Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Cults and Terrorists

This is a provoctive article that provides some sensible ideas about how understanding the psychological and group dynamics of cult groups can help in combatting jihadist groups: Terrorists Are Made, Not Born: Creating Terrorists Using Social Psychological Conditioning by Anthony Stahelski Journal of Homeland Security March 2004.  The article also appears in Cultic Studies Review 4/1 (2005).

On the other hand, the article has the fault of generalizing about violent cult groups without explaining if similar dynamics have been observed in jihadist groups or how they may have particular features that can't be deduced from other types of cults. There is material available to at least make some educated guesses along those lines. For instance, cult specialist Steve Hassan points out suggestive parallels in the case of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" (although that term is now more commonly used to mean the Christian Right): John Walker: American Indoctrinated with Cult Mind Control Techniques by Taliban 12/03/01.

Juan Cole's Al-Qaeda’s Doomsday Document and Psychological Manipulation 04/09/03 has some suggestions along those lines, as well.

Robert Jay Lifton, whose studies on coercive persuasion have had a big influence on studies of cults, has written Destroying the World to Save It : Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (2000) about the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan that use a "weapon of mass destruction" in a subway attack.

And since Stahelski's recommendations seem to dovetail very nicely with Bush administration strategies for combatting terrorist groups I have to wonder if the conclusions may have been driving the analysis a little too much. (In fairness, I should mention that he does not include any recommendation to invade a country that isn't threatening the US and isn't sponsoring anti-American terrorists as one of his suggestions.) It's not entirely clear to me even how he draws the conclusions he does from the findings he describes.

He sets up the analysis this way:

Terrorism researchers have compared terrorist groups to cults, and they have concluded that thecult modelis applicable to terrorist groups. Most cults center on a charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders have many of the following characteristics: physical presence, intelligence, experience, education and expertise, the ability to verbally and clearly articulate the vision and the mission, and, most important, a strong emotional appeal. Most joiners of cults respond to the leader’s message first at an emotional level, then later at the physical and intellectual levels. Joiners report that they have finally found someone who has the answers to life’s perplexing questions and who is therefore worthy of their total commitment.

It's worth noting at this point that there's nothing unusual or bizarre about the basic methods of influence that cult groups use. Charismatic leaders of the type he describes are also found in politics, churches and business, too. It's the particular combination of processes that make a cult groups distinct from other types of groups.

It's also important to recognize that cult groups are not always religious groups. For a variety of reasons, they often are religious. But it's not the religious element that defines a cult.

Stahelski identifies five stages or "phases" in the inculturation process of violent cult groups: (1) depluralization; (2) self-deindividuation; (3) other-deindividuation; (4) dehumanization; and, (5) demonization.

Depluraization involves cutting off ones ties to the various groups by which individuals in society define the identity on a normal basis:

In stable, normal (non-crisis) societies, most individuals are pluralized—that is, they fulfill their affiliative needs by belonging to a variety of groups. None of these affiliations, with the possible exception of the family group, is absolutely essential to an individual’s self-concept.

A question immediately arises on this point. Can we really say that the kind of plural group affiliations that are normal in societies in the United States, Japan or Europe also function in the same way in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. How do the tribal, clan and family ties in "honor-based" societies affect such "plural" group ties? In other words, for a Pashtun villager to join his cousins in a Taliban terrorist cell may well involve a very different set of dynamics.

Self-deinviduation is a redefinition of the individual's identity in the cult's terms. Cult researchers Margaret Thaler Singer  and Lanja Lalich have described the development of a "pseudopersonality" in which individuals conform themselves to the highly restricted environment of the cult. Stahelski describes the process this way:

Internally, all recruits are expected to give up any values, beliefs, attitudes, or behavior patterns that deviate from the group values and expectations. Deindividuated joiners give up their personal sense of right and wrong if it is different from that of the leader. Furthermore, the joiners’ broader view of reality—their view of how the past, present, and future fit together to create the modern social world—becomes aligned with that of the leader.

