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A Psychosocial Analysis of the Terrorist Group

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 1, 2010, 49-60.

A Psychosocial Analysis of the Terrorist Group As a Cult

Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira; Javier Martín-Peña; Carmen Almendros; Jordi Escartín; Clara Porrúa; 
Massimo Bertacco

This article aims to explore the internal functioning of terrorist groups in terms of dynamics that are typical of cults. Using a social psychology perspective, we describe the main features that define both types of groups and analyse the interaction processes taking place within them. We focus first on the interaction between the three fundamental elements, namely individual, group, and social environments. Particular attention is paid to those factors that link people to both cultic and terrorist groups. Next, we look at those strategies of psychological abuse that certain cults use in order to first attract and then subjugate ordinary people. Interestingly, these strategies are thought to combine social influence and social persuasion mechanisms with other forms of control and coercive manipulation. Lastly, we consider the way these strategies might be extended to terrorist groups by analyzing the corresponding differences and similarities between these two kinds of groups.


Violence is one of the classic issues studied by the different social sciences. However, within the term violence, the field of terrorism has taken on social and also scientific importance only in the past few decades, being able to be defined as a specific form of collective violence of a political nature, following the classification proposed by the World Health Organization (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi and Lozano, 2002). If violence is in itself a phenomenon of unquestionable social importance, the form of violence that is aimed at the whole community becomes even more paramount, if possible. And if, moreover, it is carried out in the form of a suicide attack, as we have seen particularly on the part of Al Qaeda, this great social importance is compounded by the heightened level of internal alertness with which the general public have to live, it being perceived as one of the principal social problems in society today.

Suicide terrorist attacks have emphasised the parallels existing between the dynamics of terrorist groups and those of cults. In fact, some of these cults have also carried out suicidal activities and on a few occasions terrorist activities. This is the case of the group People’s Temple, led by the reverend Jim Jones, who guided almost a thousand of his followers to “collective suicide” (276 were children and teenagers) on his farm in the Guyanese rainforest in November 1978. Hours before inducing and conducting this collective slaughter, a group of his guards had attacked the US senator Leo Ryan and a group of family members of the disciples, along with journalists who had accompanied Ryan on his visit to the headquarters of the cult to check on the condition of the disciples. Just as they were about to get on the plane to fly home, almost all of them were murdered. The cult known as The Supreme Truth, led by Shoko Asahara, also carried out an attack with sarin gas on the Tokyo underground in 1995. Eleven people were killed and more than 5,500 people had to be hospitalised. Two other “collective suicides” that should also be remembered were those carried out by the cult of the Order of the Solar Temple in the mid-nineteen-nineties in places in Switzerland, France, and Canada during which 74 people were killed, and by the cult Heaven’s Gate in 1997 in San Diego (USA), which was responsible for 39 deaths.

These events demonstrate how a deadly potential may lie within cults, although when this potential is somehow carried out, it usually results in a single action, even though this is in many cases massive in nature. These groups do not, therefore, in general, plan to carry out continued terrorist attacks. If this were the case, we would be speaking of their double condition as cults and terrorist groups. This may have been the case of the cult The Supreme Truth, if the security forces and the justice department had not been successful after its first mass attack.

The basic aim of this study is not to analyse cults and their risk of becoming terrorist groups, but rather the opposite: to analyse the dynamics of terrorist groups from the perspective of cults. Our initial ideas concentrated on the potential cruelty of their actions in order to analyse the similarity between cults and terrorist groups, but what this study really wishes to analyse is the process that takes place beforehand that allows them to carry out such actions. Specifically, the aim is to see to what extent terrorist groups adopt strategies typical of the internal functioning of cults. From a psychosocial perspective, the study will look at the process of bonding people to the group, their integration in it, and the group dynamic, trying to elucidate to what extent they use so-called strategies of coercive persuasion or strategies based on control, abuse, and psychological violence. The aim, thus, is to carry out a comparative assessment and in parallel to the membership of cults and terrorist groups, starting with the more general and defining aspects.

