By Rick Alan Ross

A Jordanian online publication Al Bawaba recently ran an article titled “UK girl’s family fears Internet brainwashing.” The report proposed that “powerful jihadists are ‘brainwashing’ British teenagers through the internet.”

The aunt of one such teenage recruit said that her niece “was [radicalized] online after spending increasing amounts of time on her laptop and smart phone” communicating with ISIS members. She claims, “They can brainwash these children or 15 or 19-year-olds to leave their own home…it can happen to anyone.” Her niece may have been recruited through a so-called “jihadi dating site.”

The Mirror reported that in response to such recruitment efforts the British “Home Office has closed down 30,000 terrorist-linked websites in just nine months.” Through such websites “the internet is increasingly being hijacked by terrorist [organizations] to seduce Britons into going to war.”

yusra-hussienDestructive cults were pioneers on the World Wide Web and have used it effectively for promotional and recruitment purposes. An early example was the group known as “Heaven’s Gate,” which launched its own now notorious website almost twenty years ago. Other cults have learned to use the Internet as an effective tool. It is not surprising that ISIS likewise sees the Internet as a useful resource, which can now potentially reach virtually anyone anywhere through the access provided by an array of various electronic devices.

According to a report featured by Singapore’s Today, “Many of the youngest girls are lured with promises of humanitarian work. It is only once in Syria that they discover their fate: forced marriage to a fighter, strict adherence to Islamic law, a life under surveillance and little hope of returning home, say parents, relatives and radicalization experts.”

Again, this is not unlike the process of recruitment used by destructive cults, which frequently rely upon the old ploy of “bait and switch” to lure new members. Cults typically appeal to the naive idealism of potential recruits, wrapping themselves in the guise of positive social change, civic betterment, environmental awareness and most commonly some supposed religious or spiritual purpose.

Reportedly, “many women being radicalized hail from moderate Muslim households. But volunteers have also come from atheist, Catholic and Jewish households, both rich and poor, urban and rural.” Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist charged with the task of de-radicalizing such jihadists explained, “Recruiters have refined their methods to such a degree where they can take in people who are doing fine.” Bouzar stated, “Some are contacted on Facebook, others were chatted up on dating sites. Others met a friend who became a sort of guru.” Additionally, “Some of the women ‘thought they were in love’ after being groomed by men over the web or telephone.”

Destructive cults have been able to recruit almost anyone regardless of education, family background, religion or social status. ISIS follows a familiar pattern well-established by destructive cults who frequently target unaware and vulnerable young people, often on college campuses. Some cultists have also been drawn in through a romantic interest. Like jihadists, well-known cults use the social media to contact, influence and mentor potential new members.

According to news reports the guru of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who assumed power over the group in early 2007. Whether or not ISIS fits the personality-driven terrorist model of al-Qaeda remains to be seen. The influence and control exerted over the group by al-Baghdadi as a cultlike charismatic leader, has not been firmly established.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence, says “The romance of jihad is very pronounced in propaganda and used by women to recruit other women. According to authorities recent radicalized recruits included 400 from Germany, 1,000 from France and 85 from Sweden. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Sweden’s National Defence College observed, “There is almost an obsession with paradise and the afterlife, which makes it like a death cult. Death matters more than life.” In the United States FBI Director James Comey reported to CBS’ “60 Minutes” he is monitoring “dozens of Americans” that have left the US to join ISIS or other terrorist groups.

After being mentored by their Internet gurus the new recruits are embedded and isolated within training camps, which are totally controlled environments. Communication is limited and when members do communicate with their families it may be scripted or coached. In a BBC News online video interview the father of one young ISIS recruit said, “‘my son believes it because it is brainwashing.” The father advised that “other people” could be heard controlling his son’s conversation and coaching him during Skype calls. Again, the control of communication seemingly mandated by ISIS is eerily similar to destructive cults.

Bad behavior by ISIS, not unlike excuses offered by destructive cults, is often rationalized  by the apology that essentially the “end justifies the means.”

