Cults and Terrorism

Cultic Studies Review, 2(2), 2003

Cults and Terrorism: Similarities and Differences

Christopher M. Centner


Pundits and politicians have proposed many models to explain al Qaeda's actions. One theory postulated for understanding terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda is that the group might be like a cult. In this view, Usama bin Laden is a controlling figure, and the members are disconnected from the greater Islamic community. If this theory held, then it might be possible to create a cultic model of terrorist groups in general and to understand their behavior as more akin to a destructive religious movement than to a violent political faction. This paper will explain that al Qaeda is a religiously spawned movement that seeks to create an Islamic State, and even an Islamic World Order. The paper will explain that al Qaeda, and most terrorist groups, are not cults in the traditional sense. Al Qaeda has, however, some cult-like attributes. This paper will also propose certain indicators that might be useful in identifying religious movements that are careening toward terrorist violence. Spelling of certain Arabic terms quoted in the text has, on occasion, been standardized for ease of reading.

Smile in the face of death, oh young man!

For you are on your way to the everlasting paradise!

From the letter of instructions for the 11 September hijackers who murdered thousands (Source: CBS News)

Defining Terms

One problem associated with understanding both terrorists and cults is that of finding a proper definition for both terms. The U.S. legal definition for terrorist groups is not very enlightening, stating essentially that terrorists are people who commit terror. The European Union’s definition is just a bit more helpful: “a terrorist group is a “structured organisation . . . of more than two persons, acting in concert to commit terrorist offences.” The offenses range from murder and hostage-taking to damaging public property and urban violence, committed with the aim of “intimidating and seriously altering or destroying the political, economic or social structures of countries” (BBC News, 20 September 2001).

A most useful definition of cult is

a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, 119-120)

One can note immediately that cults can be terrorist groups and terrorist groups, cults. However, the two can be distinguished by their strategic focus: by definition, one is outward—what the entity does to non-members—while the other is inward—what it does to members. While terrorist groups can use cultic methods, their goal is to achieve political change, not to increase in size or wealth. Indeed, many terrorist groups tend to appreciate a small footprint and carefully select a few members based upon their likely reliability and commitment to the group’s goals.

Cults might wish to alter society and might, like the Aum cult, even occasionally use terror to achieve these goals. Cults, however, are primarily focused upon self-preservation and the amassing of members. They will recruit anyone, so long as they can eventually manipulate those recruits into unquestioning allegiance. Thus, Aum might be defined as a cult that used terror, while Peru’s Shining Path would be considered a terrorist group with a cult-like leader. Most terrorist groups do not have a cult-like leader because that structure makes them vulnerable to quick destruction. Abimael Guzman’s cult of personality, for example, was so great that the movement collapsed once he was removed from the scene (Callihan, 1998).

Nonterrorist political groups can also develop into full-fledged cults. Tourish and Wohlforth (2000, 8-9) noted that political cults tend to have rigid belief systems, and an ideology immune from falsification. Political cults also have an authoritarian inner elite who exempt themselves from many of the cult’s rules and who exploit junior members for personal gain, and a living or dead figure who is the font of unquestioned wisdom. One quickly notes that many of these attributes may be found among strict adherents religious cults. There is, in this sense, little distinction between political and religious cults. Common to both political and religious cults is a focus on Apocalyptic fantasies (Tourish & Wohlforth, 2000, 212-213). Such extreme views can convince believers that they must take extreme action to save humanity from impending doom, or to hasten the coming glory.

Cultural Factors That Helped Form Al Qaeda

Although Tourish and Wohlforth note that Western political cults tend to spring forth among the political fringe, Al Qaeda built upon some powerful themes within the Islamic world and reflects less a major diversion from traditional Islamic views than an extreme version of traditional Islamic thought. Those who hold these extreme traditional views are frequently referred to as Islamists, of which al Qaeda is just a violent faction. The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism ( states that al Qaeda is a network of many different fundamentalist organizations in diverse countries. This network coordinates terrorist operations to achieve a political goal, which is primarily the overthrow of “heretic governments” in their respective countries and the establishment of Islamic governments based on the rule of Sharia (also spelled Shariah), the Islamic legal and social code.

The Muslim community extends from the west coast of Africa to the Philippines, an area composed of diverse cultures and communities and few commonalties. One major commonality is the experience of colonialism, which resulted in the artificial assembly of various tribes and subcultures into national sovereign states (Hutchinson & Smith, 1994, 8). Whereas the idea of nation is perceived as universal to the West, in the Islamic region the national boundaries were not decided locally and are not necessarily reflective of the local cultural boundaries (Robinson, 1994, 214-217).

Consequently, many in the local population within these national bodies often did not have a sense of national identity or pride. Within the Arab world there were attempts to create an Arab national identity, but these efforts floundered for a variety of reasons (Kerr, 1982). This lack of common identity has left the local populations alienated from their national governments and disgusted with what they perceive to be rampant, selfish corruption on the part of the ruling elite.