Terrorist Groups and Cults: Defining Elements

When beginning a comparative analysis of both types of groups, a first distinction should be made between means and ends. Both groups call and define themselves by emphasising ideological-doctrinal aims that they wish to achieve (liberation of the people, salvation of humanity, and other objectives of a similarly ambitious ilk). The ends pursued often have an idyllic nature and, thus, in abstract, can be shared, at least in part, by more or less extensive sectors of the general public. But what makes these groups significant from a social and scientific viewpoint are, rather than their declared aims, the abusive and violent methods that are used to achieve them. If they did not use these means, they could be classified as other social movements or organizations of a political, religious, or cultural nature, and the like. The use of such cruel means is precisely what allows us to talk of them as terrorist or cult organizations, with their ideology or doctrine being obligatorily relegated to the background.

This ideological element is that which is used to later qualify and classify the cult or terrorist group as a religious, political, or other type of group. Hence, religious terrorism (Juergensmeyer, 2001), based on the predominance of beliefs of this type and of being prepared to kill in the name of their god (e.g., Al Qaeda and its fight to establish the Nation of Islam), is that which a priori would be closest to the classic dynamic of cults, wherein doctrinal fundamentalism and the imposition of a unique and absolute authority are signs of their own identity.

In accordance with the idea that the fundamental defining elements, both of cults and terrorist groups, lie in the means they use, rather than in their desired aims, a cult is defined as “a totalitarian group which uses techniques of coercive persuasion in order to recruit people and submit them to the dependency of the group” (Rodríguez-Carballeira, 1999). Hence, the most common abusive and exploitative actions are carried out by the cults toward their own members, toward the interior of the group. We will look later at to what extent this also happens in terrorist groups, but what defines these groups is the violent actions carried out against those considered as an exterior enemy. Therefore, the centre of action of the cult lies in the in-group and is defined by its internal dynamics, while the terrorist group is defined by its external actions with its centre of action in the enemy out-group, as Centner also indicated (2003), claiming that a cult can become a terrorist group and vice versa.

In this study we will look at terrorist groups in the sense of insurgent groups, leaving to one side so-called State terrorism, and without judging the political ideals that each group claims to follow. Despite this, terrorism is a phenomenon of great complexity and diversity, and it is difficult to come to a consensus as to a definition. A characteristic common to all definitions is the strategic use of terror to attain objectives, as was noted by Kruglanski and Fishman (2006). This entails a planned and continued use of violence to achieve other objectives by means of harm and terror caused among the population, as is also indicated by De la Corte, Sabucedo, and Moreno (2004). Terror, uncertainty, insecurity, and the multiple costs, which lead the general public and governments to deal with and avert these issues, is the seedbed with which terrorists attempt to force changes in their favour (McCauley, 2007). Meanwhile, terrorists use violence in addition as a means to continue the current relevance of and publicity for their own objectives and values (De la Corte, Kruglanski, De Miguel, Sabucedo, and Díaz, 2007). In this sense, terrorism can be distinguished from mere acts of criminal violence in that the direct victims of terrorism are frequently not the ultimate objective of their violence (Schmid, 2005): their objective is collective intimidation (Bandura, 2006).

In this respect, the debate surrounding terrorism as a syndrome or as an instrument or strategy can be practically considered as closed as there is no significant support to the hypothesis that it can be a result of some form of specific casual syndrome (a focus that is more of a clinical or pathological type), whether this is linked to psychological disorders or certain specific social factors; although, of course, there are diverse social conditions that can act in each case and act in fact as contributing or facilitating factors for the development of terrorism (Kruglanski and Fishman, 2006).

At this point, if we continue the typology of aggressive behaviour suggested by Krahé (2001), we can state that both cults and terrorist groups are characterised by the use of a violence of an instrumental type (as a means to achieving other ends) and not a hostile type (as an end in itself). In the case of cults the violence or abuse is principally of a psychological type, which is exercised in order to achieve the submission of its followers (Almendros, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira, and Jansà, 2004), while terrorism is of a physical and also a psychological type, and is aimed especially at those considered to be the exterior enemy. Another difference is that terrorist violence is chiefly direct and visible, while that of cults, being of a psychological type, is usually less direct and visible, when not clearly indirect and concealed. An element that helps to understand this difference is the objective desired, which in the case of terrorists has a somewhat more specific character, while that of cults is often of a transcendent character and of abstract dimensions, which are difficult to evaluate.