A former member of ISIS interviewed by CNN discussed the process of her recruitment into the organization. A college educated teacher she reportedly was “drawn to the eloquence of a Tunisian whom she met online. Taken with his manners, she grew to trust him over time and he gradually lured her” with assurances “that the group was not what people thought, that it was not a terrorist organization.” The former ISIS member said the recruiter told her “‘we are going to properly implement Islam. Right now we are in a state of war, a phase where we need to control the country, so we have to be harsh.’”

Once fully embedded within the group the new recruit was told by her female commander, “‘Wake up, take care of yourself. You are walking, but you don’t know where you are going.’” Within this strange new environment the former school teacher turned ISIS member told CNN, “At the start, I was happy with my job. I felt that I had authority in the streets. But then I started to get scared, scared of my situation. I even started to be afraid of myself.”

Much like a cult member the teacher’s true personality came into conflict with the pseudo-personality imposed upon her by ISIS. She said, “I am not like this. I have a degree in education. I shouldn’t be like this. What happened to me? What happened in my mind that brought me here?” Ultimately the daily brutality of her new life shocked the young woman into again thinking independently for herself. She reflected, “The foreign fighters are very brutal with women, even the ones they marry,” she said. “There were cases where the wife had to be taken to the emergency ward because of the violence, the sexual violence.” She reacted honestly to the horror with reason, “I said enough. After all that I had already seen and all the times I stayed silent, telling myself, ‘We’re at war, then it will all be rectified.’” Finally she decided, “I have to leave.”

Once outside the confines of the “death cult” the young woman was more fully able to analyze her former situation. No longer was she subjected to the stern authoritarian discipline and stringent controls exercised over her daily life. This type of milieu control is historically the hallmark of destructive cults.

Today the former ISIS devotee is still trying to sort through her experience. “How did we allow them to come in? How did we allow them to rule us?” She claims, “There is a weakness in us.” but warns, “I don’t want anyone else to be duped by them. Too many girls think they are the right Islam.” Working through what seems like a cult recovery the former school teacher says, “It has to be gradual, so that I don’t become someone else. I am afraid of becoming someone else. Someone who swings, as a reaction in the other direction, after I was so entrenched in religion, that I reject religion completely.”

Monica Uriarte proposed her own prescription to immunize the public regarding jihadist recruiters online at Carbonated. She explains  “How to Stop Disillusioned Teens from Joining ISIS.” Uriarte says, “The answer lies in education. Muslim American and European Muslim communities need to educate their youth.”

But educate them about what?

In my opinion the key to such useful education is a better understanding of the dynamics of destructive cults, their recruitment tactics and how they employ a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques to trick and control people.

Thought provoking analysis is also offered by journalist Tom Gaisford writing for The Independent. In an article titled, “How should we respond to the murder of Alan Henning at the hands of Isis?” Gaisford says, “Extremists operate in a vacuum, free from self-criticism. Proof of this is their self-portrayal as anything but: they see themselves as enlightened moderates, driven to violence by necessity – heroes, effectively. This, it would seems, is how they are able to justify their conduct to themselves (whatever it is and whomsoever it affects).”

Again, this is not unlike historical cult leaders such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara or notably Osama bin Laden. All apparent psychopaths who saw themselves in heroic terms as global game changers. The idea that they could be wrong was unthinkable to them and their followers. Whatever they did could somehow be justified within the framework of their grandiose game of global enlightenment, revelation, purification and/or annihilation.

Gaisford calls the philosophy of such leaders “circular nonsense.” He further observes, that “the language of [dehumanization] and destruction [within Jihadis groups like ISIS] is alarmingly reminiscent of the very darkest chapters in our world history.” Again, this seems to allude to cultic environments, such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and the authoritarian dynasty that now dominates North Korea.

Gaisford elaborates, “The key to [neutralizing] extremism is more likely to lie in harnessing and disseminating information about the how it takes hold in the first place. The process is known colloquially as ‘[radicalization]‘ or “brainwashing” (depending on the context), though a more helpful term for it is ‘mind control’.”

