Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

The Global Jihad as Cult: Implications for Threat Assessment

Yael Shahar

Abstract: It has been noted that terrorist groups likely to employ extreme measures to create mass casualties, such as weapons of mass destruction, are those that fit the profile of the apocalyptic religious cult. This paper examines the Global Jihad network as a kind of hybrid terrorist entity which combines elements of the apocalyptic cult with the strategy and tactics of the traditional “leaderless resistance.” This characterization is then analyzed in terms of its implications for the potential use of non-conventional terrorism.



Even before the watershed attacks of September 11, 2001 it was recognized that terrorism was undergoing radical changes in motivation and structure. Terror attacks were, in general, becoming more lethal. This went hand-in-hand with a shift in the underlying motives of the terrorist organizations themselves. The organizations active in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly secular organizations with clearly defined political objectives. Their attacks were calculated to create sufficient casualties to produce shock value, to gain media attention, and to coerce a target population to alter its political views. However, these organizations were cognizant of the fact that too much bloodshed would only alienate their prospective supporters, and could lead to a backlash or otherwise undermine their cause. As famously noted by terrorism expert Brian Jenkins: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead.”[1]

From the early 1990s, a change could be seen in the overall strategies of terrorism. Rather than merely killing enough to call attention to political demands, the modern terrorist is interested in mass-casualty attacks. He no longer wants to influence political processes alone; his goal may include the creation a completely new political reality. An analysis of recent chronologies shows that terrorist attacks have a much greater probability of resulting in death or injury than did those of the previous three decades.

The many terrorist bombings since the September 11 attacks have shown beyond doubt that this trend continues. Of the many attacks thwarted in the United States and Europe in recent years, almost all were meant to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

This trend toward higher-casualty attacks reflects, in part, the changing motivation of the terrorists. Today’s terrorist is much more likely to be driven by extremist religious beliefs than by a wish to gain political concessions; the al-Qaida network is a prime example of this trend. The aim of such groups is to win converts among potential supporters, to intimidate potential enemies, and to punish actual enemies.

While the traditional terrorist attack was a means to an end—a way to induce a desired response in the targeted population—the religiously-motivated terrorist of the new mode sees the act as an end in itself. The terror attack is meant to bring the war to the enemy, and, in some cases, is seen as a religious act in and of itself.

The rise of religiously-motivated terrorism has been accompanied by a rise in suicide attacks. This is particularly true of extremist Islamist terrorism, where the image of the suicide bomber, or “Shahid,” carries great power and prestige. Meanwhile, the shift in motivation has been accompanied by a change in the structure and make-up of the terrorist organizations themselves. Gone, for the most part, are the days of clearly delineated, hierarchically-organized terrorist groups. Today’s terrorist organization is more likely to be a network of loosely connected cells, bound by a common ideology, than a rigid military-style hierarchy with a clear-cut political goal. While the hierarchies of leadership still do exist, the modern terrorist can act with much greater autonomy than ever before. Furthermore, the threat may well come from the “grassroots level”—from small cells made up of radical young people with no connection to any official organization.

Lacking a rigid political agenda with its concomitant constraints, the modern terrorist is bound only by a unifying religious or apocalyptic ideology. He need no longer worry about alienating prospective supporters, or eliciting “bad press” for his organization’s cause; the cause is sanctioned by God, and thus justifies any means used.

Bruce Hoffman has pointed out that religious and secular terrorists differ not only in their motivation and goals but also in their constituencies. Secular terrorists “attempt to appeal to a constituency variously composed of actual and potential sympathizers, members of the communities they purport to ‘defend,’ or the aggrieved people they claim to speak for.” Religious terrorists on the other hand see themselves as being their own constituency. “They execute their terrorist acts for no audience but themselves.”[2] This has serious implications in terms of the acts that such terrorists are willing to carry out.

