remains a mystery. A contributing factor is that social movement scholars with very few exceptions have said little about terrorism. Nor have they paid sustained attention to the more general question of how movement organizations make strategic choices, of which terrorism is one. [2]

To resolve group level problems we need to view them from a group level or movement level perspective. At that point we can craft more tailored solutions to counter the extremist threat. The central theme of this essay is to examine the rationale behind terrorists’ attempts to use weapons of mass destruction. I explore this theme by comparing Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda in order to assess the extent to which their actions were the result of strategic choice or the expression of internal group dynamics.

In brief, Aum Shinrikyo’s decision to attack civilians on a Japanese subway reflects an organization in a desperate fight for survival. According to Martha Crenshaw’s organizational perspective, “terrorist actions often appear inconsistent, erratic, and unpredictable” and terrorist acts might occur as a result of internal group dynamics. [3] The group’s ultimate decision to strike a Tokyo subway system was as much an attack on Japan’s political culture as it was an act by a desperate group. In contrast, al Qaeda’s methodical planning and extensive preparation reflect an instrumental approach where the act of terrorism is that of strategic choice advancing collective values. According to Crenshaw, such an organization ultimately fails when the group is unable to reach its political objectives or when the cost of conducting such terrorist acts exceeds any foreseeable benefits.

Aum Shinrikyo

One of today’s abiding fears is that 9/11 was only the first act of “megaterrorism” and that those that follow might use weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Authors such as Graham Allison, Bruce Hoffman, Walter Laqueur, and others have written about the prospects of such actions. In fact, Thomas Schelling in 1979 said:

Sometime in the 1980s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons…. By “organization” I mean a political movement, a government in exile, a separatist or secessionist party, a military rebellion, adventurers from the underground or the underworld, or even some group of people merely bent on showing that it can be done. [4]

Schelling’s statement implies that distinctions exist among terrorist groups. If terrorist groups are distinctive in their motives, it would stand to reason that in order to deter or influence such organizations, one must also be able to isolate and differentiate the group’s goals and objectives from their rhetoric. For example, in comparing the Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo to al Qaeda, we find distinctions in orientation and ideology, yet both have used religious extremism to serve ideological objectives.

Before the events of 9/11, Aum Shinrikyo unleashed fears of extreme terror with the release of sarin gas in a Japanese subway in 1995. Led by a religious mystic, Shoko Asahara, followers of the movement had come to believe that “Armageddon will come at the end of this century and…only a merciful, godly race will survive. The leader of this race will emerge in Japan.” [5] Asahara, characterized as a charismatic, highly ambitious individual, methodically built a cult that, at its peak, reached 40,000 members worldwide with an estimated 30,000 followers in Russia and other areas, including Australia, Sri Lanka, and the United States. [6] The group capitalized on millennial visions and apocalyptic predictions to frame their group’s doctrine, which was deeply influenced by the works of Nostradamus, whose work serves as a cornerstone of the group’s teachings. [7] Aum’s followers actively recruited students and professionals in the fields of medicine, science, computers, engineering, and other technical areas. Asahara’s charisma and message seemed to have a great appeal to many who felt alienated by the industrialized, secular, and conformist aspects of Japanese society. [8]

At its peak, it is estimated that Aum Shinrikyo’s worth was as much as $1.5 billion. [9] With such great financial resources, Aum Shinrikyo invested capital to support high-tech, state-of-the-art laboratories and funded its own research, circumventing restrictions normally associated with larger corporate research laboratories. [10] In addition to collecting monies through donations, tithing, and sales of religious materials, Aum conducted seminars and courses in the cult’s teachings, charging hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to participate in these sessions. In fact, Aum Shinrikyo diversified its enterprises by running a chain of restaurants in Tokyo as well as a computer-manufacturing firm that assembled and sold computers in Japan with parts imported from Taiwan. [11] Other more surreptitious practices included the manufacturing of illegal drugs, which was supported by the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza) with a marketing agreement. Further, Aum engaged in a practice referred to as “green mail” where Aum would extort community leaders by threatening to establish a “branch” office or school within their local community. By engaging in such practices, the cult succeeded in gaining leverage through extortion, coercion, theft, and murder as forms of fund-raising for the cult. [12]

Asahara and his closest followers planned to defend themselves against the coming Armageddon by creating a formidable arsenal that would enable Aum Shinrikyo to survive and become the most powerful group in the world. Despite high expectations and several attempts at local elections, Asahara and other leaders failed to gain a seat in the Japanese parliament. Due to these unmet expectations about changing Japan’s political culture, Aum’s leadership became more radical and the group’s goals began to alter. Asahara would later preach that it was “the duty of Aum members to hasten Armageddon,” and subsequent efforts to attack the Japanese legislature also were indicative of Aum’s disappointments with the democratic system. [13]