Meanwhile, the secular vision of Arab nationalists and other Islamic leaders failed to produce sufficient pride, employment, or avenues of dissent. The Arab world’s secular governments were discredited in the eyes of many with their utter defeat by Israel in 1967 in just six days (Hiro, 1989, 68). Islamists within these countries offered what they believed was a reasonable explanation for their nations’ prostration: the corrupt secular state that did not follow the wise guidance of the Koran.

The Threat from Outside Forces

Many within the Arab world cannot understand why they have been laid low by events, and they are willing to believe that the best explanation is that a conspiracy of outside forces keeps the community down. This is not necessarily a view of the ignorant: it is often found among those who assume that a just society would result in just outcomes. How, they ask, can it be that their people suffer—they remain poor, and their future is so bleak—despite their wealth, history, and devotion? The clearest answer is often “outside forces” (Kuran, 2001). Thus, Israel becomes a powerful puppeteer that manipulates Western media against the Arabs. Arab countries are maneuvered into conflict by Christians, Jews, and Atheists, or by other unseen forces.

The Free Masons [which are controlled by Jews] . . . control all the kaffir [non-Muslim] institutions and systems in the world today . . . they are planning the mass sterilization of women . . . they are able to instigate wars, provide the arms for the two sides to be able to fight it, at a price of course, and then take over control, or strengthen control if they already have it, once the fighting is over, any opposition to them having been considerably weakened by the inevitable consequences of war. (Thompson, 1995, 48-49)

The Islamist conspiracy viewpoint is similar to those seen in political cults (Tourish & Wohlforth, 2000, 31-33).

Even well educated individuals within the Islamic society hold conspiratorial views, and such views should not be dismissed with derision. As with Holocaust denial, these views left unchallenged lead to wild leaps of logic incompatible with reality but compatible with extremist views. The United States suffered from the results of these conspiracy theories and had difficulty getting Muslims to believe that it was bin Laden—not a double—on the infamous video, chortling over the deaths on September 11.

Islam as a “Theory of Everything”

In the modern West religion tends to be treated as a private matter, with civil institutions providing a neutral arena for political discourse between various political, religious, and social factions. As Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller stated in 1872, "The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect" (Menendez & Doerr, 2002, 175). Islam, however, makes no distinction between private and public conduct, and does not distinguish between religious and civil matters. Many Muslims agree that every institution of society and every department of government must be guided by Islamic law. Laws based upon human authority are blasphemous (Maududi,1995, 15, 28). Mohammed was the last prophet, but he also was an administrator and a warrior (Sullivan, 2001, 45).

Islamists argue that Islam provides answers to nearly all questions of daily life:

The Prophet determines the rules to serve as the basis of social and cultural relationships, economic, judicial, and political dealings, matters of war and peace, and international affairs. The Prophet does not transmit merely a code of rituals commonly regarded as `religion.’ He brings with him a whole system of thought and action which is called Ad Din (the complete way of life) in Islamic terminology. (Maududi, 1995, 6)

While modern Western states evolved secular systems as a result of ugly experiences with internecine warfare and horrific religious excesses, Islamists point to failures of secularist states in their midst, wax poetic of lost Andalucia, and argue that their greatness will return only when Islam becomes the center of society again.

The events recorded in the history of Islam during its golden ages, those ages in which the Shariah was implemented in its entirety, provide that the principle of Islamic legitimacy enjoyed priority over all decision and actions taken by the rulers of the state (Hassan, H., 1993, 4).

The Islamist call for the return to pure Islam is a powerful one, and based upon a unique historical perspective. The Muslim world was indeed the world center of learning during the medieval period, and we are all lucky to be inheritors of its greatness. The decline of Islam was long and sad, with the Ottoman Empire finally collapsing after the Great War, and the Arab nations placed under administration of Western, Christian powers (Lewis, 2001). This collapse is lamented by Islamists, such as bin Laden, because it resulted in what they perceive to be the dismemberment of the Islamic Community by the Christian powers, and the insertion of their satrap state, Israel, in their midst (Sullivan, 2001, 45).

Thus, bin Laden and other Islamists blame the Christian world for the current situation in the Islamic world:

Ever since the beginning of Islam, the unbelievers have never ceased plotting against this precious Muslim ummah (nation) in order to inject into it the poison of disbelief, deviation, and moral degradation . . . . Over the fourteen centuries of Islam, the unbelievers have gradually succeeded in some of these plots . . . . In effect [the collapse of the Soviet Union] was the beginnings of the second Crusades! . . . The Muslims today face a barbaric onslaught from their enemies—the Jews, Christians, atheists, secularists and others . . . . Supported by a demonic global plan as well as unlimited financial backing, this attack aims at domination and hegemony over the Islamic world; dividing it, attacking it culturally and morally, and perverting the true image of the Religion. (Baaz, Not Dated)