The objective to be achieved by the terrorist group is often of a political character, with the aim of making, by means of its actions, the governing powers accede to its demands. In the case of a cult, the objective is to impose its system of beliefs and everything that these entail, understanding that this ideological-doctrinal system may differ greatly in each person in content, form, means, time, and the aggressiveness with which its implementation is sought. The common point in both cases is that the achievement of its objectives lies in managing to dominate the rest, whether these are political institutions, citizens, or both. Domination over the rest is considered because what is involved is an exercise of influence that is supported by the use of force and coercion, to different degrees, in order to bring about a change or social transformation.

Factors Facilitating Bonding to the Group

This section looks at the different factors of a personal nature that can facilitate the bonding of a person to cults and terrorist groups, a bonding in which other factors of a group nature can also interact (which will be analysed further on), together with those of the specific environment or social context (for a more complete analysis, see De la Corte, 2006, on terrorism, and Rodríguez-Carballeira, 1992, on cults). A similar structure of three blocks of variables is proposed by Taylor and Horgan (2006) in their study on the psychological process of the development of the terrorist, although they give less importance to the terrorist group.

A commonly accepted idea is that bonding to these groups requires a long-term process that goes through several stages in which components of a psychological and social nature are involved. It is understood that the process ends in the creation of an activist who is fully devoted to the group. However, possible forms of partial activism should also be considered. In the case of cults, it is easier for highly diverse degrees of bonding to occur: from simple sympathisers up to full activists. Terrorist organisations, however, mark the division between inside and outside the group, although there also may be actions of support and occasional collaboration on the part of people who in theory do not belong to the group.

The people who tend to join these groups are often young and single, chiefly males in the case of terrorists, and without any clear gender predominance in the case of cults. The studies on ETA (Reinares, 2001 and 2004) or on people in the same social environment who take part in the street violence known as Kale Borroka (Alonso and Reinares, 2005), the aforementioned studies on the recruitment for the Jihad or for the Shining Path, along with those on other groups (GRAPO, IRA, Red Brigades, etc.) confirm the socio-demographic traits of young people who join terrorist groups: primarily males with no children. We know that adolescence and youth is a critical period, characterised by transition, formation, and growing up; a period when the individual must adjust and adapt to his/her social environment, and seek and attempt to consolidate his/her own identity. It is, therefore, a stage during which the individual is more vulnerable to external sources of influence or pressure.

With respect to other personal variables of a psychological nature, the research until now has shown that neither in terrorist groups nor in cults can we talk of clear-cut personality profiles, and much less of psychopathological profiles; that is, the people who join terrorist groups and cults neither have specific psychological disorders, nor do they have personality traits that are clearly in common that would allow us to talk of a strong profile (Crenshaw, 2000; De la Corte, 2006; San Martín, 2005). According to Horgan (2005), by assuming the existence of a profile, it is possible to ignore some significant characteristics associated with the development of the terrorist; some of these elements of predisposition would be the experience of the individual, the degree and nature of some form of prior participation with the group, the prior knowledge of the group, and the exposure to the attraction of militancy; the context of the community and its importance for the individual in relation to the value placed on involvement with the group; the amount of early experiences of the person in relation to the conflict; and the nature, opportunities, and alternatives to joining the group. Other authors speak of two types of needs of people susceptible to being recruited: one refers to basic needs and relative privation, and the other to the needs of identity and personal fulfilment (Trujillo, Moyano, León, Valenzuela and González-Cabrera, 2006).