“Moreover, this absence of a constituency in the secular terrorist sense leads to a sanctioning of almost limitless violence against a virtually openended category of targets—that is, anyone who is not a member of the terrorists’ religion or religious sect.”[3]


II.   The Global Jihad as Cult

All of the changes discussed above illustrate why the traditional model of the terrorist organization has been of little help in describing the Global Jihad movement. However, one model that does show some promise in mapping the new terrorism is that of the apocalyptic cult. At first glance, this may sound like an odd statement. After all, in contrast to the trend toward the unstructured, non-hierarchical, leaderless structure of many newer terrorist groups, cults retain a rigidly hierarchical structure, based upon a charismatic leader. While this characteristic is not shared by the Global Jihad, many of the other defining factors of the cult are. In fact, many the groups currently ascribing to the global jihad ideology incorporate aspects of the “leaderless” ideologically-driven religious organization with cult-like obedience to a charismatic leader.

The following factors have been used at various times to characterize violent religious cults:


  • Active Apocalyptic or Messianic Ideology– Apocalyptic beliefs that require the believer to take positive action to bring about a cataclysmic change in history. The movement’s members see themselves as essential players in a cosmic drama. They feel that their action is needed to pave the way for the victory of the forces of good over evil.
  • Demonization of Outsiders – believers feel that their salvation and the victory of the forces of good depend on the eradication of their enemies. The profound xenophobia of such movements leads them to demonize all those outside of the movement. The group is always anticipating confrontation, which justifies action to eliminate evil and eradicate enemies.
  • Extreme Paranoia – The belief that the movement is under constant or imminent attack by outside forces can lead them to justify violent action against perceived enemies.
  • Charismatic Leadership – Although many extremist groups adhere to a leaderless structure, the presence of a “prophetic” personality can add to the potential for violence by an extremist movement.
  • Absolute control over member’s beliefs – Extreme movements can exhibit a dangerous control over the morality and inhibitions of their movement’s adherents. The creed of the movement takes the place of external belief systems, thus insulating their members from the influence of broader social constraints.
  • Moral and physical isolation – An extreme movement is demonstrably more dangerous when its members live in physical isolation from the surrounding society. This isolation fosters, and feeds on, the belief that the movement’s followers are above the laws of society. The movement’s own social code is established as the basis of all acceptable behavior. Its members operate in a social vacuum where there is a relative absence of normal institutionalized restraints to curb their whims. This isolation also increases the dependency of the movement’s members on their leader and/or the social structure of the movement.
  • Arms acquisition – Violence plays a major role in the ideology of many extremist movements. This, together with paranoia and xenophobia can cause a movement to live in expectation of violent conflict with outside forces. Such a belief generally leads to the hoarding of arms and preparation of defenses against attack from without.


It can be seen that virtually all of these characteristics apply to al-Qaida and its affiliated groups. Like the violent religious cults of the past, al-Qaida has made effective use of the techniques of a cult or secret society in order to command absolute loyalty and submission from its followers. That loyalty is then channeled into a purely religious campaign of sweeping scope, the declared goal of which is the forceful conversion of the entire world to its extreme version of Islam, and the extermination of any who stand in its way.

The motivations of the terrorist organization, considered as a “living organism”, are not necessarily those of the individual recruit. In fact, once an organization reaches a certain size, the core motivations tend to diverge dramatically. Here too, al-Qaida’s use of group psychology has more in common with the dynamics typical of a cult than a political organization.

Both Ideology and the appeal to root causes (the “root cause narrative”) are vehicles for recruiting, motivating, and manipulating the organization’s cadre. But the organization as a whole will invariably play by other rules. It is motivated by survival, pure and simple. And organizations, like living creatures, are quite creative when it comes to survival. If one set of grievances plays out, or is addressed in such a way as to no longer serve as a motivator, then the organization will face a concrete threat to its existence. It will either have to find a new set of grievances, accept dissolution, or mutate into a different type of organization.

Hizballah, for example, has proved very adept at using the first strategy—so much so that it’s become a cliché in Lebanese political satire. In other cases, an organization at this juncture will jettison the ideology entirely; dependant as it is on the “root cause” narrative for its emotive power. When that happens, the organization will degenerate into a criminal network—the same modus operandi minus the ideology. A classic case of this is Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, though some of the left-wing European groups of the 1970s also come to mind.