While the group’s most notorious act involved the release of sarin gas, Aum attempted to acquire various types of other weapons, including biological, nuclear, and radiological material. The cult’s close relationship with followers in Russia seemingly gave it the opportunity to leverage its vast wealth and contacts with Russian security forces and the black-market to acquire weapons-grade fissile material; yet it failed. [14] Aum remained open to all alternatives for possessing a WMD capability, but in the end chose to develop chemical weapons. Yet, the cult’s failure to acquire a nuclear capability was not from a lack of desire or effort. Aum invested a great deal of time and resources in its attempt to purchase advanced weapons. According to a recent RAND study, Hayakawa Kiyohide, a senior Aum leader, made eight trips to Russia in 1994 and with a budget of $15 million sought to acquire a nuclear bomb. [15]

Despite efforts to bribe senior Russian officials with exclusive access to foreign technologies markets, Aum failed in its quest to purchase a nuclear weapon. [16] Aum actively sought to recruit scientists and employees from Russia’s Kurchatov Institute and Moscow State University to join the cult. [17] At one point, Aum leaders requested but were subsequently denied a meeting with the then Russian Energy Minister, Victor Mikhailov, to discuss the purchase of a nuclear warhead. Undaunted, the group later pursued efforts to build a nuclear weapon by collecting required materials and mining uranium in Western Australia from land purchased by the group. [18] Their objective was to construct a bomb in Japan with plans to enrich the uranium through the use of laser technology. Despite Aum’s vast wealth and contacts, Shoko Asahara and his followers eventually abandoned their efforts and chose to pursue a less difficult, less costly chemical option, which was also less destructive.

Between 1990 and 1995 and prior to the Tokyo subway attack, Aum made several attempts at chemical attacks, but with limited results. Prior to the subway attack, Asahara and his core leaders discovered that, local authorities and law enforcement personnel had plans to conduct police raids against cult facilities and offices. Up to this point, Aum had succeeded in exploiting Japan’s extensive legal protections for religious organizations, which enabled Aum to operate in a highly permissive environment without much interference from the state. [19] But by March 20, 1995, Aum’s leaders realized that the Japanese authorities’ case against their group threatened its leaders. Asahara became convinced that his arrest along with other senior cult members was imminent. He believed that the only strategy that remained was a pre-emptive attack to strike fear as a last act in order to ensure the group’s survival. Despite having limited success in its previous efforts with chemical agents, Aum believed that a successful attack would have enough psychological impact to secure the group’s future. In the end, what remains clear is that Aum displayed a great deal of resolve in its effort to employ tactics that would cause mass casualties. [20]

Asahara’s fear of Japanese authorities compelled him and his inner circle to go deeper underground. From Aum’s perspective, this act improved the cult’s chances for survival while reducing the likelihood of death or capture, particularly among the group’s leaders. Going underground would also isolate the movement from the outside world and would limit the opportunity to add new recruits or replenish losses. Additionally, this act had the added effect of further radicalizing the group’s tactics and ideology. As a result, Aum’s behavior began to reflect the internal dynamics of the organization rather than the pursuit of a specific strategic objective. [21] The group began to develop a tight identity, social connections, interpersonal bonds, and a sense of cohesion. The move towards greater isolation intensified the group’s resolve to shift toward more violent activity. [22] The organization’s decision-making began to reflect the group’s internal dynamics as groupthink eliminated dissent within the leadership’s inner core. Loyalty to the peer group took on a more profound meaning and became an important motive as activists shifted toward a deepening commitment to the cause of group survival. [23]

What began as an apocalyptic strategy, however bizarre in nature, degenerated into an irrational act of mass violence that reflected the paranoid desperation of the group’s leadership. The leadership abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons and opted for a less catastrophic chemical weapon—a weapon of mass disruption, rather than mass destruction. The Tokyo subway attack, then, was not so much an “act” of terrorism linked to a strategic objective of hastening Armageddon through weapons of mass destruction as it was a violent “acting out” of a leader’s psychopathological need to hurt the countrymen who had frustrated his grandiose and delusional goals.

The group was renamed in 2000 to Aleph (meaning “to start anew”), but it has yet to relinquish its ties with Shoko Asahara. According to a New York Times article, when asked about its relationship with Asahara, Aleph’s current leader Fumihiro Joyu, stated that "Just like you wouldn't stop your connection with physical fathers and mothers who commit a crime, we will not sever our connection with our spiritual father." [24] The psychological bond to the charismatic leader endures, despite his utter failure to bring about the changes that he once promised to his followers.


