Monday, February 19, 2018

Are Terrorist Groups Cults? Similarities & Differences from Ideological, Psychodynamic & Group Dynamic Perspectives

Do the ideological and behavioral phenomena and dynamics of cults and terrorist organizations resemble each other? The simple answer is, "Very much so." Modern terrorist organizations like Al Queda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Islamic Johad and ISIS -- and ostensibly (but not actually) -- hyper-nationalistic groups like the North Koreans -- are little more than cults dedicated to the cynically manipulated expression of what is likely identical to the abuse- and abandonment-conferred rage seen in street gangs and many of the more aggressively authoritarian and totalitarian mind control cults. But instead of the bulk of the faithful going "learned helpless," they go cynically violent. I will attempt to advance this thesis by combining material from the paper cited below with that from other published literature on cult dynamics, group dynamics, psychodynamics and personality traits, per se.
Jerrold Post is the author of an intriguing pre-9/11 paper entitled Terrorist psycho-logic: Terrorist behavior as a product of psychological forces. A paper I will try to summarize here... largely with direct quotations from the version in a 1990 book entitled Origins of Terrorisim: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, published by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press in Washington, DC, and distributed by Johns Hopkins University Press of Baltimore, MD.
In the paper, Post asserts (in several direct lifts from the paper with comments of my own in brackets) that...
1) "...the act of joining the terrorist group represents an attempt to consolidate a fragmented identity, to resolve a split and... to belong. ... specialists who have closely followed the Middle Eastern terrorist groups share the impression that many of their members come from the margins of society and that belonging to these... groups contributes to consolidating [their] psychosocial identity...
[A significant feature of cult organization should be clarified at the outset: All cults are organized like pyramids, with a) new members at the bottom layer of "bricks," b) older and less aggressive members who have become Hoffer's "true believers" and totalistic loyalists in the smaller, middle layers that become the cult's "service structure," and c) (not always but generally) yet older and more aggressive, cynical and sadistic members who willingly do the guru's "dirty work" to control the wealth-accumulating second (b) membership tiers.]
[Though those who "attempt to consolidate a fragmented identity" and "come from the margins of society" are far from universally the case at the lower (a) levels on most cultic pyramids, it is very evident from interviews of cult exiters who had moved up the "bricks" to the "service structure" (b) that those who remain stuck at the service structure level and become virtual slaves to the masters on the managerial (c) levels just above them -- e.g.: as in the CoS at the Gold Base near San Jacinto, CA -- very often have histories of child abuse and/or abandonment (a.k.a. neglect) resulting in fragmented identity structures compared to the general culture. See also Neumann on anxiety and politics.]
"Data indicate that many terrorists have not been successful in their personal, educational and vocational lives. The combination of the personal feelings of inadequacy with the reliance on the psychological mechanisms externalization and splitting leads them to find especially attractive a group of like-minded individuals whose credo is, 'It's not us -- it's them; they are the cause of our problems.'
"For many, belonging to the terrorist group may be the first time they truly belonged [to anything 'important' or 'meaningful'], the first time they felt truly significant, the first time the felt that what they did counted."
[Likewise as above with respect to what I saw in the CoS, as well as in several fundamentalist, evangelical, psuedo-Christian cults and/or exiters therefrom... and certainly reported as well by such as Arterburn & Felton, Conway & Siegelman, Deikman, Galanter, Harris, Hassan, Hood et al, Kramer & Alstad, Langone, Lifton, Martin, Meerloo, Mehta, Miscavige, Rokeach, Ross, Taylor, Schein, Singer, Strozier et al, and Wright.]
2) Psychologist Wilfred Bion, an renown expert in both psychodynamic object relations theory and group dynamic theory, identified three types of cult-like groups:
. . . a. "The fight-flight group [which] defines itself in relation to the outside world, which both threatens and justifies its existence...
. . . b. "The dependency group [which] turns to an omnipotent leader for direction...
. . . c. "The pairing group [which] acts as if the group will bring forth a messiah who will rescue them and create a better world."
[All three dynamics have been reported -- albeit in different wording -- by most of the cult experts cited above, and should bare little need for clarification to anyone familiar with cult dynamics.]
3) In the "anarchic-ideologic" (as opposed to the "nationalist-separatist") type of terrorist group, "...the decision to cross the boundary and enter the underground illegal group is an irrevocable one, ... Group pressures are especially magnified for the underground group [see Parsons], so that the group is the only source of information, the only source of confirmation, and in the face of danger and pursuit, the only source of [perceived] security."
[Think David Koresh and Branch Davidians, as well as Jim Jones and the People's Temple, and Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh and the Rajneeshpuram. "Worse," perhaps, think Red China under Mao Zedong during the traumatic "Cultural Revolution" and North Korea under the Kims since the end of World War II. (See Gao.)]
4) "Pressure to conform [see Asch]: Given the intensity of the need to belong, the strength of the affiliative needs, and, for many members, the as-yet incomplete sense of individual identity, terrorists have a tendency to submerge their own identities into the group, so that a kind of 'group mind' emerges.