Al-Qaida has managed to avoid the need to choose either of these alternatives by espousing goals that, by their nature, are unattainable and open-ended. In essence, these goals become not only the desired end product of action, but a means in themselves; “the end is the means.” This has lead to a kind of ends/means propagation affect; Al-Qaida has become a generator of terrorist groups. When pressured, the organization splits off segments, or seeds, which grow into semi-autonomous operations with a common ideology.


A.   Virtual communities as training camps

To understand what has facilitated this strange merger of cult-like psychology with traditional leaderless resistance strategy and tactics, we need look no farther than the symbiosis of al-Qaida and the internet. It is no secret that terrorists are using the Internet. Nor is there anything new and surprising in this; Terrorists use the net for the same reasons—and in the same ways—that we all use the net: for marketing; for communications, command and control; for intelligence gathering; fund-raising and a host of other activities.

However, it can be argued that without the Internet al-Qaida would not exist as a global entity. Without the Internet, the Global Jihad would be just the “Local” Jihad—isolated cells that claim common historical roots. The network of Global Jihad is a product of the communications revolution. Unlike the terrorist organizations of the past, al-Qaida not only has a presence online, but in some senses has its primary existence online.

It has been observed that electronic media can provide a substitute for face-to-face group membership.[4] For many—particularly the younger generation—various forms of interpersonal interaction over the Internet can act as an acceptable substitute for face-to-face socialization; and as these Internet-mediated forms of interaction are interactive, they can constitute a genuine form of social interaction.[5]

A survey of terrorist websites shows that while some terrorists groups employ static, linear web architecture, with little viewer interaction, the web presence of the Global Jihad is intensely interactive. This web presence includes interactive forums and discussion boards, venues to download and upload videos, graphic and audio files, and online question-and-answer services were members can get advice on religious or political issues. In short, these sites help to build a sense of community for their members, allowing members to belong to an entity greater than themselves, independent of geography or local circumstances. This community in fact satisfies four of the criteria defined by sociologists as essential to the sense of community:[6]


  1. Feelings of membership: Feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community;
  2. Feelings of influence: Feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community;
  3. Integration and fulfillment of needs: Feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them; and
  4. Shared emotional connection: Feelings of relationships, shared history, and a “spirit” of community.


The online Global Jihad community has served to radicalize its constituency far in excess of what would have been the case in the era of print media. This is in part due to the way virtual communities affect immigrant populations. Don Radlauer, in a study of how online communities support radicalization, noted the following factors: [7]


  1. In the past, immigrants were effectively isolated from their former countries, and thus faced a high degree of pressure to adopt the values, habits, and assumptions of their host society. The Internet has eliminated much of this isolation, and thus considerably reduced the informational and social pressures leading to assimilation.
  2. Virtual communities allow small and geographically diffuse groups to maintain and promote their ideological/informational framework undeterred and undetected by outsiders. This can lead to the fragmentation of society. The “fractal” nature of virtual communities allows this fragmentation to continue almost without limit, profoundly weakening the influence of the “mainstream”.
  3. By weakening bonds with a local community, membership in a virtual community may permit a loss of normal empathy and inhibitions against killing one’s neighbors.
  4. Virtual communities allow unobtrusive “lurking” – meaning that people can gravitate towards an online community, read what others write, and yet not have to contribute themselves. The implication is that “lurking” allows a sort of multi-level recruitment strategy for online communities that for all practical purposes doesn’t exist for “real” social groupings.
  5. People live vicariously on the internet and so they develop the ability to lead a double life. This enhances their alienation and isolation from their host communities. Internet-based virtual communities have a degree of freedom from local observation lacking in ordinary “street-corner” gatherings.
  6. Because virtual communities are idea-based rather than based on geography or family relationships, they may have a tendency towards escalating extremism. In general, successful social entities are those which act to strengthen and perpetuate themselves. In political virtual communities, this “success strategy” leads to a deepening of commitment and extremism - since extremism encourages intra-group solidarity and renders group members increasingly impervious to contrary sources of information.


B.   Organizational Structure

All of these factors support the increasing isolation of the potential jihadi from his surroundings, and this isolation grows as he comes to rely solely on the virtual jihadi community for inspiration and information. The gradual nature of this dependency is consistent with the way cults lead their members through a series of gradual changes in identity in order to build loyalty and cut the member off from his or her past.

