Who is drawn to join violent terrorist groups and why? Could it be the violence itself? Last week The New York Times suggested that the group calling itself Islamic State has adopted a 'cult of sadism' -- using its brutal images of rapes, crucifixions and beheadings to attract throngs of willing followers. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott called the group, also known as ISIS, 'an apocalyptic death cult.' John Kerry, among the first to use the term, called it simply a 'death cult.'
The good news, and I speak here as a former member of a totalistic group, is that the 'cult' word has finally leapt into the conversation about ISIS. But it does so in a way that barely scratches the surface of what makes ISIS a cult; what draws people to it; and how to stop them. Yes, some cults worship demons, UFOs, voodoo or Satan. Others believe we are possessed by intergalactic beings. But to equate a destructive group with its beliefs -- and some cults purport to venerate angels, a beneficent god, world peace or universal love -- is to misunderstand the nature of a cult and could undermine the Obama administration's goal of stopping the flow of American converts.
Cults can be evaluated on a continuum from benign to extremely destructive. The cults I have dealt with for some forty years are totalistic groups which assume a kind of pyramid structure: a charismatic leader sits at the top supported by a small tier of trusted followers who seek to control all aspects of their members, who lie at the base. They do this by manipulating a person's behavior -- the way they dress, what they eat, when they sleep; their access to information -- news, phone calls and texts, the internet while supplying propaganda; their thoughts through such techniques as thought-stopping, hypnosis, loaded language and finally their emotions, by making members feel elite agents, using guilt and installing phobias. Using this approach, what I call the BITE model, they systematically strip a person of their true or 'authentic' self and remake the member into a dependent and obedient follower, creating a 'cult' self that is often cast in the image of the leader.
Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, the current head of ISIS, is a shadowy figure, which makes his edicts -- and his pronouncement that he speaks for Allah -- even more compelling and dangerous. In fact, he is known to be a ruthless tactician, motivated by power, greed and vengeance more than theology. That he would recruit sadistic men and women does not make tactical sense -- what is to stop them from turning on one another? If he were playing by the destructive cult rule book, he and his advisors would seek bright, idealistic people who happen to be at a vulnerable period in their lives -- disaffected and disenchanted by the loss of a relationship, a death or divorce in the family or in some way have a hard time fitting into society. The key is to target them at a time when they are looking for something different, something greater, which is exactly the appeal of the slick propaganda film Flames of War, which depicts ISIS as heroically fighting all 'infidels' to right injustices against Muslims.
Disaffected is a term that could apply to a whole swathe of young Americans living in post 9/11, post recession and now post ISIS America, where a simple trip to the grocery store can mean running a gauntlet of suspicious looks if you happen to be of Muslim heritage. Certainly, it describes Mohammed Hamzah Kahn, the young American who was recently apprehended at O'Hare airport boarding a plane to Turkey. Troubled by what he called a loss of morality in the west, he told the FBI agents who questioned him that he met someone online who had given him the phone number of a person who he was supposed to contact when he arrived in Istanbul. Once in Syria or Iraq, he expected to be involved in "some type of public service, a police force, humanitarian work or combat role."
Had he not been stopped, had he boarded that plane, what might have happened to young Kahn? My guess, based on my own experience in a cult and that of thousands of ex-cult members, is that he would have been taken to an isolated location, given a new name, new clothes, taught cult language, fed a new diet. He would have been deprived of sleep, which would have made him especially susceptible to the group's relentless indoctrination, propaganda, hypnotic suggestions and exhausting boot camp training.
Would he have been sent off to work in a refugee camp or some other humanitarian organization? Unlikely. Could he have been trained to rape, maim and behead? Possibly. Text books on social psychology -- the study of how people behave in groups -- are filled with experiments like those of Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo and showing how easily and quickly we can be influenced by authority figures and by the power of the group to carry out violent acts. Robert Cialdini's book, Influence, describes six universal techniques of social influence.
The human mind is extremely adaptive and learns quickly. We are all malleable and cults know how to play on this neuroplasticity. No one is more painfully aware of this than the family and friends of those who have been deceptively drawn into a destructive cult. They are a valuable early warning system for terrorist recruitment yet they lack support. They watch their loved ones undergo a radical personality change and struggle to stop it. Their impulse may be to confront their loved one, or rationally try to attack the group, leader or policies but that often drives the loved one in even deeper. They may refrain from seeking help for fear that their loved one will be detained or thrown in jail.
They need support. I have spent the past 35 years helping families with loved ones in destructive cults and relationships and have discovered an important fact: what is difficult to see in ourselves, we may readily see in others. Telling my own story of deceptive recruitment and indoctrination to the loved one, and inviting other former members to tell theirs, opens a window onto the whole phenomenon of cults and their influence. Showing videos of these social psychology experiments, as well as videos about 'other' cults groups: Aum Shinrikyo; Heaven's Gate; People's Temple; Moonies sets an even wider frame -- one that even people born into cults can climb through to personal freedom.
Many of these videos are shown in college social psychology courses. Philip Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project is a curriculum which could easily be expanded to inoculate people from destructive cults and their undue influence. The focus currently missing in the effort to combat destructive terrorist cults is the specialized knowledge of helping cult victims. Former cult members, esepcially former jihadists educated about brainwashing and undue influence are the ideal method to connect, especially with young people. Invite us into mosques, churches and synagogues; police stations and politicians' offices; schools, libraries and town meetings. Community leaders are already talking about how terrorism prevention should be put on a par with anti-bullying, substance abuse and suicide prevention in our schools. They are looking for counternarratives to Flames of War and other ISIS propaganda and some have even suggested that the Department of Homeland Security offer a prize for the best counter message. This counter-narrative approach needs to be combined with the knowledge of cults, the social science of influence, theology and counter-terrorism expertise.
Lastly, the legal policies currently in place of vigorously prosecuting young people like Mohammed Hamzah Kahn, jailing him and throwing away the key is a big mistake. We need individuals like him to speak out about how he was recruited. We need to stop treating cult victims like they are merely criminals or bad people.
Personal accounts have a way of touching the mind and heart. They may be among the most powerful counter narratives we can offer. Their message is as grand and compelling as an any that ISIS has to offer: Muslim, Christian, Hindi or Jew -- we are all human beings, with human minds. That is our strength and our vulnerability.