[Regardless of the completeness or lack thereof of physical separation from mainstream culture, it is evident from interaction with current, mid- (b) level, "true believer" cult members that they have bought into a group mindset and epistemological system which defines reality for them according to the dictates of the upper- (c) level leadership as reinforced by the dynamic of "social proof" and "groupthink" among their mid- (b) level peers. See Berger & Luckman, Burrow, Cialdini, Cooley, Freud, Gergen, Hood et al, LeBon, McDougall, Parsons, and Trotter.]
"Doubts concerning the legitimacy of the goals and actions of the group are intolerable to such a group. The person who questions a group decision risks the wrath of the group and possible expulsion."
[Which, of course, is intolerable to the anxiety-fed, almost (?) addictive need to retain the sense of identity conferred by cult membership.]
"The group ideology plays an important role in supporting the conformity-inducing group environment. When questions are raised, the absolutist [i.o.w.: totalistic; see Greenwald] ideology becomes the intellectual justification. Indeed, the ideology becomes, in effect, the scripture of the group's morality. ... What the group, through its interpretation of its ideology, defines as moral becomes moral -- and becomes the authority for the compliant members."
[Such was certainly the case during the "dark ages" of both Holy Roman Christianity and expansionist Islam during the period of constant conflict between them during the eighth through 15th centuries (see Tuchman). Scriptural authoritarianism (see Altemeyer, Arendt, Fromm, Hood et al, Horkheimer, Kramer & Alstad, Milgram, and Miller) and absolutism / totalism provided the "glue" that kept these cult-ures together for the sake of both territorial and wealth accumulation, as well as defense of what had been accumulated. (Is this any different from any organized cult dynamic save for the small "cults of significance" like the "Manson Family?")]
[Desperate to belong and derive the identity emanating therefrom, the cult member rationalizes the cult's proscribed ideology as his own, one new idea or level of abstraction at a time... when in fact, he may have previously believed in almost diametrically opposing ideas. To "go along to get along," however, the cult member or terrorist group member sees and senses (literally feels) the empowerment of the ideas that differ so much from those of his earlier "learned helplessness and victim identity, and buys into them with the same motives as any abuse- and abandonment-fearing codependent. Please see my earlier paper entitled "Understanding Codependence as "Soft-Core" Cult Dynamics... ...and Cult Dynamics as "Hard-Core" Codependence" with respect to the dynamics of identity submergence, ideology over identity, etc.)]
It seems fair to say then, that...
1) Post was asserting that people join terrorist groups to find a sense of psychological identity rather as Erikson defines the concept as the fifth of his scheme of eight stages of psychosocial development. And...
2) That -- given the nature of the thwarted and "unsuccessful" developmental paths of the members of terrorist groups cited by Post, as well as the splitting mentioned elsewhere in the article by Post -- terrorist cell members may be similar in development to cult members who so often display the opposite of Erikson's Pathway Out of (something like) Kernberg's Hell.
It is important here to note that I am not asserting that this pathway of "split" and conflicted development is common to all cult members. I have seen many who do not show evidence of Kernberg's "borderline organization." BUT... I see those who do not display such characteristics at the lower ((a), more "introductory") levels of the cult pyramids, as well as at the highest (c) levels... and not in the middle. Those who are better (or "more functionally") integrated psychologically, and not unduly narcissisticanti-social, and/or sadistic (on all, see Millon and Beck & Freeman) tend to leave the cult when the demands and impositions become uncomfortable... which is to say, "long before they become insufferable."
On the other end, those who have integrated to dense, narcissistic and/or anti-social and/or sadistic personality organizations tend to be seen at the top (c) levels of "bricks" in cults. Would one expect to see otherwise in terrorist groups? Given what we know of terrorists from Northern Ireland and Germany to sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to the island states of Indonesia and the Philippines, the answer to that seems clear.
3) Like the terrorist, the mid- (b) and upper- (c) level cult member is pre-conditioned to authoritarianism in his or her family of origin, predisposing the cult member or terrorist to blind following of authority, or -- and much more significantly -- a polarized, oppositional split (as above) between resentment and rage toward authority here... and an easily subjugatable willingness to follow authority there (see Altemeyer, Arendt, Fromm, Hood et al, Horkheimer, Kramer & Alstad, Milgram, and Miller).
4) The same Karpman Drama Triangle dynamics (see Karpman) that are in play in the authoritarian control dynamics of terrorist groups are in play in mind control cults, with "true believers" at the most codependent, middle (b) levels on the "bricks" of the pyramid being generally the "victims," and the cynical, messianic, authorities at the upper (c) levels being the "rescuers" and "persecutors."
5) However, there is a significant difference at pyramid level (b) where the psychological and group dynamics remain consistent with those described by Berrebey, Burrow, Cooley, Freud, LeBon, McDougall, Parsons, and Riezler, but in dichotomously, polar opposition. Whereas in most mind control cults one sees a cadre of committed true believers who become and/or remain "learned helpless," internalizing, and self-abusively subservient to the ingroup... the terrorist is more like an ego-syntonic, learned vicious externalizer, spewing his continually whipped up rage onto the selected outgroup (see Burrow, LeBon, McDougall, and Trotter).