Jihad Until Supremacy

Islamists focus on a traditional Islamic view of the world, which is divided into two segments: the Dar al Islam, the Moslem domain of peace, and the Dar al Kufr, the domain of war, a region that essentially covers all other lands, and also all lands within Islam not administered by a caliphate, or in Arabic, khalifah. The word khalifah refers to the successor or representative of Prophet Muhammad who acts as the head of state for the Muslim community. Currently, there is no caliphate in existence; it is the Islamist’s goal to restore the caliphate system. As stated in the Al Qaeda Manual (9):

I present this humble effort [a warfare manual] to these young Moslem men who are pure, believing, and fighting for the cause of Allah. It is my contribution toward paving the road that leads to majestic Allah and establishes a caliphate according to the prophecy.

The goal of establishing a caliphate places the Islamists in conflict with all governments in the Islamic world. Their enemies are not only Christians and Jews, but also Muslims who do not follow Sharia laws or who govern a secular state. “[Our goal is to bring] mankind to the worship of their lord and establishing a khilafah on the pattern of prophethood,” explained Azzam Publications, an Islamist propaganda organ on the Internet that has been taken down. Thus, while the West incurs the wrath of the Islamist movement, its primary goal is to eliminate all secular states and replace them with the caliphate.

Ummah is an Arabic word indicating the community of believers, the Islamic world. There is no equivalent term in the West, although an archaic term Christendom does survive to spice our language. To bin Laden and other Islamists, the Ummah defines the political and religious boundaries of Islam; the existing nation-state boundaries are irrelevant.

For Islamists, separating into nations and adopting nationalism is actually denying the supremacy of the “global nation” [ummah]. Furthermore, believing in the sovereignty of a nation is denying the sovereignty of Allah. In an Islamic State, Allah is the absolute authority, and sovereignty rests exclusively with Him (One Ummah Network, not dated).

The Islamists seek to overthrow the existing governments of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria—all secular governing institutions in the Middle East (Viviano, 2001, A14). They deplore any action to create peace between Israel and the PLO because they insist that the Jews be expelled or subsumed into an Islamic state (Taji-Farouki, 2000). Those observers who cannot distinguish between Iraq, the PLO, and the Islamists fail to note that the secular Arab leaders are the main targets of the Islamists, and the West is simply in the way.

Jihad to Defend and Expand the Ummah

The implications of viewing the world as composed not of nation-states but of an Islamic Ummah surrounded by hostile enemies should not be underestimated. Al Qaeda is an international movement dedicated to the defense and expansion of the Ummah and the purification of Islam within the Ummah. "We are carrying on the mission of our Prophet, Muhammad ,” bin Laden explained. We are only defending ourselves. This is defensive Jihad. We want to defend our people and our land.” (Mir, 2001).

Offensive Jihads will occur once the defensive Jihad has accomplished its goal.

If they reject this true faith, then they will have to pay Jizyah [a tax on non-believers]. If they refuse to submit to the payment of Jizyah, then the Muslims are to fight against them. With this type of Jihad the Kuffar [disbelievers] who plot against the Muslims are repelled and their hearts are filled with fear, so that they do not succeed in their plans . . . . The offensive Jihad is Fardh Kifayah [collective obligation], the purpose of which is to ensure the Kuffar remain terrorized and away from mischief, thereby, allowing the message of Islam to be conveyed without any obstructions. (Taliban Online, no date)

Islamists view the Jihad as worldwide. Pro-Islamist Web pages, such as, and the demographics of Usama bin Laden’s recruits revealed a global conflict (Moore & Baker, 2001, A10). Military fronts include Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, the Philippines, Kashmir, and now the United States. We are a theater of military operation, and it is an error to view these conflicts as having entirely different social or political causes.

Holy Places

Another aspect of Islam different from Christian thought is the continuing importance of the Holy Places. While Christians still use terms such as “Holy Lands,” there is no agreed belief that Christians must posses any particular location to maintain their religion. Islam does have such a belief. The view is imbedded by the Hajj, the obligation of all Muslims, if it is practicable, to visit Mecca in their lifetime. For Islamists and the Muslim community in general, these sacred sites are physical manifestations of their submission to God. Bin Laden declared his war against the United States because of the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, which must not have disbelievers polluting it. “Muslims burn with anger at America. For its own good, America should leave [Saudi Arabia]” (bin Laden, 1996).

Cult-Like Recruitment Techniques

There are some cultic manifestations among Islamic terrorist groups when it comes to recruitment. Like cult groups, terrorist groups seem to focus their recruitment upon young individuals in their teens and early twenties. Recruitment techniques, however, differ depending upon the particular cohort.