In addition, this online presence is uniquely suited to al-Qaida’s organizational structure. Al-Qaida’s organizational chart has mutated considerably with its metastasis into a mass movement. While the organization did at one time have a hierarchical leadership structure at its highest echelons, this has largely been replaced by an organizational chart drawn in concentric circles. Each circle represents an increasing level of “initiation” into the organization’s secrets, as well as increasing authority over the organization’s resources. What is unique about such a structure is the fact that each circle is in effect a separate and independent organization, with its own rules, its own goals, and its own constituency.

The outermost circle consists of people with only a casual interest in the society’s goals. These are often “lurkers” on Islamist forums. The primary target of Jihadis online propaganda are second or third generation Muslim immigrants, who feel disenfranchised in their home countries. Researcher Jerrold Post has pointed out that many of those who rise in al-Qaida’s ranks to become active members tend to fit the profile of people who under other circumstances might joint cults:

“The most disturbing aspect about the Al Qaeda members is how normal they appear, when in fact they all fit the profile of the ‘true believer,’ an individual whose low self-esteem and confusion push him to seek refuge within a charismatic mass movement. It’s the fitting of the fragmented persona of a true believer into a group identity that benefits the organization. Once that’s in place, the terrorist can be aimed like a missile.[8]

Because penetration into the innermost circles is accomplished via an elaborate process of initiation, the loyalty of the inner echelons is ensured. This of course makes the organization especially resistant to penetration by outside forces. And because the organization’s internal mechanisms are hidden from view, it is difficult to achieve a clear picture of the organization’s planning without such penetration. It has been pointed out that such a structure is more resilient than a pyramidal hierarchy of similar size; any attack on the structure serves to consolidate power towards the center, enhancing the authority of the leadership. In contrast, an attack on a pyramidal leadership structure, if carried out against the midlevel echelons, can undermine the authority of the leadership.

The virtual communities allow Jihadi ideologues to identify potential recruits through an evangelical religious program. Some of these potential recruits will ultimately become freelance operatives, financial supporters or simply sympathizers. These people form the outer circle of Jihad supporters, consisting of casual helpers and interested parties. Often, these individuals will never move deeper into the group.

Those demonstrating a deeper commitment may be directed to online resources, which serve as a kind of “open university of terrorism.” The mastery of these resources serves as a kind of initiation into a deeper level of activity. At this level, the recruit will be contacted by members of the organization with operational experience, who will further test the candidate’s level of knowledge and commitment. With each such test passed, the candidate is led further into the organization. However, his knowledge of the workings of the organization will still be confined to his own circle.

At some point in the recruitment process, the candidate will be introduced to operatives on the ground, who will begin his operational training. While this stage would at one time have required the candidate to undergo training at a remote training base in Afghanistan or Pakistan, in several recent cases, training is provided in the candidate’s local community, either at a neutral venue, a safe house, or even in the candidate’s own home.

This training provides yet a further level of initiation. Its goal is not only to provide operational training, but to isolate the recruit further from his local community. By breaking his ties to his surroundings, he is led to rely more heavily on his trainers for advice, information, and emotional support. This is a classic cult technique, separating potential recruits from family and friends, moving them into an insular community with few outsider influences and strictly controlled communication with the outer world. The end product of such training is a recruit who can be trusted to aid the organization in everything from reconnaissance to the actual perpetration of terrorist attacks.

Very few recruits will graduate to the innermost circle of al-Qaida. For its part, the organization is not particularly dependent on its higher echelons for day-to-day activities. Because each circle is autonomous, the Global Jihad movement is effective at self-maintenance at every level. What’s more, because of their “fractal” nature, each level effectively duplicates the leadership functions, if not its structure.

All these gradations of knowledge and authority, combined with the specific training and initiation techniques, are similar to the ways religious cults manipulate their members. The training regimen applied to members entering each circle is designed to create specific mental conditions that bind recruits more and more completely to the cult.