Other-deindividuation is the process in which, as Stahelski puts it, "All enemies become a homogeneous, faceless mass: they all look alike, think alike, and act alike." Again, this is a normal human characteristic, the us vs. them feeling. Patriotism, solidarity with one's own religious group, professional loyalties, all of these use the same process. It's the combination with other factors that distinguish it in the cult context.

Dehumanization could probably be seen as part of the same process he calls "other-deindividuation." He defines the "dehumanization" process this way:

All positive characteristics (for example, moral virtue, intelligence, responsibility, honesty, trustworthiness, reliability) are attributed to members of the "in" group, and all negative characteristics (moral degeneracy, stupidity, irresponsibility, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, unreliability) are attributed to members of the "out" group. Dehumanization occurs when the enemy and the enemy’s characteristics are associated with nonhuman entities, such as animals, vermin, filth, and germs. Nazi propaganda in the 1930s compared the Jews and their negative characteristics to rats and  cockroaches.

His latter example is a reminder that this characteristic is not unique to cult groups. Hitler may have had a "cult of personality" going, but the Nazi Party and the Nazi movement were not cults in the sense of the People's Temple or Aum Shinrikyo. In fact, this process is also seen in armies at war and in health care professionals who must distance themselves emotionally from the pain and distress of their patients.

We read and heard even before the invasion of Iraq things like:the Iraqi people really must be lazy and  not careabout  freedom because they haven't overthrown Saddam's horrible  dictatorship. Not many of the war-loving blowhards who recited lines like that could ever be counted on to overthrow an actual dictatorship themselves, or to have any knowledge or understanding of what it was like to live under such a system. But it served the dehumanize the Iraqi civilians that would inevitably become "collateral damage" of the war and bombing. We wouldn't have to be doing this if they had been good enough people to overthrow Saddam themselves!

Stahelski also makes that point:

The dehumanization phase separates extremist hate groups and terrorist groups from non-violent cults, which do not dehumanize out groups. This phase also separates terrorist groups from the organized militaries of democracies. Although democratic militaries use depluralization, both forms of deindividuation, and dehumanization, their conditioning applies to armed combatants only. Democratic militaries have strict rules of engagement that preclude killing innocent noncombatants. Terrorist groups have no such restrictions; therefore their dehumanization conditioning applies to all members of the enemy group, regardless of their combat status.

The point he makes about the strict rules of engagement is an important one. Laws of war and rules of engagement not only serve to put some kind of limits on the destructiveness of war. They are also a critical part of the discipline of armies. This is a critical difference between an institution like the Army, which is by necessity a more authoritarian institution than most others in a democracy, and a cult group. A soldier in the US Army knows that if he or she is given an illegal command by their superior, it is their obligation not to carry out that order. And they have legal and institutional protections for doing so. Such protections just do not exist in cult groups.

But that's also one of the potentially devastating consequences for the US military today of the high-level tolerance (and even encouragement) of torture and careless shooting at "checkpoints" and so forth. It can have a devastating and long-term effect on discipline.

I would also mention one reservation about the distinction he makes betwee violent and non-violent cults. The dynamics in cult groups are such that any of them have a significant potential to become violent.

Stahelski defines his fifthstage, demonization,this way:

Demonization, the fifth phase of the social psychological conditioning process, occurs when cult members become convinced that the enemy is in league with the devil and cosmic evil. Since most cultures define "good" in comparison to "evil," demonization is a widely available conditioning strategy. Referring to the United States as the "Great Satan" is an example of cultural demonization.

Again, this demonization process is by no means restricted to cult groups or terrorist organizations. Listen to President Bush talk about our fight against Evil. Look at the book by Bush loyalists David Frum and Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle, An End to Evil (2003). I just discussed an earlier example in one of my Confederate "Heritage" Month posts.

But Stahelski's example of Muslim fundamentalists calling the US "the Great Satan" is one point where a more specific reference to Islam might have been helpful. Karen Armstrong, for instance, mentions in Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World (1991) is that in the Islāmic faith, Satan is conceived of more as a trickster than the embodiment of evil. If she's correct about that, "Great Satan" still couldn't be seen as a compliment; but it wouldn't mean the same as a Christian propagandist for the Confederacy naming William Seward as Satan himself.