Many recruits come from Arab countries where they perceive a corrupt society is leading toward a future of hopelessness. Many have traveled or even lived in the West but view its materialism and sexual permissiveness with contempt. Indeed, the founder of the modern Islamist revival, Sayyid Qutb, lived for a time in the United States (Moussalli, 1992, 25-30). In the view of these groups, secularism leads to a life of corruption, while Islam strengthens virtue and harmony (Juergensmeyer, 2000, 69).

Descriptions published of al Qaeda members suggest they are often young men who have a drive for personal moral excellence and a desire for a just, faithful society. They are not motivated by traditional social success, but instead focus on remaking society and themselves to please Allah. They reject Western ways, begin to dress in the uniform of piety, growing beards and wearing traditional garb. “We must adhere to a proper Islamic appearance because this is a way of reviving the Sunnah and ending the influence of Kafir ways” (Al-Hamid, 1997, 50). They seek those who see the same vision and are accepted into the radical Islamic fold. At the same time, they shun their families and greater society as so much evil to be avoided. Representatives of the Taliban and al Qaeda monitor the Islamic community, searching for these pious individuals who can be trained to fight—and die if need be—for the Ummah (Hassan, N., 2001).

A second recruitment cohort consists of individuals marginalized from Western societies who find support and comfort offered by Islamists. These individuals are typically Europeans, often from an immigrant family, stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Many have criminal records and were recruited in prison. The recruits might be secularized Muslims or new converts. These individuals, moldable to a radical worldview, are actively sought and cultivated by Islamists. As Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a France prosecutor specializing in terrorist organization explains:

[The potential recuits] have no job. They have no information, no hope for the future. One day they meet a guy who is interesting, who has good knowledge of Islam. [The recruiters] tell him, “I can give you something, a task for you, for the future.” They explain Islam. They bring a global conception of their life, teach them a skill, and say, “We have a goal for you in the future.” Among Al Qaeda, certain European nations become focus points of particular activities, such as forgery (Spain and Belgium), deployment to Afghanistan (UK), combatant basing (France) and credit card fraud (Spain) (Erlanger & Hedges, 2001, 4).

A third recruitment cohort comes from the south Asian region and consists of local individuals often recruited using patently false stories. Some foreign regional recruits captured by Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan thought they were there to fight Communist Chinese, Russians, or Indians (Sirrs, 2001, 66; Gerecht, 2001, 77).

A final group is made up of those from Islamist families or institutions raised to join the Jihad. A considerable number of these volunteers are home grown in radical schools, such as those supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (Stern, J., 2000). It is apparently not uncommon for parents to knowingly surrender children to the fate of certain death in a jihad. “In the name of God, I will sacrifice my son, and I don’t care if he is my most beloved thing,” explained one Islamist mother. “For all of my six sons, I wanted them to be mujahedeen. If they get killed it is nothing” (Addario, 2001, 38-39).

John Walker’s recruitment into the Taliban and invitation into Al Qaeda is an unusual case. It should also be seen, however, as a warning that Islamists are actively building support within the United States. In 1999 the respected Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani stated that 80 percent of all mosques and charities in the U.S. were in the hands of extremists who posed a national security threat (Emerson, 2002, 160). Islamist propaganda is easily found. Nearly all of the Islamist literature cited in this paper was found either on the Internet or within three miles of the author’s home, at stores catering to Muslims.

Training and Control

Prior to the defeat of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had a safe haven for training recruits. Once selected, recruits trained in small groups or traveled to Afghanistan for full scale military training, which included urban warfare, explosives, and even weapons of mass destruction. Training lasted from four to six weeks. Individuals were instructed in humility and sacrifice for the Ummah. Individual wants and national identities are suppressed (Lumpkin, 2001). Trainees were taught to kill disbelievers.

Those youths know that their rewards in fighting you, the USA, is double than their rewards in fighting some one else not from the people of the book. They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)

Recruits apparently were divided up into groups: the poorer, less educated individuals ended up as foot soldiers for the Taliban, while more worldly, educated, and sophisticated individuals were identified as potential members of al Qaeda (Moore & Baker, 2001, A10). These individuals came with an understanding of the enemy, and of the outside world, that could be used to form or augment cells for kaffir lands, or plan and lead military operations, such as the September 11 mass murder. These individuals were provided classic intelligence and partisan training, such as codes, dead drops, security, and forgery (Moore & Baker, 2001, A10).

Al Qaeda training videos clearly show personnel being trained to attack silhouettes adorned with Christian symbols. In-group morality was emphasized; there is no moral obligation to those outside the Ummah, or indeed to other Muslims outside the group. They cite the Koran: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and Christians for friends” (Al Fouzan, 1997, 7). This admonition is extended to requiring hatred for disbelievers, not respecting or trusting them, not permitting them any power, nor showing compassion to them (Al Fouzan, 1997, 12, 13, 29). Secularists and disbelievers are not even considered living. Mahmud Abouhalima, involved in the first World Trade Center bombing, described non-religious individuals as moving “dead bodies” (Juergensmeyer, 2000, 69).