In the case of cults, different studies mention several psychological traits that future members seem to share, although without speaking truly of a profile. The question is whether these traits can also be shared by potential terrorists (Reinares, 2001). In this attempt at a comparison, we look below at some of these traits, which could presumably be common to both: one would be idealism, in which the romantic idea of the ability to transform society toward a destiny that is considered better exists; another, the altruistic willingness to devote oneself to working and fighting for what he/she understands will liberate or save the people or the community; and another, the capacity to submit oneself absolutely to this end with a certain transcendental quest; and, finally, perhaps also a degree of naivety and affective immaturity.

As far as the integration in society is concerned, coincidences can occur in terms of a feeling of clear dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the social reality experienced. One of the possible reasons for this dissatisfaction may arise from persons not having solid established ties of belonging to groups, which provide a consistent social identity (Stahelski, 2005) and being, thus, in a position to establish them. It would be in these cases where there may be more possibilities of success in proselytizing, including that carried out over the Internet (Gruen, 2006). This dissatisfaction with the social reality and the lack of solid ties of belonging may help to explain, for example, why young European sons of immigrants who have suffered from diverse forms of social exclusion and have experienced strong feelings of rootlessness and discontentment have joined Al Qaeda terrorist cells (Javaloy, Espelt, and Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2005).

Another very important factor to take into account in the bonding to terrorist groups, but not to cults, is the feelings of rejection, hate, and even revenge, which can be harboured by individuals toward the enemy through blaming it for the injustices, privations, or traumatic experiences that they have suffered, seen, or they assume to have been suffered by their people or friends and family (Merari, 2007; Post, 2006). An ex-member of the terrorist group GRAPO explains some of factors that encouraged him to join the group in the following terms: “ideologizing, immaturity, lack of understanding, fanaticism, the messianism, and the hate that can lead twenty-year-old youth on the road toward terrorism” (Novales, 1989, p. 238).

The diversity of cults and terrorist groups means that we must take with caution any generalization of their traits. When each group is analysed independently, it is more possible that there are some other common traits in the members that define them in terms of, for example, level of studies, socioeconomic level, or where they are from. When we look at a specific terrorist group, we find many ideological prior coincidences in its members, which in the case of a cult are not so evident, where there is usually more diversity in terms of ideological background. Herein lies an important difference between cults and terrorist groups. While the people who join a terrorist group share beforehand an ideology or doctrine (to some extent), those joining a cult usually have a greater ideological diversity of origin. This means that entering a cult involves an important and often radical ideological resocialization and change of habits and lifestyles, to the extent that we can talk of a process of conversion. However, the resocialization that entails joining a terrorist group especially affects habits and lifestyles, and represents a lower level of ideological transformation. If the terrorist group needs to some degree to guide, re-adapt, or indoctrinate ideologically the new member before he/she can form part of the group, this information will be a good indicator of the use of the mechanisms of recruitment and submission that is typical of cults.

Methods of Influence and Abuse Used by Groups

As has just been noted, both joining a terrorist group and a cult involve a process of resocialization, which usually has more importance in the case of cults because what is entailed is a full conversion to a new doctrine and way of life. It is also assumed that this phenomenon of conversion, which takes place in the cults we are looking at here, is a phenomenon that to a great extent is induced from the outside by the members of the cult itself, through the decisive influence they can have on the new member. Among terrorist groups, however, there are groups that are supplied by a reserve of possible candidates who have already been socialized in terms of ideology and militancy of a similar nature. This is the case of ETA, where the people who join up, in addition to having created their own corpus of ideals, have usually already passed through different prior stages that have brought them closer to the group, including probably the practice of psychological terrorism or violence of persecution toward those considered as enemies, along with involvement in street violence. That is, those who join a terrorist group usually undergo prior socialization, at least of an ideological and doctrinal type, in the social environment of the group, in what could be considered as the social base of the group, through social movements or doctrinal groups close to the thesis of the group itself. A question to be considered here is to what extent do these movements or doctrinal groups who are situated in the social or ideological base of the terrorist group act as agents of proselytism and recruitment for the group itself, which are more or less controlled and directed by this? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to investigate how these communicating vessels are formed in each case.