Robert Lifton, an expert in cult psychology, outlined three defining characteristics of a cult in a 1981 article for The Harvard Mental Health Letter:[9]


  1. A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. Coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.


Although Al-Qaida has increasingly spawned a culture of “leaderless resistance,” Osama bin Ladin has continued to fulfill a nominal leadership role. This role is that of mythical personality who serves as a focus of reverence and inspiration. The nature of this role is such that whether Osama lives or dies is irrelevant; in fact, as a figure for adulation, his effectiveness would probably be even greater as a martyr.

While exploitation in al-Qaida takes on a more subtle aspect than is often the case with cults, this element has its expression in the use of suicide bombers to carry out its aims. But it is in its use of “coercive persuasion” that al-Qaida’s practices can best be seen to resemble that of traditional cults. According to Lifton, coercive persuasion includes the following elements:


  1. Milieu control: Controlling every aspect of the initiate’s environment. The cult completely controls the setting under which indoctrination is performed, in the complete absence of outside influences.
  2. Mystical manipulation (planned spontaneity): The instigation of a mystical-style experience through “religious techniques such as fasting, chanting and limited sleep.” Such elements can be seen in a document found in Mohammed Atta’s luggage in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The hijackers were instructed to prepare themselves by chanting specific verses from the Koran late into the night.
  3. Demand for purity: Lifton calls this “a call for radical separation of good and evil within the environment and within oneself.” Al-Qaida’s foundation ideology grew out of the al Takfir Wal Hijra (“excommunication and emigration”) movement. In its original incarnation, this was a separatist movement that demanded its followers remove themselves entirely from the corrupt secular world.
  4. Purification: The document in Atta’s luggage also contained detailed instructions on this topic. “Purify your soul from all unclean things,” it exhorted in Arabic. “Completely forget something called ‘this world.’ The time for play is over and the serious time is upon us.”


Steve Dubrow-Eichel an expert on the psychology of cults, notes that cult fanatics “sound strikingly like hygienists, who seek to ‘clean’ or ‘sanitize’ an environment.”[10] He concludes, “The actions necessary for ‘hygiene’ and ‘health’ then become logical as well as obvious: Destroy that which causes or encourages disease. To the hygienist, that means destroying germs and their breeding grounds.” Ultimately this mindset may lead to “destroying ‘diseased’ people,” because as Dubrow-Eichel explains, “they are all capable of infecting those who would otherwise become or remain ‘pure.’”


C.   Training and Indoctrination

Margaret Singer, the author of “Cults in Our Midst,” outlined six conditions that can create and mold a destructive cult mindset.[11]

1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.

Like most militant movements. Al-Qaida makes use of a system of shadow entities to ensure that untested recruits have only limited access. Traditionally, a system of training camps allowed the recruit to be gradually drawn deeper into the organization, through a graduated series of tests. This not only kept the recruit unaware of the extent to which his worldview was being reworked but also allowed the organization to assess the recruit’s level of commitment at each stage.

Today, this system of training camps has largely given way in al-Qaida’s outer circle to a host of jihadist internet communities. While the training camps, located in Iraq, Chechnya, and other conflict zones still do play a role for the inner circles. The outer circles where potential recruits and supporters first meet al-Qaida and its ideology are now dominated by jihadist forums and chat rooms.

2. Control the person’s time and, if possible, physical environment.

Al Qaida training camps served to ensure that each recruit’s time was monopolized and the environment carefully controlled. Virtual communities play a similar role, by becoming resources on which the potential recruit is encouraged to rely more and more heavily, to the exclusion of outside information sources.

3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.

Recruits were traditionally taught that Muslims were under attack and Islam itself was in endangered. While the training camp allowed the organization to instill the proper attitude in the recruit through direct indoctrination, internet forums provide a more subtle form of instilling fear. Using rhetoric and graphic photos, video and verbal accounts of real, perceived and claimed acts of violence, degradation and humiliation carried out upon Muslim populations, these terrorist groups construct a narrative of “Islam under attack”.