Captured terrorist manuals confirm various media reports that, while in the theater of war, the terrorists were organized into cells, remained aloof from society, acquired additional funds through petty theft, and reinvigorated their passion through intense meetings with fellow members and through propagandistic videotapes (Weiser, 2001, B8). As with other elite military units, loyalty was to the squad or cell, and differences were minimized (Erlanger & Hodges, 2001, 4). Limited language skills and the lack of leisure time likely enhanced their isolation from their target community. However, many of those in al Qaeda had considerable time in the West, and their mental distance was a product of their pure fanaticism. For example, one reporter noted that a wounded foreign Saudi fighter found in a Pakistan hospital used perfect New York slang (Pomfret, 2001, A1, A30).

Al Qaeda as a Personality Cult

Being Islamists, The al Qaeda movement’s members essentially come in with views that, while extreme, are somewhat acceptable and somewhat lauded within the Islamic community. They are alienated from their materialistic corrupt society, and from the Western social construct. They have been told to hate non-Muslims and apostate Muslims. They believe the answer lies in total acceptance of the Koran as God’s ordained commandments and the creation of an upright society.

Usama bin Laden is less a cult leader than a model of a pious Muslim. He left a life of wealth and leisure to fight the atheist Soviets for the sake of Islam. He was victorious, demonstrating that Islam is not weak but could bring down a powerful nation by selfless determination, trust in Allah, and creative warfare. He captured the imagination of Muslims, and the fighters who marched at his side lived and died to fulfill his vision (Gerecht, 2001, 77). Bin Laden is considered a Robin Hood among many Muslims who name their children after him and speak of his defense of Islam approvingly (, no date; Addario, 2001, 38-41). His demeanor on his videotapes is that of a quiet, well-spoken aesthete who, with simple Koranic-inspired allusions, explains the current world situation. As with some other leaders of terrorist groups, bin Laden acts as an indispensable inspiration, one who manifests the virtues to be attained, and one who explains the struggle in a strategic, comprehensive manner.

Usama’s success has been his ability to assemble and organize the young men seeking a pious society and point them toward a jihad he envisions. In his view, this jihad is a just war, in defense of and an expansion of, the Islamic Ummah. He provided his volunteers training, focused them on the United States and Christian West as the enemy, World Judaism as a primary threat, and the established governments in the Islamic world as foes for destruction. Good and evil were clearly laid out, with the warriors placed at the center or the cosmic struggle.

Because Muslims are fighting a war for Allah against a far more powerful foe, bin Laden has argued that all means are just and all targets are legitimate. To justify his position bin Laden repeated Iraq’s propaganda that UN sanctions starve Muslim children, and he bewails the deaths of Palestinians, although in fact he has no sympathy with either regime. In other cases, bin Laden has justified the killing of American women and children because the United States killed women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (bin Laden in “NIDA’UL ISLAM,” 1996).

Al Qaeda as a Suicide Cult

The suicidal murderers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 last year were not hard to find within the modern Islamic community. “Our biggest problem,” explained a Hamas leader, “is the hordes of young men who beat on our doors clambering to be sent” (Hassan, N., 2001). A respected poll of the people in Gaza showed a 78 percent approval rate for suicide bombings (Lelyveld, 2001, 50).

Suicidal attacks in modern Islam have become, unfortunately, virtuous acts. They are lauded by religious groups and even secular terrorist groups in the Middle East. Usama believed they would prove the difference between the religious and the secular:

Those youths are different from your soldiers. Your problem will be how to convince your troops to fight, while our problem will be how to restrain our youths to wait for their turn in fighting and in operations. These youths are commendation and praiseworthy. (bin Laden, 1996)

Islamic children are taught that “to sacrifice oneself in the holy war (Jihad)” is a religious obligation (Zihad, 1999, 4). Palestinian calendars are illustrated with “martyrs,” and children chant their names (Hassan, N., 2001). Volunteers for these acts are treated as “living martyrs,” given great respect, and find it virtually impossible to back out without shaming their families. They instead concentrate on their mission, on ritual, and on their faith (Hassan, N., 2001). In Palestine, suicide bomber deaths are announced in official newspapers as wedding announcements to the “black eyed” virgins who awaited them in Paradise (Lelyveld, 2001, 51). This group dynamic—an emotional support structure, peer approval, and a psychological process of positive reinforcement with artificial decisive points—is critical for the accomplishment of the mission (Vedantam, 2001, A16).