We shall now look at the role of terrorist groups in terms of their internal dynamics, rather than their acts of barbarity toward the exterior. We shall study whether to any extent terrorist groups employ strategies of psychological influence or abuse toward their members to encourage their recruitment and/or submission to the group, as is postulated in the case of cults. To this end, we shall follow a model proposed before for cults (Rodríguez-Carballeira, et al., 2005), which classifies into six types the strategies of psychological abuse or methods of group influence, which take on broad elements of control, manipulation and coercion, amongst others.


The strategy of maintaining the person isolated in his/her environment and maintaining as much direct contact as possible with the members of the group is one of the basic mechanisms by which cults establish their influence. Isolating subjects from their family environment, from their circle of friends, and from their network of social support is to put them in a situation of greater vulnerability and influence over them. This strategy carried out by some cults facilitates the process of resocialization of subjects with respect to their life, environment, and previous framework of reference, in order to then lead to a process of change and begin to resocialize them anew in the heart of the group (Schein, Schneier, and Barker, 1961).

In the case of terrorist groups we should distinguish between two scenarios of analysis: that which takes place prior to the subject joining the group, and that which occurs after joining. In the latter scenario, once the subject forms part of the group, he/she will be cocooned from society (at least psychologically), which will condition and limit all of his/her interaction with the exterior. Therefore, it is the group, in this climate of an isolated bubble, which has more ability to influence and determine his/her life, making it difficult for critical ideas to arise or for him/her to consider leaving or deserting the group.

If the analysis is centred on the scenario prior to the subject joining the terrorist group, it can be seen how the situation of isolation in most groups takes place gradually. In fact, in those groups with a clear social base from which most terrorists come, this social environment can already form a rather closed circle, with a radical ideology or doctrine that is generally of a minority character. Hence, those who grow up or are socialised in this environment do so in surroundings that tend toward ideological uniformity.

In fact, different studies show, as discussed by De la Corte et al. (2007), that a great many of the members of ETA, the Red Brigades, and the IRA are born and grow up in families that respectively belong to the Basque nationalist (Reinares, 2001; Romero, 2006), Irish catholic (Lee, 1983), and Italian left-wing traditions (Della Porta, 1990). In a study on Jihad groups, Sageman (2004) notes that friendship was the main cause of connection for 68% of members (as was the case with those involved in 11th September attacks in the United States and 11th March attacks in Madrid), while family relatives accounted for 14%. This data is a good example of what McCauley (2007) calls the “power of comrades” in contrast to the “power of the cause.” This power of comrades is a reflection that the initiative to bond new people to the group is often done by those who from inside attempt to contact and sign up other members; and they begin, as is logical, with those on whom they can exercise most influence: their relatives and friends. Moreover, relatives and friends can be most trusted to keep the secret of the offer from the security forces. This necessary clandestine nature of terrorist recruitment is an example of the situation of isolation and secretism in which the person contacted must decide, with it being very probable that the offer which he/she receives is neither neutral nor impartial, but which rather attempts to influence him/her with a line of argument that includes elements of coercive pressure, which will help/push him/her to take the step requested.

Control and Manipulation of Information

One of the strategies commonly employed by cults is the control over information reaching the member in an attempt to prevent him/her from having access to any contents that could make him/her question the bond. The intention is to make the cult itself the only source of reliable information for the member, and so have a monopoly on information, something that is more difficult to achieve if the person is not living in a community.

Life in any closed group often promotes this mechanism of security, which is aimed at members not being exposed to messages that question the postulates of the group; but it is not always easy to exercise this control. Because of this, terrorist groups often have their own communication bulletins (for example, ETA’s Zutabe) or send written or audiovisual communiqués, in part for internal consumption and for the guidance of their own bases, and in part to continue to terrorise the general public.

The strategy of prohibiting access to certain information or discrediting sources is connected with concealment. In these cults and terrorist groups, very few people know the real information about the group; and so the vast majority of members must place their faith in the information that arrives from the leadership and must take decisions on the basis of this information. A similar form of disinformation often takes place when one joins a cult, when roles inside the group are often concealed from new members, who are misled in their first impressions. In the case of terrorist groups the type of internal life to be led seems to be more predictable.