6) Citing Schein 1961; Ofshe and Singer 1986, the key factors that distinguish coercive persuasion from other training and socialization schemes in cults are:

. . . a. The reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual's sense of self to promote compliance

. . . b. The use of an organized peer group

. . . c. Applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity

. . . d. The manipulation of the totality of the person's social environment to stabilize behavior once modified. 

Modern terrorist groups like Al Queda, Boko Haram and ISIS are largely military organizations. In that regard, it will be pretty obvious to anyone who has been through military training themselves (especially in the U.S. Marine Corps) that all four training and socialization schemes listed above would be utilized by large, well-organized, military model  terrorist groups.

7) Lifton (1961) identified eight themes or properties of reform environments that contribute to their totalistic quality:

. . . a. Control of communication

. . . b . Emotional and behavioral manipulation

. . . c. Demands for absolute conformity to behavior prescriptions derived from the ideology

. . . d. Obsessive demands for confession

. . . e. Agreement that the ideology is faultless

. . . f. Manipulation of language in which cliches substitute for analytic thought

. . . g. Reinterpretation of human experience and emotion in terms of doctrine

. . . h. Classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior and not worthy of respect

Save for item (d) above, all of these themes or properties are regularly seen in military training environments, and may thus be expected to be observed in large, well-organized, military model  terrorist groups.

8) Finally, Hassan's BITE Model of Influence (see Hassan, 1989 / 2015) identifies no less than 35 characteristics commonly seen in cults.

Behavior Control 

. . . a. Promote dependence and obedience.

. . . b. Modify behavior with rewards and punishments.

. . . c. Dictate where and with whom members live.

. . . d. Restrict or control sexuality.

. . . e. Control clothing and hairstyle.

. . . f. Regulate what and how much members eat and drink.

. . . g. Deprive members of seven to nine hours of sleep.

. . . h. Exploit members financially.

. . . i. Restrict leisure time and activities.

. . . j. Require members to seek permission for major decisions.

Information Control 

. . . a. Deliberately withhold and distort information.

. . . b. Forbid members from speaking with ex-members and critics.

. . . c. Discourage access to non-cult sources of information.

. . . d. Divide information into "insider" vs. "outsider" doctrine.

. . . e. Generate and use propaganda extensively.

. . . f. Use information gained in confession sessions against members.

. . . g. Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory.

. . . h. Require members to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors.

. . . i. Encourage members to spy and report on others’ “misconduct.”

Thought Control 

. . . a. Instill black vs. white, us vs. them & good vs. evil thinking.

. . . b. Change your identity, possibly even your name.

. . . c. Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought.

. . . d. Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate.

. . . e. Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts.

. . . f. Allow only positive thoughts.

. . . g. Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer & chanting to block thoughts.

. . . h. Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt.

Emotional Control 

. . . a. Instill irrational fears of questioning or leaving the group.

. . . b. Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong.

. . . c. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness.

. . . d. Promote feelings of guilt, shame & unworthiness.

. . . e. Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”).

. . . f. Threaten your friends and family.

. . . g. Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve.

. . . h. Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group.

Save for items, Bh, If, Ig, Ih, Td, Te, Tf, Ec, Ed, Ee and Ef, all of the other characteristics are regularly seen in military training environments, and it may be that several of the items called out in this sentence are used by such as the North Korean government, Al Queda, Boko Haram and/or ISIS.


Thus -- in summation -- it seems workable to theorize that the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of mind control cults and terrorist groups are similar in some respects... with the outstanding difference being the...

1) difference in externalizing vs. internalizing objectives of terrorist groups, and... 

2) the degree of violence to which the latter are willing to go to achieve their externalized purposes. 

That said, employment of many of Hassan's, Lifton's, Schein's, and Singer's factors and characteristics of cult dynamics and behaviors seems evident in modern, military, terrorist organizations. If that is the case, it may be that the same or similar group dynamic methods and techniques used to re-integrate cult members into mainstream society are applicable to the "de-programming" of terrorists from the middle tiers of the cultic pyramids of such organizations. 
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