Al Qaeda has had no compunction about killing fellow Muslims, or about placing Muslims into suicide attacks without their knowledge. Thus, the group not only has had to justify the murder of innocents, but the murder of those believers who have supported the movement. Bin Laden has explained:

The Islamic Shariah says Muslims should not live in the country of infidels for long. The targets of 11 September were not children and women. The main targets were the two icons of the United States, its economic and military might. (Mir, 2001)

While the civilian population tends to think of suicidal attacks as terrorist related, many militaries have used similar units when facing more powerful foes. Countries that have had, or currently have, suicide units include North Korea, Iraq, Iran, the Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan in World War II. The modern Islamic suicide bomber is a direct descendent of the Iranians who acted as human mine-clearing devices during the Iran-Iraq War (Child Soldiers Global Report, 2001). Many military operations throughout history were executed with little hope for the survival of its participants. Moreover, al Qaeda should not be confused with a suicide cult. While martyrdom is lauded, Al Qaeda does not appear to demand the death of its members. The attacks upon the United States, to be successful, simply required the death of the participants. No more were sacrificed than necessary to achieve the military objective.

The Cult and the Terrorist Group: Differences and Similarities

Al Qaeda is a representative terrorist group, different only in its size and global reach. It has many attributes of a political or ethnic terrorist movement, as well as those of a religious movement; however, it also has some attributes of a religious cult.

Like a cult, al Qaeda sees the world in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is possible that bin Laden sought the final confrontation—Armageddon—by conducting a terrorist operation so horrific and inhuman that he believed the United States would retaliate massively, thus rallying the Muslim world around him in sympathy. Alternatively, he may have thought the attack so audacious that it would cause the United States to retreat toward isolationism, thus securing him a free hand against the apostate governments in the region. In either case, his reasoning is not dissimilar to the Aum cult, or any apocalyptic cult (Pearson, 2001).

Other cult-like attributes include recruitment among the young and disaffected; deception in (some) recruitment; in-group morality and the depersonalization of outsiders; the isolation and training of members to be holy warriors, and the claim that all answers are in a single source or society. Although these are powerful components, similar attributes are found in many groups to varying degrees, even in elite organizations and associations.

Al Qaeda—and terrorist groups in general—differ from most cults in several ways. Terrorist groups typically represent an exaggerated version of a political or religious viewpoint within the community. Thus, unlike a cult, the terrorist group must depend upon a broad substructure of supporters (Juergensmeyer, 2000, 11). Al Qaeda got funding from rich Saudis and “charitable organizations,” and moral support from Muslims who accepted the theory that outside forces are the cause of their society’s chaos (Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2000).

And although terrorist groups might have an inspirational leader, he is typically not considered divine or possessing special powers. Bin Laden expressed Islamist doctrine and provided a clear vision of a better world through violence. While Usama took upon himself the right to declare Fatwas, he did not bring any new revelations. He did not declare himself to be the Madhi, the “guided one” who will be sent to re-establish justice on Earth (Nasr, 1993, 180). But alive or dead, his story has not ended, and the world’s obsession with this one individual could yet create a powerful new religious cult.

Terrorist Groups vs. Cultic Groups — Attributes

Lessons for the Future

If a cult leader dies or is disgraced, a cult will either founder or move toward the mainstream (Kahler, 1999). If Usama bin Laden is killed, then a man who organized an effective militant arm of the Islamist movement will have been eliminated and the effectiveness of al Qaeda perhaps irreparably harmed. However, the Islamist movement will continue because it is a major thread of contemporary Islamic theory.

A Civil War is occurring in Islam over how to construct a successful Islamic society. While bin Laden’s major violence has been against the West, his ultimate goal is to cleanse the Islamic world of corrupt secular governments and replace them with Islamic law. His terrorist acts are against the West, but his focus is on the Islamic world. Whether his vision has any future within Islam will be up to Islam itself.

This war for the heart and meaning of Islam could continue for generations. As one pro-bin Laden Website,, stated on 20 November, 2001:

The war in Afghanistan is the beginning of a long war that will last several years, perhaps decades, and eventually end with victory for the believers and a good outcome for the Muslim Ummah. This is not just an optimistic opinion, but it is part of our religious belief to believe that Islam will eventually become victorious even though the disbelievers may detest it.

The West must concede the author is probably right about the length of the conflict; it must earnestly hope he is wrong regarding the outcome.

There is little outside political forces can do to mold the future of Islam. They can attempt to enhance the stability of moderate Islamic states by increasing trade and improving relations, even with countries they have hitherto excluded. Iran may be an Islamic society hostile toward the United States, but it is also struggling to build democracy and, for that alone, deserves diplomatic and political recognition.

Foreign assistance could also be used build schools that provide the intellectual foundations needed for secular states. Al Qaeda found ready recruits from Arab and Muslim schools, which often teach hatred for Jews and Christians and the virtues of violence and war (Center for the Monitoring of the Impact of Peace, 2001). Pakistani officials estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the country’s tens of thousands of madrasahs were simply inculcation factories for jihad warriors (Stern, J., 2000).

Countries and peoples build national narratives that tell them not only where they have been, but what ideals are important to the society. These national narratives point the youth toward their stars. The West can help shape the narratives within Arab history books away from conflict and more toward humanist values. Moreover, the West should look both at Islamic popular culture, and at its own, for ways to reduce the view that violence is a viable option.