Psychologist Anne Speckhard has documented how Islamists inculcate a sense of communal outrage by building on trauma.[12] In conflict zones, their work is expedited by the presence of potential recruits with actual traumatic experience that can be exploited. In order to do the same in non-conflict zones, they use the internet and its ability to form community to induce secondary trauma through pictures, video clips, etc. By bombarding their viewers with a series of atrocity videos and photos, a sense of trauma and outrage is induced. The viewer gradually comes to see himself as belonging to a group that is under attack from all sides by powerful enemies.

4. Suppress much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes.

It is common for the recruit to be isolated from his former circle in order to undergo more intensive training. Gradually, he is induced to cut his ties to his previous life. A particularly potent symbol of this break with the past is the “martyr’s video,” a videotaped statement in which the recruit records his last will and testament. Such a statement marks a point of no-return for the recruit, who has psychologically isolated himself from his past.


5. Instill new behavior and attitudes.

The break with the past leaves a vacuum which the organization strives to fill with its own disciplines. Conversion to radical Islam frequently entails the voluntary assumption of a new and strenuous lifestyle. For recruits from Western countries, this in itself serves to isolate them further from their past and emphasizes that they are “reborn” into a new reality.

6. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.

This is perhaps the most crucial element in the cult recruitment cycle. The closed system of logic advocated by radical Jihadis is internally consistent and is self-referential. Any dissenting view is discounted by virtue of its dissent. It is an absolute worldview with no intersection with an outside frame of reference.

Summing up, Jihadists use the internet not only to draw the potential recruit into this worldview but also to give the recruit a sense of belonging to an inner circle of those who are privy to higher truths. Jihadists invoke strong ties of allegiance among Muslims worldwide—ties that are stronger than, and claim greater loyalties upon their members, than do national or any other allegiances. Making use of strong graphic imagery and slogans these terrorist groups also induce a type of secondary traumatization in those they manage to engage, causing them to respond with fear, helplessness and horror. These invoked traumatic responses coupled with the suggested subjective familial identifications with the victims are then manipulated into a type of righteous anger by a train of logic supported by widely held tenets of Islam which call for the defense of women and children, the defense of Islam itself, and for the establishment—even by violent means—of a state of social justice.

D.   The Us-and-Them Mentality

Perhaps the most pervasive sign of the cult mentality is the division of the world into two camps along stark lines of good vs. evil. As Dubrow-Eichel observed in his discussion of the cultists obsession with “purity,” the cult employs an “‘us vs. them” language to divide the world in a polarized manner between that-which-promotes-health vs. that-which-causes-illness.

Al Qaida’s way toward such a division was smoothed by the already fairly stark division of the world into Dar el-Harb, the World of the Sword and Dar el-Islam, the World of Islam, common to the Islamist worldview. Bruce Hoffman noted that modern religious terrorism adopts a rhetoric of polarization and xenophobia in its division of the world into “us and them.”

Thus, the rhetoric common to “holy terror” manifestos describes persons outside the terrorists’ religious community in denigrating and dehumanizing terms such as, “infidels,” “nonbelievers,” “children of Satan,” and “mud people.” The deliberate use of such adjectives to condone and justify terrorism is significant, in that it further erodes the constraints on violence and bloodshed by portraying the terrorists’ victims as either “sub-human” or “unworthy” of living. [13]

Nor does the Global Jihad distinguish between military personnel and civilians. Bin Ladin made this clear in a statement circulated to his supporters on videotape in November 2001, “Those who talk about civilians should change their stand and reconsider their position. We are treating them like they treated us.”[14]

Al-Qaida received a degree of religious support for its position through a fatwah by leading Saudi cleric May 2003 which provides official justification for the killing of “infidels” via non-conventional weapons. Nasser bin Hamed al-Fahd, a prominent Saudi Salafi scholar, approved the use of weapons of mass destruction against America. He also based his indictment on the principle of retaliation, but argued that Muslims have the right to kill ten million Americans in response to the crimes of their government against the Muslim nation.[15]

This is significant because al-Qaida’s leadership has been at pains to show that the organization adheres to a strict application of Islamic principles and works within the limits of what is permissible by Islamic law. Shaykh al-Fahd’s fatwah has removed any religious constraints that might have stood in the way of waging an all-out war of extermination against al-Qaida’s enemies.