Like Asahara, Osama bin Laden developed antisystem frames to provide an ethical justification for Al Qaeda’s violence against civilians. For example, on 23 Feb 1998, Osama bin Laden released his Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders, where he states his three major grievances with the United States: first, the occupation of “the lands of Islam in the holiest places, the Arabian peninsula”; second, “the crusader-Zionist alliance”; third, “[the United States’ intent] to fragment all the (Arab) states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the peninsula.” [25] Released by the World Islamic Front, al Qaeda’s fatwa “became the manifesto of the full-fledged global Salafi jihad” and heralded bin Laden’s call to carry out the jihad against “far enemy.” [26]

By tapping into a populist pan-Islamic theme, bin Laden attempts to draw support from the broader Muslim community. His message strives to appeal to a wider global audience and rally a Muslim population of over 1 billion people to al Qaeda’s cause. His effort is intended to reduce the psychological cost of participating in an extremist cause. Bin Laden’s words seem to echo della Porta’s observation that “The ideology of the terrorist organizations offered (1) a justification of political violence, including murder; (2) an image of the external world that masked the failures of the armed struggle; and (3) a positive evaluation of the role of individual action.” [27] Similar to Aum, al Qaeda has drawn support from those sympathetic to its cause. Although Aum’s idiosyncratic framing of its cause limited its appeal, Bin Laden leveraged common cultural and religious frames to serve the group’s strategic ideological objectives and thereby gained much wider support than Aum. Therefore, as with Aum Shinrikyo, one must distinguish between and separate religious and ideological factors that shape the group’s short-term and long-term objectives.

Unlike Aum, al Qaeda’s influence has extended to groups with known or alleged connections to al Qaeda, including the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore; Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in Egypt; Harakat ul-Maujahidin in Pakistan; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia; Jaish-e-Mohammed in India and Pakistan; and, al-Jihad in Egypt. [28] But al Qaeda and its regional surrogate groups differ in that al Qaeda possesses a global view whereas the concerns of these various groups are more local. Likewise, these local groups have gone to considerable lengths to justify their support within the local population and would be less inclined towards resorting to mass violence. While al Qaeda may agree that an attack on the U.S. is justified, a similar response locally would be counterproductive to the group’s cause. Yet, to the extent that these corollary groups support al Qaeda directly or through more indirect means, an understanding of the overall network is critical to determining the groups’ vulnerabilities and potential opportunities to influence, deny, degrade, or disrupt threats of extreme violence.

Arguably, in the case of a group like al Qaeda, the framing of such religious zeal serves to promote the group’s ideological objectives as well as justify the use of collective violence. [29] According to Hafez,

Muslims rebel because they encounter an ill-fated combination of political and institutional exclusion, on the one hand, and reactive and indiscriminate repression on the other. When states do not provide their Islamist opposition movements opportunities for institutional participation, and employ repression indiscriminately against these movements after a period of prior mobilization, Islamists will most probably rebel. [30]

Hafez describes how radical Islamists organize themselves and demand strict ideological and behavioral adherence from each of their members. In a similar way, Aum used threat, fear, murder, and intimidation to mitigate dissention within the group. This radicalized view, however, further isolated the organization from the rest of society.

A similar, though somewhat different, process occurred with respect to Al Qaeda. Islamists’ initial failure to change states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia from within led to a “spiral of encapsulation” that gradually isolated the extremists from government and Muslim leaders and caused the group to become more extreme in its views. The experience gained by these extremists would later become the core of al Qaeda’s belief system. However, unlike Aum, Al Qaeda was successful in modifying its message to elicit sympathy and support from the Muslim masses, especially when it directed its ire toward the “far away enemy,” specifically the United States. “Organizers of violence must align their tactics with cultural norms, symbols, and ethics that give moral meaning to acts of violence. Culture provides a “tool kit” of concepts, myths, and symbols from which militant organizations could selectively draw to construct strategies of action.” [31] When a society places a premium on self- sacrifice, cultural framing can succeed in intensifying and reinforcing extreme use of violence, such as suicide terrorism, by playing to those self-sacrificing themes. Thus, martyrdom through suicide terror becomes the weapon of choice for producing mass violence. While nation-states apply the threat of economic sanctions and conventional firepower as a means of coercion, terrorists use suicide terror as the instrument of choice to advance their strategic objectives because their power lies in their ability to resonate with and manipulate cultural and religious frames, rather than ability to control economic and military institutions. [32]

Unlike Aum Shinrikyo, al Qaeda used a technologically conservative weapon that combined variants of familiar tactics of hijacking, bombing, and martyrdom as suicide terror in a highly innovative way doctrinally. [33] This tactic, however, reflected al Qaeda’s capacity to recognize and live within the strategic limitations of reality. Like Aum, al Qaeda expressed a strong interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In fact, bin Laden has called the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) a “religious duty.” [34] Ayman al Zawahiri, a senior leader in al Qaeda and leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), expands bin Laden’s views by stating that the objective of the global jihad against the United States and its allies is to:

  1. To inflict maximum casualties against the opponent.

  2. To concentrate on the method of martyrdom operations as the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and the least costly to the Mujahedin in terms of casualties.