Al Qaeda will not be the last threat to modern secular culture. We must concede that armed fanaticism, spawned by religious or blind ideological fervor, probably represents some of the greatest threats today. Fanaticism is immune to rational debate, dismissive of evidence, and incapable of compromise.

The United States is very circumspect about monitoring religious movements. The Constitution makes faith an individual choice not subject to government scrutiny. Consequently the intelligence community does not monitor religious movements, nor would it be feasible to do so. It monitors terrorist groups and calls them such only when they enact violence. Americans cannot expect their government to detect potentially violent religious movements early in their development.

The academic community might, however, be well positioned to warn the government when a religious or ethnic movement is moving toward violent action. Based upon al Qaeda, I would propose at least seven indicators:

  • When there is no time in the argument—the wrongs of past generations are justifications for acts today. This was evident in al Qaeda, and is present in some proto-political/Christian movements in the United States, such as the Neo-Confederate movement.

  • When the political arena becomes the cosmic battleground for good and evil. This is again evident with al Qaeda and with the domestic Christian terrorist group, The Army of God.

  • When violence is justified as an act of fulfilling God’s Will.

  • When military heroes of the past are raised or formed into religious icons. Islamists, for example, often refer to Saladin and Mohammed’s military exploits.

  • When paramilitary or military training is emphasized within a religious movement.

  • When the terrorist group can depend upon sufficient support from non-members to maintain cells and strike units. This means the group must reflect some social viewpoint considered laudable. Again, both al Qaeda and Army of God have this similar attribute.

  • When the organization acquires a visionary but violent leader, example, or spokesman.

I leave it to my academic counterparts, those much more conversant with diagnostic tools than I, to evaluate the utility of such a list.


Addario, Lynsey. (2001, October 21) “Jihad’s Women.” The New York Times Magazine, pp. 38-42

Al Fouzan, Shaikh Saalih bin (1997). Al-Walaa’ wal-Baraa’: Allegiance and Association with the People of Islaam and Eeman and Disassociation and Enmity with the People of Falsehood and Disbelief in Islaam. Suffolk: Jam’ita Ihyaa’ Minhaaj Al-Sunnah.

Al-Hamid, Ali Hasan Abd (1997). Paradise: Its Blessings and How to Get There. Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm.

The Al-Qaeda Manual (Not Dated). Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants. Retrieved November 10, 2002 from The manual is attributed to Bin Laden. Several versions of widely differing sizes exist.

“Al-Qa’ida (the Base)” (Not dated). The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel. Retrieved 12 December 2002 from

Baaz, Shaykh Abdul Azeez bin, (Not dated). Middlesex, England: Message of Islam. The actual quotation may be that of the translator, Abu Aaliyah Surkheel ibn Anwar Sharif, but the text was endorsed by Baaz. Baaz was Grand-Muftee, the official expounder of Islamic Law of Saudi Arabia. He also declared the world to be flat in 1993. Baaz was eventually considered an apostate by Bin Laden because he accepted the presence of U.S. forces on the Arabian Peninsula.

BBC News (Online) (2001, September 20). “EU Gears Up To Fight Terrorism.” Retrieved 18 October 2001 from

Bin Laden, Usama (1996, August 23). “Declaration Of War Against the Americans Occupying The Land Of The Two Holy Places — Expel the Infidels from the Arab Peninsula.”

Callihan, Patrick (1998, July 27). “Bibliography on Peru’s Shining Path Guerrillas Earns UMass Librarian National Award” University of Massachusetts Amherst Press Release. Retrived December 15, 2001 from The release refers to the conclusions of: Stern, Peter A. (1995) Sendero Luminoso: An Annotated Bibliography of the Shining Path Guerrilla Movement, 1980-1993. New Mexico: Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Material.

Center for the Monitoring of the Impact of Peace. (2001, March.) The Palestinian Authority School Textbooks For The Year 2000. Retrieved December 10 2001 from

"The Disease of Nationalism” (Not dated). One Ummah Network Retrieved April 10, 2003 from

Emerson, Steven (2002). American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us. New York: The Free Press.

Erlanger, S., and Hedges, (2001, December 29-30) “Missed Signals on Sept. 11: Militant’s Tale in France Came too Late." International Herald Tribune (Bangkok Edition), pp. 1, 4.

Gerecht, Reuel Marc (2001, Summer). “The Terrorists’ Encyclopedia.” Middle East Quarterly, Volume VIII: Number 3, pp. 73-85

“Global Probe Gets Name, First Arrest.” The Indian Express September 16, 2001. Retrieved November 08, 2002 from

Hassan, Dr. Hussian Hamid (1993). The Foundation of Authority in the Islamic State and the Shariah-Based Elements of Society. Islamabad: Da’wah Academy.

Hassan, Nasra (2001, November 19). “An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the ‘Human Bombs.’” The New Yorker. Retrieved April 10, 2003 from

Hiro, Dilip (1989). Holy Wars: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge.