The next generation of Al-Qaida ideologues, such as Mustafa Sit Maryam Nassar, aka Abu Musab al-Suri, have also advocated the use of WMD capabilities from purely tactical considerations. In “the International Islamic Resistance Call,” a voluminous manual for Jihad, al-Suri argues that the Jihad must set the acquisition of WMD capabilities among its long-term goals.


III.   Implications for Threat Assessment

What implications can be drawn from al-Qaida’s cult-like characteristics? The most obvious point of note is in the implications for al-Qaida’s use of non-conventional terrorism. Generally speaking, the threat of terrorists using non-conventional substances to carry out an attack is much lower than the threat of the same group using conventional explosives, or other fairly low-tech means. At the same time, the consequences of non-conventional terrorism are thought to be too high to relegate it to a lower place on the totem pole of potential threats; non-conventional terrorism is thus classed as a low-risk/high-consequence threat.

Based on a database of non-conventional incidents maintained by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, Jonathan B. Tucker and Amy Sands carried out a survey of historical incidents in which non-conventional agents were used by terrorists.[16] They compiled a database of 520 global CBW incidents that occurred between 1900 and May 1999. These incidents included hoaxes, plots, efforts to acquire toxic materials, proven possession of materials, and actual attacks.

Their analysis found that, “Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the catastrophic nature of chemical and biological terrorism, actual attacks were few in number, small in scale, and generally produced fewer casualties than conventional bombs.”

What can we learn from this historical survey? To begin with, the analysis shows that if historical precedent is any guide toward future threats, there is a very real gap between reality and hype with regard to the consequences of non-conventional terrorism. Virtually every past incidence of non-conventional terrorism involved fewer casualties than could have been achieved using conventional explosives. This was not only a due to the nature of the materials used but was also a reflection of the difficulties in effectively deploying these materials.

The conclusions drawn by the authors of the Monterey study was that non-conventional means were most likely to be used by groups motivated by religious fanaticism, supremacist or anti-government ideology, or millenarian prophecy. These groups were those that were cut off from any mainstream constituency and were often possessed of a paranoid, conspiratorial worldview.

Such individuals and groups may view chemical or biological terrorism as a means to destroy a corrupt social structure, to fulfil an apocalyptic prophecy, to exact revenge against evil-doers or oppressors, or as a form of “defensive aggression” against outsiders seen as threats to the group’s survival. [17]

John Parachini, a specialist in non-conventional terrorism at the Monterey Institute, mentions six characteristics that could be used as indicators that a terrorist group would be inclined to use non-conventional materials: “charismatic leadership, no external constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, a sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defense aggression.” Parachini further notes: “Of these six characteristics, the two that were present in all of the cases of actual CBW use warrant thorough examination: no outside constituency and a sense of paranoia and grandiosity.”[18]

Parachini notes: “All of these behavioral traits served to melt away the normal social restraints that keep people for employing chemical and biological weapons to get their way in the world.[19] Speaking of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Parachini says:

The sense of paranoia caused group members to act impulsively with little regard for the consequences of their actions. The sense of grandiosity allowed members to believe they could survive any adverse physical or social implications of their actions. Perceiving themselves as superior, they believed themselves above the earthly implications of causing indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Moreover, by inflicting mass death on others they affirmed in their minds their power and superiority. This is a very dangerous, self-reinforcing cycle.[20]

Traditionally, the characteristics outlined by Parachini apply in particular to apocalyptic and fanatical religious cults. These characteristics are, by and large, alien to the traditional “political” terrorist organizations, which were far more likely to be influenced by moral constraints. Such organizations were also more likely to be deterred by the possibility that indiscriminate casualties could alienate current or future supporters, and the concern that a non-conventional attack could bring down the full repressive power of the affected government on their heads.

These conclusions have been echoed by several other prominent studies on the threat of non-conventional terrorism, including one carried out by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) between May 1998 and May 1999 in collaboration with the French institute, CREST and Interdisciplinary Center for Technological Analysis and Forecasting (ICTAF), Tel-Aviv University.

