In the wake of 9/11, anti-cult groups attempted to tie terrorist groups with “mind-controlling cults,” but the effort has been less than successful, according to an article in the journal Nova Religio (May).
Stuart Wright writes that anti-cult organizations and spokespeople drew clear connections between terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and religious and political “cults,” especially over their allegedly common use of mind control in pushing members toward violent actions. Very early after the attacks of 9/11, anti-cult groups “launched a media campaign” putting the events in an anti-cultic framework. Groups such as Al Qaeda were referred to as “terrorist cult organizations,” and such home-grown terrorists as Richard Reid (the shoe bomber); Jose Padilla, an Al Qaeda operative; and John Walker Lindh, the Californian who joined the Taliban and Al Qaeda, were singled out as victims of mind control.
The anti-cult movement’s narrative of unsuspecting converts and Muslims being brainwashed in terrorist training camps gained a wide hearing in the media, as well as from the parents of such suspects, who had reported that their sons had experienced sudden personality change. Wright argues that in the long run, the anti-cult effort to link terrorism with cultic activity failed to gain much support among terrorist experts. One reason is that the psychological factors in terrorism often cited by anti-cultists have largely been discounted by specialists, who more often focus on cultural, political and economic influences.
A review of the literature by the Research Division of the Library of Congress concluded that there was “no single terrorist personality.” Another reason is that scholars believe that anti-cult activists may have overstated the similarities between new religious movements and terrorist groups. Aside from apocalyptic new religious movements, the violence of most “cults” is “more contextual and interactionist” than that found in terrorist cells.
Terrorist groups are trained in and based on warfare, which is far different from the reality of most new religious movements. Even suicide bombing—thought to be the prime case of indoctrination and mind control—is being found to be motivated as much, if not more, by nationalism as by religion. Wright concludes that while the cult–terrorist link has not found much empirical support, the anti-cultists’ approach could still be exploited by military leaders for propaganda purposes.
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, 200 Center St., Suite 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223)