Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Steven Hassan Headshot

Can Utilizing Knowledge of Cults Help Us with Terrorist Groups?

Posted: Updated:

When is it time to start recognizing that Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups are cults? The Times Square bombing attempt is another example of a well-off American who was recruited into the black and white, us versus them and good versus evil thinking that cultists use. We ought to start addressing the root of the problem: people are most susceptible to destructive influence at the most vulnerable times in their lives.

Our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan may have largely moved the war on terror overseas. But we will continue to see radical Islamist terror groups recruiting on our own soil if we don't equip children, parents and teachers with the tools to combat this phenomenon.

Do we know how to deal with destructive mind-control groups? Yes. As it happens I've been doing it for 36 years. We know how to inhibit their recruitment of new "soldiers." We know ways to undermine their indoctrination methods and ways to educate the general public. The tools are available to educate children and parents. What we need is the will to dedicate adequate resources to inoculate Americans against the tactics of cult recruiters.

What turns young men like Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, into radical criminals? He was married and attended graduate school. Yet as his story unfolds, it seems he was put on a fast track to radicalism. I believe we will learn how he was exposed to social influences that overcame his rational ability to make his own decisions.

Shahzad is only one example of young Americans who fall victim every year to cults and deceptive groups masking as legitimate organizations. Their well-known weapons are deception, mind control, manipulation of emotions and exploiting the unmet needs of people. They can then be turned against their families and their loved ones while believing that their criminal acts will be helping God and humankind. These bright, educated, idealistic, passionate people not only become fervent cult members, but also excellent cult recruiters.

Cult recruiters search for energetic, intelligent people who wish to make a difference in the world. They approach prospects when they are most vulnerable: after the death of a loved one, during an illness, after a graduation, at the loss of employment - in short during any transitional life change. They find new members in the most ordinary of places: schools, sororities, fraternities, and social organizations, community groups and of course, on the internet. The common denominator is that all cults - whether they are political, religious, psychotherapeutic, commercial, or educational - seek to make people dependent and obedient. For terrorist cults, it means also making them fanatical to the point of violence.

America should learn something from the U.K. think tank, the Quilliam Foundation. They are helping former cult recruiters, like Maajid Nawaz, to actively challenge the Islamist "narrative" and promote a moderate Islam vision of peace, love and goodness. America would be wise to adopt such a policy to disrupt this recruitment process. The surest way to do this is by creating new strategies toward communication and education.

The author and psychologist Robert Cialdini writes about the six "weapons of influence" that are implemented in persuasion and coercion techniques. The six "weapons" - reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity - are tools used jointly that are meant to affect influence and persuasion in individuals. This is often done through lies and deception - the result being instability that leads to greater dependence on the cult organization.

When we get serious about thwarting cult recruiters we will expose those techniques of persuasion and prepare our young people with the tools to combat cultism. Racial profiling, background checks or gut instincts of security experts are all well intentioned. They transfer responsibility to 'experts'. But we should we also take it upon ourselves, in our homes, schools and even places of worship, to address and expose cultism and give our children, parents and teachers the tools to combat it. It's the best defense against the expansion of terrorist recruiting on U.S. soil.

When will we be ready to take the responsibility to educate the public about destructive mind control methodology? My hope is the near miss of the Times Square bomber marks a new beginning of the way we think about dealing with this problem.