  3. Targets as well as the type and method of weapons used must be chosen to have an impact on the structure of the enemy.

  4. To reiterate that focusing on the domestic enemy alone will not be feasible at this stage. [35]

Like Aum, Al Qaeda demonstrated its intent and at least limited capacity to self-develop a WMD capability. In fact, al-Qaeda devoted an entire volume of their 5,000-page Encyclopedia of Jihad to methods by which chemical and biological weapons may be developed and constructed. [36] During operations in Afghanistan in August 2002, US led coalition forces discovered traces of ricin and anthrax at five or six sites. [37] Additionally, evidence and videotapes were discovered demonstrating the group’s interest in bubonic plague, cyanide, and botulinum toxin. The tapes included video-training manuals for terrorists instructing them on how to assemble explosive devices. The tapes also showed chemical tests being performed on three dogs. In one scene, a group of unidentified men are seen leaving an enclosure in which the dogs are penned. A few moments later, a white gas appears to seep in from the left, when, after a few seconds, the dogs begin to display physical reactions. [38]

According to a report prepared by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, on January 5, 2003, seven men were arrested in London, UK for producing ricin in an apartment. British authorities indicated that at least one of the individuals arrested had attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. It was later discovered that the remaining individuals had undergone similar training in Chechnya and Georgia. Within a week, five more men and one woman were taken into custody for involvement in the plot. [39] Additionally, Abu Khabab who was a known al-Qaeda operative was identified as the man responsible for training members of the plot in London. [40]

In April 2004, Jordanian authorities arrested six individuals and killed four in a raid to pre-empt a pending attack by a small cell linked to Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, who allegedly provided $170,000 through messengers from Syria. [41] According to a witness’s testimony, suspects were found with instructions on preparing germ and conventional weapons. [42] The cell’s plan was to conduct a suicide attack using trucks filled with 20 tons of industrial chemicals and explosives to crash into the Jordanian intelligence agency headquarters in the country’s capital of Amman. The original plan called for simultaneous attacks against the U.S. Embassy as well as the prime minister’s office. The estimated number of casualties were anywhere from as low as 20,000 up to 80,000 lives. [43]

Finally, in August 2004, eight men were arrested in the UK and charged with “conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support and resources to terrorists, and conspiracy to damage and destroy buildings used in interstate and foreign commerce.” [44] They were discovered with information on chemicals, explosives, and radiological materials. Their plans were to target U.S. financial institutions, including the Citigroup Building in New York, the New York Stock Exchange, the Prudential Building in New Jersey, and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. The arrests occurred two weeks after a series of 13 arrests of individuals allegedly affiliated with the al-Qaeda network. [45] The members arrested included Dhiren Barot (aka “Moussa al-Hindi“ and Abu Esa al-Britani”), head of the al-Qaeda in Britain, “who gets his orders directly from Osama bin Laden,” and Muhammed Naeem Noor Khan of Pakistan, “an alleged al-Qaeda operative” whose computer proved instrumental in the case. [46]

In the three examples presented, we find certain common themes. First, the majority of the targets were selected for their symbolic value. In particular, the plot in Amman, which involved martyrdom/suicide attacks, was a strategic choice to gain maximum effect against targets associated with Jordan’s relationship with the United States. Second, in each case members had either trained with or received financial assistance from al-Qaeda. Third, each assault was planned with the intent of having multiple simultaneous attacks. Finally, as demonstrated in the case of the terrorist plot in Amman, Jordan, small groups may use conventional materials to achieve an unconventional, yet highly lethal, effect. [47] Thus, despite the appeal of WMD to al Qaeda, the organization and its affiliates and allies have made pragmatic, strategic choices to—so far—stick with the well-tested and effective asymmetric weapon of suicide terrorism.

Robert Pape discusses how terrorist organizations have assessed the effectiveness of suicide attacks and the limits of their coercive ability. First, he states that suicide terrorism is strategic. He asserts that the majority of suicide attacks occur as part of an organized group’s activities in support of a broader strategic framework to support a particular goal. Second, suicide terrorism aims at forcing democracies to give ground on nationalistic causes. Third, he states that “during the past 20 years, suicide terrorism has been steadily rising because terrorists have learned that it pays.” Suicide terrorists, for example, compelled American and French military forces to abandon Lebanon in 1983, Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985, and Israeli forces to quit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995. Similarly, the Madrid Bombings, which occurred three days before a nationwide general election and killed 192 civilians, had an immediate impact on the Spanish elections and subsequent withdrawal of Spain’s troops in Iraq. Published reports would later reveal the al Qaeda had identified Spain as a key target in their overall strategic plan. They saw Spain as “very vulnerable to attacks, primarily because public opposition to the war is total, and the government is virtually alone on this issue.” [48]