Control over Personal Life

When many of the objectives of the group are centred on its interior dynamics and on the type of life that the members of the community must lead, as occurs in cults, the control over multiple facets of the personal life of the subjects becomes a central method to be used in their submission. Economic aspects, activities, and the occupation of time, the suitability or not of behaviour, and even affective and sexual relations, among other things, are normally under the tutelage of the group (Rodríguez-Carballeira et al., 2005).

In the case of terrorist groups, degrees of control over their members, if they exist, are usually much less pronounced, more indirect, and necessarily more related to disciplined behaviour because of the type of activity involved. In addition, for the terrorist ideology, for the objectives sought, it is not as important for day-to-day life to concur exactly with the cause, as occurs with religious groups where the life itself of the members forms part of the desired objective. On another point, as terrorists do not, as a rule, live in a community, these tight controls are more difficult to enforce. However, in certain circumstances, such as life in prison, controls can reach very high levels. This was expressed in a testimony of a GRAPO member, referring to his leader, “Comrade Arenas,” who when faced with their economic difficulties: “blamed us for wasting a bar of soap, while, at the next table ... every day they drank fifteen or twenty bottles of beer from cellmates who either didn’t want them or deprived themselves of them out of shame” (Novales, 1989, p. 195).

The most profound expression of the ability of a group to control the individual has been clearly shown in the so-called “collective suicides” carried out by a range of cults. In the information and testimonies collected on the preparation of these acts, particularly with the group People’s Temple, it can be clearly seen how the leader persuades his subjects to take this step and how he gradually breaks down resistance on the part of some members, while a great majority cede to him this capacity to decide to put an end to their own lives and those of their young children (Osherow, 1981).

Whether or not each terrorist group chooses a greater or lesser level of risk for the life of its members when it carries out attacks, some groups have incorporated in their fight the method of the suicide attack, whether this is a single member or a whole command, as occurred in the singular case of 11th September in the United States. The activist who commits suicide by attacking the enemy attains the apex of dedication to the cause, taking to its final conclusion his or her commitment. The option of suicide in this case seems to be related, not so much with the specific pressure of the group (as occurs in cults), but rather with the type of beliefs of certain groups, such as Islamists, who incorporate into their religious ideology a strong sense of transcendence that enables them to surrender their own life as they seek a better future life for their community, with, moreover, the subject himself receiving a generous reward in the afterlife.

Emotional Abuse

Some of the most well-known strategies of cults, such as the intensification of positive emotions, the demand for enthusiastic devotion, or even the manipulation of the feeling of blame and the need to confess any deviation, are in principle not very common amongst the terrorist groups. However, coercive forms used with those who dare to criticise, dissent, or consider leaving the group are in fact similar. As such groups demand total devotion, when a member questions them or seeks a personal escape, the group tends to aggressively employ contempt, humiliation, or rejection toward the dissident when not resorting to intimidation or crude threats.

Both threats and punishment function as efficient methods of control. Because of this, both cults and terrorist groups can resort to high levels of cruelty in their use of such controls, while also seeking to make an example of dissident members. The case of Yoyes should be remembered here. Yoyes was an ex-member of ETA who was murdered by her old comrades in order to demonstrate, above all to the rest of the militants, that they could not leave the group, that their commitment had to be total, and that any attempt to leave in this way could cost them their lives.

Indoctrination in a System of Absolute and Manichean Beliefs

The two types of groups analysed here, at least in their most radical forms, coincide in that the ideology or doctrine on which each is based is made up of a system of beliefs that gives an absolutist character and that is sustained in a fanatical fashion by its militants. This means that the members of the group claim to be in possession of the truth (Centner, 2003), making the famous axiom of “the end justifies the means” their own, situating their objectives and their truth above the people and the law. It is evident that its absolutist and dogmatic nature can vary in each cult and in each terrorist group, and therefore it is necessary to establish degrees. Among the terrorist groups, those of a religious character, such as Al Qaeda, show most genuinely the belief in an absolute, in a dogma that enables them to legitimise their actions.

