Chelsea Brass - Advisory Board Member - Texas, USA

Chelsea Brass

Leanne Smith - Advisory Board Member - Legislative Coordinator at Amnesty International - Washington, USA

Leanne Smith

What do cults and terrorist groups have in common? some thoughts by Chelsea Brass and Leanne Smith of the OMF Advisory Board

What do cults and terrorist groups have in common? Why are the common aspects important? And can we enhance the study of cults and terrorist groups by pooling our knowledge? These are some of the questions that form the basis of our research, as well as the reason why the Open Minds Foundation supported our travel to New York City to attend the annual conference of the Society for Terrorism Research in August, where one of our own Advisory Board members, Professor Philip Zimbardo, also serves on their board.

The short answer to these questions is that it appears that there are psychological similarities between the two fields, and that our work in cultic studies has many insights to offer the field of terrorism studies. For example, many in the field try to find a clear profile of a terrorist, but those of us in cultic studies know that there is a significant difference between a leader and a follower: followers are much more of a normal cross-section of the population, but leaders have more predictable patterns of behavior, because they tend to fit into clearly defined personality types. In the field of cultic studies, we also know the power of psychological and emotional manipulation: how savvy leaders employ insidious tactics that play a significant role in forwarding their agenda. These tactics are similar in all high-control groups.

The cultic studies field has much to offer the world of terrorist deradicalization through our experience in offering a change of heart via exit counseling (once known by the potentially misleading term, “deprogramming”). The methods of experienced exit counselors can be readily applied to true believers of any belief. We can also offer counter-terrorism analysts another perspective on who can be recruited, and very importantly, the similarities of the specific recruitment tactics used along a spectrum from “love-bombing” to the induction of guilt and phobic responses.

As an attendee of the European Union’s working group on deradicalization (RAN-EXIT) meeting, I would argue that even where our two groups found differences between the fields, it was as instructive as our similarities. For example, what is the difference between a militant cult (a term our field might use for terrorist and extremist groups) and a religious cult? Are there differences in ideology that generate a more violent outlook? (Although, those of us raised in cults may have never been violent, many might admit they would have had the capacity to be violent or suicidal had their leader demanded it. As such, there may be a lot more risk of deployable agents out there than people believe.)

The task at hand is to identify the similarities between cultic and terrorist groups to decision-makers who may be able to fund one field to help the other. Open Minds Advisory Board member Robert Örell and others have attracted the attention of decision-makers in the areas of deradicalization, and brought those in the cultic studies field to the table.

The attendees of the Society for Terrorism Research conference seemed open and welcoming of outside perspectives, and featured presentations from a variety of disciplines including education, public health, and even humanitarian work. This shows that there is a definite need for input from the Open Minds Foundation. The keynote speakers emphasized the seriousness of terrorism for the world and the consequences that are already being experienced politically around the globe.

Dr. Yuval Laor, Review Board Research Coordinator of Open Minds, presented his theoretical model of awe and fervor at the conference. Dr Laor’s model provides deep insight into phenomena both fields experience in the area of indoctrination. In his words, a “discussion of strong emotional experiences involving awe (in religious contexts these are referred to as ‘mystical experiences’) which can either strengthen one’s existing beliefs or bring about a sudden and fundamental conversion … where irrational long-term commitments can be induced in a very short time.”

It seems clear that the contribution that OMF can make to some of today’s pressing issues are more valuable now than ever. We hope that by next year’s conference there will be sustained efforts to continue the conversation towards ongoing, meaningful collaboration to advance our understanding, so that we help to develop better tools to deal with groups that threaten human rights.

Please see the original post about Chelsea and Leanne’s research and stay tuned for OMFs plans to attend next year’s STR conference.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about terrorism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!