Pape believes, however, that “although moderate suicide terrorism led to moderate concessions, these more ambitious suicide terrorist campaigns are not likely to achieve still greater gains and may well fail completely.” [49] Although states may choose to abandon or concede short-term goals in response to terrorist attacks, concessions that would have long-term implications, such as compromising the state’s overall security, surrendering significant amounts of territory, or submitting to economic deprivation, would be less likely. Thus, terrorists resort to suicide terrorism because on some level it works, although its effectiveness may have limits. Hence, Pape says that the “most promising way to contain suicide terrorism is to reduce terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out such attacks on the target society” [50] and/or, I would add, to reduce their confidence in the capacity of such attacks to effect desired policy changes in the target country. Instead of focusing solely on the prevention of an attack similar to the last one, we should also try to understand the strategic motives behind all attacks so as to figure out how we might be able to alter the terrorists’ cost-benefit calculations in our favor.

Al-Qaeda’s influence today appears to be more inspirational than tactical. Nevertheless, the capacity of other, related groups to pull off successful terrorist attacks should not be discounted. As John Parachini, a policy analyst for the RAND Corporation, points out, terrorist cells will exploit permissive environments that give them an opportunity to access and, in some cases, develop their own chemical weapons. States should become more aware that law enforcement regulations used to protect individual rights may also be exploited by unscrupulous individuals. [51] Fortunately, terrorists still have to overcome daunting technical challenges to develop nuclear or chemical weapons. [52] Since the crackdown on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in 2002 by Pakistani authorities, none of al-Qaeda’s associated groups appears to be developing chemical and biological weapons. [53] In order to survive, terrorist groups will have to be more independent and less command-driven, a change influenced more by need than strategic preference. [54]

Strategic Choice or Group Behavior

Martha Crenshaw emphasizes the importance of analyzing terrorist groups in order to develop effective policy recommendations. [55] She describes two approaches to better understand terrorism and its consequences. The first approach argues that terrorism represents a strategic choice from a set of possible alternatives by a political actor. Behaving according to a set of collective values, an organization may choose terrorism to achieve radical political and social change. This instrumental approach views terrorism as a response to government behavior and actions. As the cost for conducting such activity increases or as the reward for such actions decreases, violence will be less likely to occur. The instrumental perspective, then, analyzes terrorism according to a rational cost/benefit calculus.

Table 1: Similarities of Aum and Al Qaeda

  • Amassed a great deal of wealth and financial resources

  • Global reach and access to external funds & support

  • Pursued efforts to purchase nuclear weapons and radiological materials

  • Strong interest and pursuit of WMD: well resourced/strong desires

  • Self-developed and experimented with chemical weapons

  • Expressed political objectives and a call for change

  • Followers influenced by charismatic leadership

  • Discouraged by the state apparatus and desire for radical change

  • Operated within “permissive” environments

  • Followers were not of one specific class or social strata

  • Displayed ability to adapt and leverage existing technology

The second approach emphasizes the internal organizational processes within a particular group or across similar groups that have common objectives. The actions of these groups may be inconsistent with the organization’s stated objectives because the leaders’ focus is to foster intense loyalty and discourage dissent and defection. In such groups, typified by cults such as Aum Shinrikyo or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, the psychopathology of the leader can trump the strategic logic implied in the group’s objectives, resulting in erratic and sometimes unpredictable behavior.

How then would this formulation apply to Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda? We shall first compare the similarities of both organizations.

With regards to weapons of mass destruction, the most telling similarity is the desire and financial resources to pursue chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons. Both organizations believed that violence can achieve political change and both believed in the possibility that terrorism was an effective means to that end. However, as we compare the differences between both organizations, Crenshaw’s distinction between instrumental and organizational approaches becomes quite apparent.

While Aum expressed political change as its ultimate desire, its decision-making reflected more of an organizational survivalist construct in achieving its ends. Unlike al Qaeda, Aum became focused on using a weapon of terror to achieve its objectives. This obsessive fixation continues despite numerous experimental attempts and failures. Aum’s leaders appeared almost unconstrained by their own ego and driven to validate the organization’s extensive investment in research and equipment by using chemical weapons. In contrast, al Qaeda abandoned its effort after repeated attempts failed to achieve desired outcomes, leading the group to modify known capabilities, bombing and hijacking, so as to improve their chances of success. In keeping with a more instrumental approach, al Qaeda has maintained its focus on accomplishing its operational objectives while altering the specific tactical means of doing so. Although al Qaeda had the wealth, resources, and contacts necessary for a WMD venture, its leaders decided to pursue other alternatives to achieve the desired effect. However, both examples show that, despite wealth and connections, problems still exist in pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