A key element to discuss here is how this degree of fanaticism is reached. In cults it is understood that this intensive indoctrination is carried out by the cult on the followers whom it has managed to recruit for its cause. However, in terrorist groups the job of indoctrination is less important or is merely necessary in terms of ideological socialization, as at least during the early stages the job is carried out by the social base or environment that supports the beliefs of the group. Some characteristic elements of political mobilization of this environment may contribute to facilitating identification with the doctrine and its application; for example, the presence of identifying symbols and a certain aesthetic or dress style, flags, anthems, or tributes to released prisoners or dead terrorists, as is frequently the case in the social environment surrounding ETA (Echeburúa and Corral, 2004).

Nevertheless, some terrorist groups do employ specific systems of ideological indoctrination on new members. This was the case with Shining Path, which, together with weapons training, also politically indoctrinated new members in its so-called “people’s schools” before sending them out to form specific attack cells (Switzer, 2007).

Imposition of Single and Unquestionable Authority

An important difference between cults and terrorist groups lies in the exercise of the role of leadership. In cults, the authority of a leader (dead or alive) is imposed absolutely, and is afforded special, even divine, qualities or powers. The leader is also in most cases the creator of the doctrine followed by the group. Terrorist groups do not usually afford their leadership such special characteristics (Centner, 2003), with the function of leadership being occupied by the ideology and beliefs that the group represents.

Terrorist groups with a strong charismatic leadership are more likely to adopt the strategies of cults. An example is that of Shining Path, over which Abimael Guzmán, self-proclaimed “President Gonzalo,” exercised a leadership similar to that of a cult (Centner, 2003), to the extent that after his arrest and imprisonment, the group lost its way and began to significantly transform itself. According to the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (2003), his followers had the “absolute belief that their maximum leader was the saviour of Peru and the world.”

Discussion and Conclusions

Studying terrorist groups from the point of view of a cult provides a fresh psychosocial perspective by focusing our gaze on the particular internal dynamics of atypical groups in order to try to analyse the characteristics they have in common and those that are distinct.

Both cults and terrorist groups are complex, and it is difficult to define them or make generalisations about their characteristics, as there is often a great deal of diversity of elements and conditions within each category. Despite this there is an inherent element that unites them: This is the use of different forms of violence and abuse as a strategic means to achieving their objectives. In both cases they become organisations that violate human rights; in particular, people’s rights to physical and/or psychological integrity.

It has been seen that there are important points of intersection between both types of groups, with specific variations occurring that can bring cults or terrorist groups closer together. Likewise, although we cannot talk of exact psychological profiles in either of the two cases, it can be said that the members of both groups can share some personal characteristics. Indeed, as the people involved do not have clear and specific profiles, the interaction occurring between the person, the group, and the social context becomes even more interesting, leading to the psychosocial construction of a fanatical militant.

As a radical expression of this fanaticism, it can be seen that both cult followers and terrorists have been prepared, in some cases, to commit suicide for their cause and have carried this out. In the case of terrorists, they are often from Islamist environments typified by a “culture of the martyrdom.” Among the personal characteristics that identify them, following Merari (2007), we should highlight the fact of their having received indoctrination, in this sense, having lived through traumatic experiences close at hand that could be blamed on the enemy and that could generate feelings of revenge; and a way of their leaving a public testimony of their personal commitment (in the form of letters or video recordings).

As far as the bonding to the group is concerned, the terrorist group, in particular, is nourished by people from its social base through a process of interpersonal interaction in which the key lies in the network of contacts. This explains why terrorist groups often include many people with family ties and with ties of friendship prior to joining the group, as also occurs in cults, although the established network is less extensive. If ties of friendship are generally an important factor in joining social movements, these become particularly important and strong in the case of clandestine organizations in which it is also essential to develop a strong degree of group cohesion (Javaloy, Rodríguez-Carballeira, and Espelt, 2001).