Hutchinson, J., & Smith, A. (Eds.) (1994). Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Iran.” Child Soldier Global Report, 2001. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. Retrieved April 10, 2003 from

Juergensmeyer, Mark (2000). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kahler, Karl (1999). The Cult that Snapped: A journey into The Way International. Retrieved December 17, 2001 from

Kerr, Malcolm (1982, May). “Arab Nationalism: Is It Obsolete?” Middle East Insight. Retrieved December 14, 2001 from

Kuran, Timur (2001, December 12). “The Islamic Dead End: The Arabian Desert Economic Model Simply Will Not Work.” National Review Online. Retrived January 10, 2002 from

Lelyveld, Joseph (2001, October 28). “All Suicide Bombs are Not Alike.” New York Times Magazine, p. 48-79

Lewis, Bernard (2001, November 19). “The Revolt of Islam.” The New Yorker. Retrieved April 10, 2003 from

Lumpkin, John (2001, October 9) “Bin Laden’s Terrorist Training Combines Math, Missiles.” Associated Press. Retrieved 17 December 2001 from

Maududi, Sayyid Abul Aala (1995). What Islam Stands For. Islamabad: Da’wah Academy.

Menendez, A.J., and Doerr, E (2002). Great Quotations on Religious Freedom. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Mir, Hamid (2001, November 10). "Osama claims he has nukes: If US uses N-arms it will get same response." Dawn (Internet version). Retrieved April 10, 2003 from

Moore, Molly, & Baker, Peter (2001, December 23). “Inside Al Qaeda’s Secret World.” The Washington Post, pp. A1, A10.

Moussalli, Ahmad S. (1992). Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut: American University of Beirut.

“Mujahid Usamah Bin Ladin Talks Exclusively to ‘NIDA’UL ISLAM’ About The New Powder Keg in The Middle East.” (October-November 1996(?)) The Call of Islam Magazine. Retrieved December 16, 2001 from According to the website, the article was published in the 15th issue of Nida’ul Islam magazine, October - November 1996.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1993). Ideals and Realities of Islam. Lahore: Suhail Academy.

Pearson, Patricia (2001, November 5). “Apocalyptic Cult Methods Explain bin Laden.” USA Today. Retrieved 23 December 2001 from

Pomfret, John (2001, December 7). “On the Run, Unrepentant: Foreign Fighters Bitter at Turn of Events.” Washington Post, pp. A-1, A-30.

Robinson, Francis (1994). “Islam and Nationalism.” In John Hutchinson, and Anthony (Eds.) Nationalism (pp. 214-217). Oxford: Oxford University.

Sahib, Mufti Khubaib (1996). “The Distinction Between The Jihaad And Acts of Violence” The Taliban Online. Retrieved April 10, 2003 from (Page available in cache through via

Sirrs, Julie (2001, Summer). “The Taliban’s International Ambitions.” Middle East Quarterly, Volume VIII: Number 3, pp. 61-72.

Stern, Jessica (2000, November/December). “Pakistan’s Jihad Culture.” Foreign Affairs. Retrieved December 16, 2001 from

Sullivan, Andrew (2001, October 7). “This is a Religious War.” New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001, pp. 44-52.

Taji-Farouki, Suha (2000, October). “Islamists and the Threat of Jihad: Hizb al-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun on Israel and the Jews.” Middle Eastern Studies, Volume XXXVI, Issue 4, pp, 21-46.

Thompson, Ahmad (1995). Dajjal: The King Who Has No Clothes. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd.

Tourish, Dennis, and Wohlforth, Tim (2000). On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe Publishers.

“The Types of Jihad.” The Taliban Online. Retrieved 17 November 2002 from (Page available in cache through via

United States Department of State. (2001, April 30.) Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000. Retrieved December 15 2001 from

“‘Usama’ The Name Of New Born Baby Of Sahiba And Rambo'" (Not dated). (Retrived April 10, 2003 from The text explains how a popular Pakistani motion picture couple named their child after the mass murderer. “In an interview Rambo had said ‘I proposed the name of my child as Pakistan Khan but finally we decided on Usama.’ Sahiba said ‘We both parents were very impressed by Muslim hero Usama-bin-Ladin, that’s why we pick that name for our child’.”

Vedantam, Shankar (2001, October 16). “Peer Pressure Spurs Terrorists, Psychologists Say.” Washington Post, p. A16.

Viviano, Frank (2001, October 17). “Secular Mideast States Face Turmoil: Islamic Tide of Extremism Poses Threat.” The Washington Times, p. A14.

Weiser, Benjamin (2001, October 28). “Captured Terrorist Manual Suggests Hijacker Did A Lot by the Book.” The New York Times, p. B8.

West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A Conference for Scholars And Policy Makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3.

Zihad, Manawar Masood (1999). The Children’s Book of Islam. Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors.