Cults, terrorist groups share chilling similarities,experts say

The Oregonian/November 9, 2001
By James Long

The Rajneeshees who ran a commune in Central Oregon in the 1980s did not fit the popular image of would-be terrorists.

Most followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were not wild-eyed fanatics, but members of the middle class -- lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers and other well-educated people who seemed normal enough.

Oregonians were shocked to learn in 1985 that this outpost of transplanted suburbanites was a launching pad for the first large-scale biological attack in U.S. history: the poisoning of 751 people in The Dalles with restaurant food sprinkled with salmonella germs grown in a commune laboratory.

But cult psychology experts say such incidents should come as no great surprise to anyone. They merely underscore the fact that seemingly normal, well-educated people can be persuaded to commit unthinkable crimes, including flying airliners into skyscrapers.

"There are many similarities between the way people are programmed in cults and in terror groups that can result in an act of suicide bombing," says Steve Hassan, a former member of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

Hassan has counseled ex-cult members in Florida for 20 years and says many, including himself, would have been "ready to die for the cause if necessary."

That certainly was the case with 19 hijackers who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Contrary to what the public may believe, cult experts told The Oregonian, the suicide pilots were probably neither crazy nor motivated, except in a superficial sense, by hatred for the United States.

The chilling and mundane likelihood, they say, is that someone talked the attackers into it over an extended period of time, using techniques that every former cult member and deprogrammer would recognize.

"What I find so astonishing is that most people don't realize how influenceable all humans are," says Margaret Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Singer's interviews of nearly 6,000 former cult members have convinced her that groups as dissimilar as the hippy-style Rajneeshees and the suicidal Jim Jones People's Temple recruit and control members in much the same way, despite vast differences in ideology.

"They're all extended con games," Singer says, "whether it's a cult or a terrorist organization."

The Rajneeshees, two of whom pleaded guilty to charges in the food-poisonings and 35 to other charges including conspiracy to murder public officials, are but one of many cults that have attacked outsiders as well as their own members.

In October 1994, a group calling itself the Solar Temple began a murder-and-suicide spree that took 74 lives. Luc Jouret, the cult's founder, convinced followers he was a reincarnated member of the 14th-century Christian Order of Knights Templar and promised to lead them, after death, to a planet orbiting the star Sirius.


Attacks in Japan

In 1994 and 1995, Japan's Aum Shinri Kyodoomsday cult killed 19 people and injured more than 5,500 in two nerve-gas attacks in Matsumoto and Tokyo.

In the Tokyo attack, 10 cult members simultaneously boarded subway trains in five locations with containers of deadly sarin -- a coordinated effort at mass murder not unlike the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Dr. Steven DuBrow-Eichel, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who specializes in cults, thinks the al-Qaida terrorist group, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 hijackings, most closely resembles Aum Shinri Kyo.

"Their apocalyptic vision is similar in many ways," he says, "and their methods are very similar."

In his view, al-Qaida and Aum Shinri Kyo are almost indistinguishable in their adulation of a single charismatic leader -- Osama bin Laden for al-Qaida, Shoko Asahara for the Japanese group -- and in their sincere conviction that God sent them to purify the world.

Al-Qaida's chosen enemies -- chiefly the United States -- are equated with disease and therefore in need of cleansing. It is almost, says DuBrow-Eichel, like being attacked by fanatical hygienists.


Cults employ similar methods

Ron Burks, a longtime counselor at the Wellspring residential treatment facility for former cult members in Ohio, also considers al-Qaida a cult. Although cults have different belief systems, he says, all use similar methods to recruit members and take control of their personalities.

"I've interviewed (former) cult members who held down other members so the leader could shoot them," Burks says.

Those who assisted were not frothing zealots, he says, but essentially gentle, idealistic folk who thought they were doing the world a favor.

"I kept asking myself how they could have done it, and it finally clicked with me that it didn't occur to them at the time that it was crazy," Burks says. "Why it didn't occur to them is that they weren't thinking outside the very tiny box the group had prepared for them."

Burks and others who have treated former cult followers are not surprised at the profiles of the suspected suicide pilots of Sept. 11. They were very much like the middle-class recruits of the Rajneeshees and Aum Shinri Kyo.

Mohamed Atta, suspected leader of the suicide bombers, has been described in news reports as a shy, considerate son of a lawyer and very bright. He grew up in a religious home and studied architecture at the University of Cairo. He joined an Islamic fundamentalist society, sympathizing with insurgents who blamed Egypt's secular government for extremes of wealth and poverty.

While living in Hamburg, Germany, Atta made lengthy trips to the Middle East. He returned from one visit, friends thought to Afghanistan, with a new beard and a new personality. The new Atta did not smile and, one friend recalled, refused to shake hands with a woman.

After Atta was identified as the suspected pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first to crash into the World Trade Center, his bewildered father told reporters it must have been someone else. He insisted that someone must have stolen his son's identity.

The father's disbelief, therapists say, is a familiar one. They can recount hundreds of stories about people undergoing personality changes so radical their families scarcely know them.


Leaders control information

Cults offer instant acceptance and use a variety of tactics to indoctrinate new members. They hear and see only what the cult leaders approve. Communication with the outside is cut off. To reinforce the member's group identity, a new name and distinctive clothing may be provided.

The group's goals become paramount. Good and bad are defined in terms of doing the leaders' bidding. The general theme is that members of the cult are a chosen few who will reap a great reward. Depending on the cult, it may be guaranteed entry to heaven, survival of Armageddon, or a reserved seat on a UFO.

"It's an us-against-them mentality," Singer says. "The cult members or the terrorists are the elite, and all the rest of the world is unworthy of life."

Few specifics are known about al-Qaida's methods, but cult experts point to the indoctrination of children in fundamentalist religious schools, and of adults by extremist clerics, and finally the isolation of selected recruits in training camps.

By accepting that the cult is good and anyone who disagrees with it is evil, there can be no guilt in killing those who disagree.

Barry Sheldahl, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland who prosecuted some of the Rajneeshee cases, doesn't accept the idea that cult programming can excuse criminal behavior.

"A lot try to say they were just following orders," Sheldahl says. "I call this the Eichmann defense, and I don't buy it."

Other cult members, he says, try to escape responsibility by arguing that they committed crimes under fear.

"For the Rajneeshees, their worst fear was to be kicked out of the commune," he says. "That's what they said, and it may well be true, but I never understood it."


Giving status to extremists

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard psychiatrist noted for his study of North Korean brainwashing, said he wouldn't label al-Qaida simply as a cult but as more of a social movement that is all the more sinister because it doesn't depend entirely on cultic control.

"What we see is people who are not kids anymore engaging in a kind of institutionalization and socialization of terrorism," he says. "You depend for this kind of suicidal terrorism not only on fiercely extreme young people but on not-so-young people who become part of the group within which this is normal or desired behavior."

The extremism is promoted, he says, by giving status not only to those who kill themselves while killing a perceived enemy, but to their families who are showered with money and gifts.

"One has to always keep in mind that, in their own eyes, they don't die, they are immortalized by their martyrdom," he says.

DuBrow-Eichel, the Philadelphia cult psychiatrist, says selecting potential bombers takes work.

"You don't want psychotics," he says. "They don't function well, and you can't brainwash them. In fact, a good way to screen people out would be to ask them immediately if they want to crash an airplane into a building, and if the answer is yes, you rule them out."


Background check

On Sept. 11, four groups of terrorists took over commercial jets for a suicide mission in the United States. Two fuel-laden airliners were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. A third was flown into the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania, possibly because the passengers fought back.

Thousands of people, including all 19 hijackers, died. Although some people think the terrorists must have been insane, many experts say they could have been programmed to kill innocents and themselves.


The Cult Message

Converting new members has little to do with the content of a cult's teaching and everything to do with control of information to silence critical thinking, experts say.

Margaret Singer speaks of "the five D's" -- deceit, dependency, debilitation, dread and desensitization -- by which cult members are recruited and transformed.

"It's a step-at-a-time seduction, so the person hardly notices they are being changed," says Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

According to Singer, the recruitment of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots almost certainly began with "the first D" -- deceit.

"Our campus is loaded with Middle East people, and talking politics is about the central thing they like to do," Singer says. "So some guy can recruit into his terrorist organization by saying, 'Come on over to my place tonight and meet my friends, and we'll talk politics.'

" Almost certainly, she says, Mohamed Atta was not approached by someone asking him, " 'Say, how'd you like to commit suicide?"'

As part of the indoctrination, cults try to isolate prospects from family and friends who might give alternative opinions. Simple techniques such as sleep deprivation, or psychological or even physical abuse, help reduce resistance to the cult message.

Presented often as "consciousness raising," an opposite process actually occurs. The gradual constriction of thoughts and awareness begins to create a cult personality, paving the way for the second and third "D's" -- dependence and debilitation.

The new member hears and sees only what the cult leaders approve. Communication with the outside is cut off. To reinforce the member's group identity, a new name and distinctive clothing may be provided.

The fourth "D" -- dread -- comes from fear of the cosmic punishment that members think they would suffer if they offended the cult's leaders.

To avoid saying something that might get them punished, members learn not to think thoughts that might slip out as words.

"You get the person into a mind frame where they don't know whether they're going to be hugged or slapped," says Ron Burks, an Ohio cult therapist.

"You move them gradually to the point where they lose their basic self-esteem. Good-cop bad-cop routine. 'You're the person we've been looking for! You can really be a warrior for Islam!' Any sign of pre-group personality, any individuality, you're identifying with Satanic America. You're no better than the Israelis!"

Desensitization -- the fifth "D" -- grows naturally out of an us-against-them attitude.

By accepting that the cult is good and the rest of the world is evil, cult members have no guilt about their actions.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.