Here are his surprisingly conventional recommendations on what this means for fighting terrorist groups:

The first and most important conclusion to draw is the importance of leaders to terrorist groups. The conditioning process centers on and builds from the power of the charismatic leader. If the leader is eliminated, the group is greatly weakened. Considering terrorist groups as cults supports strategies that focus on "cutting the head off the snake."

I'm really skeptical on how realistic this is. Obviously, leaders are important. But the jihadist groups, and apparently even the more nationalist-oriented guerrilla/terrorist groups in Iraq, are operating in a decentralized way in order to avoid just this vulnerability. Taking out the leadership makes more sense in conventional warfare, where armies are operating with hierarchical command-and-control structures. As a practical matter, this method is more difficult to apply against the present-day jihadist groups.

This point also raises the questionofhow well the cult model applies to jihadist-style terrorist groups. However, "crazy" the cult may look to outsiders, cult members are not necessarily suffering from clinical psychiatric disorders. On the contrary, cults will often expel members who do start exhibiting such problems. But cult leaders are a different story. Jim Jones of the People's Temple, David Berg of the Children of God, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians and many other cult leaders as well did exhibit symptoms of serious psychiatric conditions.

Is this really the case with today's jihadist groups? Osama bin Laden is unquestionably an evil man and a murderer. But is he clinically psychiatrically ill? He may be, but I've never seen any description of him that indicated such a thing.

And part of the characteristics of leadership in cult groups is it has a totalist nature. Terrorist cells certainly have to exercise extreme control over their members. And cults can be very small, consisting of only a few people. But cult leaders don't typically create the kind of decentralized, franchise-type arrangement that Al Qaeda uses, for instance.

Second, the more isolated the environment in which the conditioning process occurs, the deeper and longer lasting the results on group members. Aggressively disrupting the training camps wherever we find them not only hurts terrorist groups operationally, it should greatly diminish the effects of the conditioning.

Maybe. Maybe not. I don't see how this recommendation emerges from his analysis of cults. Cults often do have their members congregate in isolated settings. But it's by no means a essential quality of cults. Some cults have members that live in normal neighborhoods, but still submit themselves to the discipline of the cult. And terrorist training camps don't have to be large. Muhammed Atta and his fellow suicide pilots on 9/11 got their most essential training in American flight schools.

This recommendation sounds like the conventional-warfare assumption that still plagues the Army in Iraq when they try to apply it to guerrilla warfare. With a conventional army, it has bases and supply lines behind the front lines. In guerrilla warfare like in Iraq, there are no front lines and rear areas. In the Afghan War, the large Al Qaeda training camps have long since been shut down. Presumably, the Army and the Marines have attacked every known terrorist training base in Iraq, along with leveling the cityof Fallujah.Yet the security situationin the third year of warfare there is such that Westernreporters fear to leave their hotel in Baghdad and US and Iraqi forces (such as there are) still encounter deadly attacks at a high rate.

A third conclusion is specifically directed at the Fundamentalist Islamic groups. These groups take advantage of the fact that Fundamentalist religious schools (madrasas) have preconditioned a significant portion of Islamic male youths of recent generations. Products of these schools are more malleable to terrorist group values and missions. The results here support the idea of aggressively pursuing and eliminating the funding sources for these schools.

This is the only one of his recommendations that seems to draw partially on his findings about cults. It looks toward interfering with the immediate environment in which terrorist groups recruit. But even here, I have to wonder how much the specific Islamic context is being considered. Two of the main parties in the newly-elected government in Iraq (Dawa and SCIRI) are more-or-less Islāmic fundamentalist. The government of Turkey is headed by an Islāmic fundamentalist party. Yet those governments are enemies of the jihadist groups. All jihadist groups may be Muslim fundamentalists. But by no means are all Muslim fudamentalists jihadists.

Stahelski makes some helpful suggestions in applying lessons from cults to dealing with jihadist groups. But his specific recommendations (with the partial exception I mentioned) don't seem to emerge from his analysis of cult groups. Nor do they seem particularly useful. Or at least, the recommendations don't offer anything beyond the most conventional assumptions of the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."

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