Also noteworthy are the different ways in which each organization framed its cause. Al Qaeda leveraged existing sentiments and feelings shared by a large majority of the Muslim world. The leadership within al Qaeda capitalized upon widely shared beliefs that the Muslim world’s problems stem from the continuing influence of the West in Islamic affairs. Al Qaeda’s message has a broad appeal because it resonates with existing cultural, religious, and societal beliefs, which were hijacked to advance ideological objectives. In contrast, Aum’s belief core is wholly manufactured, i.e., synthetic in its origins. First, while Asahara dabbled in the practices of Hinduism, his syncretistic belief structure was pieced together from various religious and non-religious beliefs, including the writings of Nostradamus. Second, unlike individuals immersed in a predominantly Islamic culture, Aum Shinrikyo’s teachings were not necessarily reinforced by everyday surroundings, societal contacts, and interactions. Unless a follower of Aum lived in one of its communities, individuals’ beliefs could be corroded by external influences. To some degree, this constraint contributed to the need to suppress dissent within the group.


The likelihood of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction in the post-9/11 era remains unclear. The scale of attack on 9/11, however, suggests that the goal of perpetrating extreme violence will keep strategically oriented and pragmatic terrorist groups open to unconventional means, such as WMD. Increasingly, terrorism experts and specialists in social movement theory, suggest that increased dialogue between academic and government communities will help us all better understand the potential for extremism and violence within social movements and the groups that they spawn. [56] Such dialogue would help policy-makers identify and distinguish groups that approach terrorism from an organizational or instrumental perspective.

Pressures applied to a group dominated by pathological internal dynamics might compel the organization to implode, as exemplified in the discussion of Aum Shinrikyo above. Within the context of Aum’s value system, the cult’s actions appeared logical. In lieu of achieving political power through legitimate means, the group ultimately sought to achieve its objectives through extreme violence. However, the group’s internal dynamics, inextricably linked to the leader’s psychopathology, led to the organization’s demise, but not before society had paid a terrible price in human suffering. In contrast, a group rationally choosing terrorism among other alternatives will calculate actions based on perceived benefits and costs. Presenting such a group with a set of different alternatives as substitutes or increasing costs to the degree that any benefits gained through extreme violence would not be worth the costs might lead the group to a less destructive destination.

In the case of al Qaeda, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was simply one in a range of options available for instrumental purposes. Aum’s obsession with WMD technology combined with the permissive environment of the Japanese legal system enabled Asahara’s followers to pursue WMD technology, despite numerous failed experiments. Today, changes in the legal system and law enforcement techniques would make the duplication of Aum’s extensive WMD apparatus more difficult. In other words, the changes adopted by Japan’s legal system and experience gained from Asahara and his cult have raised the costs and risks of pursuing such tactics, thus decreasing the likelihood that another group might replicate Aum’s program in Japan.

Although since 9/11 an attack using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons has not occurred, the potential for such an attack is undeniable. Technical challenges will continue to impede terrorists who seek WMD; hence, conventional weapons applied in an asymmetric approach will probably remain the primary means of causing mass disruption and destruction. Consequently, our long-term goal should be continued emphasis on enforcing constraints and controls on the proliferation of sensitive materials, including commercially available fissile matter and not solely weapons-grade material. Experts contend that a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or “dirty bomb,” a combination of both conventional explosives with low-grade radiological material, is a greater threat than a nuclear weapon. [57] However, future terrorist groups may examine both cases and draw from them the next most probable course of action. For example, while Aum failed to hire the expertise necessary for a nuclear weapon’s program, an instrumentalist group like al Qaeda may stand a better chance of recruiting Islamic extremists with the requisite skills.

Another worrisome scenario is that one or more terrorist groups may shift from an instrumentalist to an organizational perspective that becomes increasingly cult-like as a charismatic leader’s decision-making becomes more and more idiosyncratic and irrational. If such a group obtained a WMD device such as a nuclear bomb, altering the cost-benefit calculus would not be a deterrent, for the group would no longer be operating according to an instrumentalist paradigm. A scenario whereby non-state actors acquired a nuclear capability would not only threaten the security of the United States, but would destabilize the Westphalian notion of the primacy of nation-states within the international system.

Therefore, the most important goal in counterterrorism should be to make WMD technology and existing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons more difficult to obtain. Succeeding in this goal will reduce the probability of a catastrophe; however, it will not eliminate the lesser but nonetheless horrific destruction achievable through conventional weapons, especially when creatively used as on 9/11. To make progress on this front, we must continue to increase our understanding of how the varieties of terrorist and other destructive groups operate, psychologically as well as politically and strategically.


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2006, Page

[1] Mohammed Hafez, Why do Muslims Rebel, (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), p. 199.

[2] Jeff Goodwin, “Review Essay: What Must We Explain to Explain Terrorism,” Social Movement Studies, Carfax Publishing, Taylor & Franklin Group, (October 2004), Vol. 3, No. 2.

[3] Martha Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental & Organizational Approaches,” located in Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. by David Rapoport, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 27

[4] Thomas Schelling, “Thinking about Nuclear Terrorism,” International Security, (Spring 1983), Vol. 6 No. 4.

[5] David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, the Cult at the End of the World, Crown Publishers, Inc, 1996, p. 12.

[6] David E. Kaplan, “Aum Shinrikyo,” in Jonathan B. Tucker’s Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, (MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 209.

[7] Kyle B. Olson, “Once and Future Threat?” Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no4/pdf/olson.pdf, (last accessed on 30 Aug 06), p. 515.

[8] Sage Publications, Aum Shinrikyo, located at http://www.sagepub.com/Terrorism%20samples_2788.pdf, (last accessed on 30 Aug 06), p. 1.

[9] Olson, “Once and Future Threat?” p. 514

[10] Daniel A. Metraux, Aum Shinrikyo’s Impact on Japanese Society, (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), p. 78.

[11] Olson, “Once and Future Threat?” pp. 514-515.

[12] Ibid, p. 515.

[13] Sage Publications, Aum Shinrikyo, p. 1

[14] Gavin Cameron, Nuclear Terrorism, (Great Britain: MacMillan Press, 1999), 5.

[15] Sara Daly, John Parachini, and William Rosenau, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Kinchasa Reactor, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, DB-458-AF, 2005), 13.

[16] Ibid., 12.

[17] Gavin Cameron, “Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Prospects and Problems,” in The New Terrorism by Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna, (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002), p. 63.

[18] Cameron, “Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Prospects and Problems,” p. 63.

[19] Author’s notes from an interview with Prof Gunaratna during the week of 10-15 May 05 in Ottawa, Canada.

[20] Olson, “Once and Future Threat?” 515.

[21] Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches,” p. 26.

[22] Donatella Della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 157.

[23] Della Porta, “Introduction: On Individual Motivations in Underground Political Organizations,” 3-28.

[24] Jackie Fowler, “Aum Shinrikyo,” (17 July 05), University of Virginia, http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/aums.html, (retrieved on 2 Sept 05).

[25] Walter Laqueur, “Voices of Terror,” (NY: Reed Press, 2004), pp. 410-419.

[26] Mark Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, (PA: Penn Press, 2004), p. 20.

[27] Donatella Della Porta, “Left-Wing Terrorism in Italy,” found in Terrorism in Context, ed. by Martha Crenshaw, (Pennsylvania, PA: State University Press, 1995), p. 149.

[28] Audrey Kurth Cronin, Behind the Curve, International Security, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Winter 2002/03), p. 45.

[29] Hafez, Why do Muslims Rebel, p. 200.

[30] Ibid, p. 200.

[31] Hafez, M. (2004), “Manufacturing Human Bombs: Strategy, Culture, and Conflict in the Making of Palestinian Suicide Terrorism.” Available from: http://www.nijpcs.org/terror/ (last accessed on 30 Aug 06)

[32] Robert Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3 (2003), p. 2.

[33] Gavin Cameron, “Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Prospects and Problems,” located in The New Terrorism by Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna, (Eastern Universities Press: 2002), p. 53.

[34] Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, “The Seven Myths of Nuclear Terrorism,” Journal of Contemporary World Affairs, Current History, Vol. 104, No. 681 (April 2005), p. 154.

[35] Mark Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, p. 23.

[36] Kimberly McCloud, Gary A. Ackerman, and Jeffrey M. Bale, "Al-Qa`ida's WMD Activities," Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies, http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/other/sjm_cht.htm. (retrieved on 30 Aug 06).

[37] Audrey K. Cronin, "Terrorist Motivations for Biological and Chemical Weapons Use," Congressional Research Service, (28 Mar 03), http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RL31831.pdf, 7.

[38] CNN, “Insights TRANSCRIPTS”, show originally aired on 19 Aug 02, http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0208/19/i_ins.01.html retrieved at CNN’s website on 12 May 05. NOTE: In 2002, CNN’s Nic Robertson reported the discovery of over 250 videotapes prepared by al-Qaeda that was apparently found in a house where bin Ladin had stayed.

[39] Jeffery Bale et al, “Ricin Found in London: An al-Qa’ida Connection”, (23 Jan 03), Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies, http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/reports/ricin.htm (retrieved on 30 Aug 06).

[40] Shelia MacVicar and Henry Schuster, “European Terror Suspect got al-Qaeda Training, Sources Say,” 6 Feb 03, http://edition.cnn.com/2003/US/02/06/sprj.irq.alqaeda.links/index.html (accessed 30 Aug 06).

[41] Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Details Emerge on Al-Qaeda Chemical Plot in Jordan,” 27 Apr 04, http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/2004_4_27.html, (accessed 30 Aug 06).