It seems rather clear that, without an active recruitment plan, terrorist groups would find it difficult to attract new members. Nevertheless, a terrorist group can go through stages of greater social support during which potential candidates approach their doors, with what we could even describe as a top-to-bottom link (Sageman, 2004), as seems to have taken place with certain Jihadist cells. One small difference between them lies in the fact that while some groups need a specific recruitment campaign, others have a larger social base, which already socialises the subjects in ideas that are very close to those of the group. This may be the case of certain madrasahs or mosques in which pupils are indoctrinated in the Jihad, or even the case of an autonomous group of friends who study together in this direction, making use of documents and exchanges available on certain Web pages. This is why bonds in both terrorist groups and cults must be assessed on a case-by-case basis in order to ascertain the degree of autonomy of the subject in the process, or, in contrast, the level of indoctrination with more or less coercive methods.

When one looks at life inside closed dogmatic groups, such as terrorists and cults, it can be seen that the people involved on many occasions undergo experiences of a strong emotional intensity that would be very difficult to encounter in everyday life, as is stressed by Galanter and Forest (2006) when they look at the group The Supreme Truth. This intensity can be described in colloquial terms thus: If, in the pursuit of a series of extraordinary (no ordinary) objectives, a series of extraordinary means is used, the resulting experiences must necessarily be extraordinary, and, of course, the people involved in them must believe themselves to be extraordinary people. Indeed, going from a high level of dissatisfaction with one’s life and social environment to a struggle on the edge of heroism represents unquestionably extraordinary transformation.

The strong social identity that provides membership to such exclusive groups is what serves to mark out the limits of the group, permitting a clear categorisation between the in-group to which they belong and the out-group. For the cult, the out-group is formed generically by all those persons who do not belong to it; for the terrorists, the fundamental out-group is formed by those considered as the enemy of their cause.

Nevertheless, certain groups can consider all nonmembers as enemies of their cause, as Osama Bin Laden indicated when he declared war between “Islam and the infidels” or between the “Islamic Nation and the rest of the world,” exemplifying this simplistic dichotomist structure typical of fanatical thought (Rodríguez-Carballeira and Javaloy, 2005).

This separation between the in-group and the out-group enables the Manichean dichotomy to be created between us and them, this being understood as the good and the bad. Beyond representing the features of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination (Tajfel, 1978), the glorification of the in-group in these groups is clearly cultivated; and, particularly among terrorists, the rejection of the out-group, which is blamed for all the ills against which the terrorists are fighting, is fostered. In the terrorist group, once the enemy has been clearly identified as the cause of “all” ills, the feelings of rejection, hate, and even revenge toward this community allow the people who form part of it to be dehumanised (an example is the ETA custom of labelling the people who work as police officers as dogs). If the people of the enemy group are no longer seen as people, and are instead seen as mere representative objects of Evil that must be fought, they are using the logic that it is possible to kill without suffering pangs of conscience, through a process that Bandura (1999) calls “moral disengagement.”

This construction of a Manichean dichotomy between the in-group and the out-group, and the terrible consequences that can arise from this, are good examples of the important parallel or point of intersection between the internal dynamics of cults and terrorist groups, and they invite more in-depth studies in this line of research, which may improve on our knowledge of both types of phenomena.


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Keywords: Terrorism, terrorist groups, cults, violence, psychological abuse.


This study has been carried out in the framework of the research project co-financed by the Ministry of Education and Science and FEDER funds with code SEJ2007-61957.

The original Spanish-language version of this article © 2009 by Fundación Infancia y Aprendizaje, ISSN: 0213-4748 Revista de Psicología Social, 2009, 24(2), 183–195. Translated with permission.

About the Primary Author

Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Psychology, Social Movements, and Legal Psychology at the University of Barcelona (Spain). From 1999 to2008 he was Director of the Social Psychology Department. During the 1980s, before and after a 1985 internship at ICSA, he worked with families and victims affected by cult membership. He then worked as a professor at the University of Barcelona, where he completed a doctoral dissertation in 1991 on psychology of coercive persuasion. During recent years he has extended this line of research, linking it to other contexts (e.g., domestic, work, school) where manipulation and psychological violence may occur. His publications include the book, El Lavado de Cerebro: Psicología de la Persuasión Coercitiva. (Brainwashing: Psychology of Coercive Persuasion).