The possible use of non-conventional terrorism ties in with several of the factors discussed above: the desire for mass casualties and extensive economic damage; the lack of any “outside constituency”, and the “apocalyptic” nature of many of the terrorist organizations. In particular, this last consideration deserves further explanation.

There are clear indications of interest in WMD capabilities on the part of the Global Jihad terrorist groups, although there is little evidence of actual capabilities. Al-Qaida has reportedly pursued the development of chemical and biological weapons since the early 1990s.[21] In 1998, Osama bin Ladin spoke of acquiring weapons of mass destruction being a “religious duty,” and the eleventh volume of Al Qaida’s 5,000-page “Encyclopedia of Jihad” is devoted to explaining how to construct chemical and biological agents.[22]

Currently, there is a very clear gap between motivation and capabilities with regard to al-Qaida’s WMD aspirations. At the same time, the similarities between al-Qaida and its Global Jihad offshoots to the kind of apocalyptic cults that have employed non-conventional terrorism in the past may serve as an input to assessing the organization’s future intentions.



[1]     Brian Michael Jenkins, “International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict” in David Carlton and Carlo Schaerf, eds., International Terrorism and World Security (London: Croom Helm, 1975), p. 15. Quoted in Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism And Wmd: Some Preliminary Hypotheses.”

[2]     Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism and WMD: Some Preliminary Hypotheses.” The Nonproliferation Review Spring-Summer 1997.

[3]     Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism and Wmd: Some Preliminary Hypotheses.” The Nonproliferation Review Spring-Summer 1997.

[4]     Horton, Donald and R. Richard Wohl (1956): ‘Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance’, Psychiatry 19: 215-29.

[5]     Radlauer, Don. “Virtual Communities as Pathways to Extremism.” NATO Advanced Research Workshop. Eilat, Israel. September 2006.

McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(6-23), cited at

[7]     Radlauer, Don. “Virtual Communities as Pathways to Extremism.” NATO Advanced Research Workshop. Eilat, Israel. September 2006.

[8]     Paulo Pontoniere. “Lessons from the Al Qaeda Cult Handbook.” Pacific News Service. 9 November 2001.

[9]     Robert J. Lifton, M.D. The Harvard Mental Health Letter. Volume 7, Number 8. February 1981, reprinted in AFF News Vol. 2 No. 5, 1996.

[10]  Dubrow-Eichel, Steve K.. “The Mind of the Fanatic.” Perpectives. Wilmington Delaware News. 23 September 2001.

[11]  Singer, Margeret T. “Conditions for Mind Control.”

[12]  Speckhard, Anne. “Secondary Trauma and Internet Persuasion.” NATO Advanced Research Workshop. Eilat, Israel. September 2006.

[13]  Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism and Wmd: Some Preliminary Hypotheses.” The Nonproliferation Review Spring-Summer 1997.

[14]  Bin Ladin: Yes, I did it.” Telegraph. 11 November 2001.

[15]  Nasser bin Hamed al-Fahd, Risalah Fi ‘istikhdam ‘asliha Al-Dammar Al-Shamil Did Al-Kuffar, May 2003.

[16]  Jonathan B. Tucker and Amy Sands. “An Unlikely Threat.” July/August 1999. pp. 46-52 (vol. 55, no. 04) 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[17]  Jonathan B. Tucker and Amy Sands. “An Unlikely Threat.” July/August 1999

[18]  pp. 46-52 (vol. 55, no. 04) 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[19]  Statement of John V. Parachini, Senior Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations. Combating Terrorism: Assessing the Threat. October 20, 1999.

[20]  Statement of John V. Parachini, Senior Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations. Combating Terrorism: Assessing the Threat. October 20, 1999.

[21]  Statement of John V. Parachini Before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations. October 20, 1999. It should be noted that these characteristics might also be applied to states; the case of Nazi Germany comes to mind.

[22]The Central Intelligence Agency, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January Through 30 June 2001, accessed at [], on March 11, 2003.

[23]Kimberly McCloud, Gary A. Ackerman, and Jeffrey M. Bale, “Chart: Al-Qa’ida’s WMD Activities,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, accessed at [], on March 6, 2003.