[42] Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Suspects in Jordan Terror Plot Had Instructions for Attack, Witness Say on Trial,” 21 Apr 05, http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/2005_4_21.html, (accessed on 30 Aug 06).

[43] BBC News, “Jordan Airs Attack ‘Confessions’”, 26 Apr 04, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661495.stm, (retrieved on 30 Aug 06).

[44] Steven C. Welsh, “United States Indicts Three British Nationals over Alleged Terrorist Plans to Attack U.S. Financial Targets,” 14 Apr 05, CDI International Security Law Project, http://www.cdi.org/news/law/uk-wmd.cfm, (retrieved on 27 May 05).

[45] Ibid.

[46] The Economist, “A Bigger Fish,” 5 Aug 04, http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3067985, (accessed on 30 Aug 06). Also see, Depart of Justice, (12 Apr 05), “Three British Nationals Indicted on Charges of Conspiring to use WMD, Providing Material Support to Terrorists,” last accessed on 30 Aug 06 at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2005/April/05_crm_180.htm

[47] NOTE: According to recent testimony from Col Najeh al-Azzam of the Jordanian Intelligence Department: “An experiment was carried out in the desert in the presence of the Military Prosecutor Lt. Col. Mahmoud Obeidat where a cloud was formed which could have caused burns, paralysis of the breathing system and suffocation,” al-Azam said. “So the steps mentioned in al-Jayousi’s (the cell’s lead planner) confession were right 100 percent.” Posted on NTI website on 16 Jun 05 in article titled “Jordan Plot Suspect had Chemical Explosives,” retrieved from

[48] Brynjar Lia & Thomas Hegghammer, “Jihadi Strategic Studies,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, (27:355-375: 2004), pp.368-369.

[49] Robert Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” p. 2.

[50] Ibid.

[51] John Parachini, “Putting WMD Terrorism into Perspective,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 26, (Autumn, 2003) 26:4

[52] NOTE: In the case of nuclear weapons, the lack of knowledge has been considered one of the chief obstacles for terrorists in developing a nuclear bomb.

[53] According to a briefing by Prof Gunaratna, “Al-Qaeda-South Asia Links,” slide 22, In 2002 stores of cyanide and other toxic chemicals, laboratory equipments in LeJ safe house in Karachi lends credence to the fact that Al-Qaeda operatives, working with the LeJ, moved its chemical stores and shipments of gold out from Afghanistan to reestablish operations from Pakistan. Other reports such as the one presented in NTI’s 8 Oct 02 issue implied that a connection once existed involving chemical weapons and that Pakistini efforts to disrupt activity, at the time, was on-going. See http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/2002/1/4/3s.html

[54] NOTE: John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, and Michele Zanini, in “Networks, Netwar, and Information-Age Terrorism,” in Countering the New Terrorism, ed. Ian O. Lesser et al. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, MR-989-AF, 1999) p. 51, depict terrorist leadership as derived from a “set of principles (that) can set boundaries and provide guidelines for decisions and actions so that members do not have to resort to a hierarchy—‘they know what they have to do.’” To some the organization may “appear acephalous (headless), and at other times polycephalous (Hydra-headed).” Al-Qaeda has been described as essentially inspiring independent cells to achieve broad goals and objects.

[55] Martha Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental & Organizational Approaches,” pp. 14, 25.

[56] Conversation with Dr. Doug McAdam during recent conference held at Naval Postgraduate School, 5-7 April 2005.

[57] Peter Zimmerman, “Dirty Bombs: The Threat Revisited,” Center for Technology and National Security Policy, Defense Horizons, No. 38, Jan 04, http://hps.org/documents/RDD_report.pdf (last accessed on 30Aug 06), pp. 1-3.


This paper is an enlarged and revised version of a paper published in Strategic Insights, a monthly electronic journal produced by the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (2005, Vol. IV, No. 5). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the Naval Postgraduate School or the U.S. military.

About the Author

An officer in the US Air Force, Major Jaime Gomez, Jr., is a recent graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) MS Defense Analysis program with a specialty in National Security Affairs. A career intelligence officer and an international affairs specialist, Major Gomez is currently assigned to the Air Staff, US Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon, Washington D.C. He has served as a detachment commander assigned to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, and as a command briefer and intelligence specialist deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Vicenza, Italy in support of joint and combined air operations over Southwest Asia and the Balkans. He is the former Dean of Faculty for the Air Force’s Information Operations School, responsible for the training of AF personnel assigned to Information Warfare Flights. While at NPS, Major Gomez concentrated his studies in the areas of terrorism, insurgency, and irregular warfare. His thesis, “The Race Against Nuclear Terror,” was a featured topic on Strategic Security for the AF’s annual Institute for National Strategic Studies Research Conference in 2005. Major Gomez earned his undergraduate degrees in International Affairs and History, and Spanish Literature from Florida State University, and his first MS degree from Johns Hopkins University.