Gaisford then explains what can be seen as the first step in cult recruitment. “Essentially, it relies on our inherent tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our biases: its practitioners play to what we want to hear, to lead us unwittingly away from reality, simultaneously undermining the confidence and critical capacity we require to ‘return home’.” He concludes that jihadist recruiters, “though potentially deluded themselves, the likelihood is that controllers deceive their controlees knowingly, for their own personal benefit. To that extent, they are not in fact extremists but deeply cynical, critically attuned egoists.”

Again, just like destructive cults and their leaders have proven to be over and over again.

By Rick Ross

In a recent opinion/editorial New York Times piece titled “The Cult Deficit” columnist Ross Douthat stated, “the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms.” He concluded, “Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.”

Interestingly, Deepak Chopra was a disciple of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was often called a “cult leader.” Maharishi was the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a group frequently included on cult lists and still quite active amidst allegations of abuse.

Douthat doesn’t seem to care much about destructive cults or the damage they do. He laments that the Branch Davidians were “mistreated and misjudged.” Apparently the columnist hasn’t bothered to do much research as he has ignored the facts reported in the press about the Davidians and as established through the congressional record, the Danforth Report and submitted through court proceedings. Suffice to say that despite anti-government conspiracy theories David Koresh was one of the most vicious cult leaders in modern history. He was a deeply disturbed man that sexually preyed upon children and stockpiled weapons for the purpose of a violent end.

Journalist Tony Ortega at Raw Story points out that “The same week the US goes to war with one, NYT’s Douthat asks, where are the cults?” Ortega recognizes that many terrorist groups today are little more than personality-driven cults, such as al-Qaeda once was under the influence of Osama bin Laden. History is strewn with examples of the destruction wrought by totalitarian cults from the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler to the family dynasty that continues to dominate and control North Korea.

Not surprisingly following up Douthat doesn’t quote Ortega’s response, but instead prefers “Reason Magazine,” a Libertarian leaning publication that essentially agrees with him. Calling a column written by Peter Suderman a “very interesting response” Dauthat again ignores the facts and reiterates his opinion, as supposedly supported by a “religious historian” and venture capitalist. Suderman doesn’t dispute Douthat’s claim that cults are in decline, but rather uses it as a hook for his own spin about the “rise of subcultures.”

However, despite all the liberal or Libertarian posturing performed by these pundits the cult phenomenon has actually expanded around the world.

Unlike the United States, other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have taken steps to respond to cults both through regulation and law enforcement. For example, in Japan and Germany cults have been closely monitored and in China some have been outlawed. Recently in Israel cult leader Goel Ratzon was convicted of sex crimes. Ratzon’s criminal conviction followed a lengthy government investigation and raid by law enforcement.

In addition to malevolent cult movements that have captivated nations the old familiar groups called “cults” that Douthat thinks have faded away actually are still around such as Scientology, the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, International Church of Christ, and Est (the Forum), although they may now use new names to avoid easy recognition.

In fact the United States has become something of a destination point and haven for groups called “cults.”

Dahn Yoga, led by Ilchee Lee, which started in South Korea, later set up shop in Arizona and now has a following across America.

Another recent arrival is the World Mission Society Church of God led by Zhang Gil-Jah, known to her devotees as “Mother God.” Not long ago Zhang opened her first church in New Jersey. Since then the group has grown rapidly across the US and Canada. Mother has even rented space in Manhattan not far from the New York Times.

Exiled “evil cult” leader Li Hongzhi, founder of Falun Gong, had to leave China, but found refuge in New York. According to researchers Li now has a flock of about !0,000 followers in North America. He claims to channel miraculous healing powers, which has allegedly led to medical neglect and death. The group has regular parades and demonstrations in NYC, Apparently Mr. Dauthat missed that.

Just as there will always be con men running schemes to take people’s money, there will always be destructive cult leaders exploiting the vulnerabilities of humanity. For con men and cult leaders it’s a business and it seems to be quite profitable. When Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986 his estate totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Scientology reportedly has a billion dollars in cash and vast real estate holdings. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died he left behind a spiritual empire valued in billions. Rev. Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, likewise left behind a hefty financial legacy, which is now managed by his children. Whenever there is cash and assets someone will step in to take over. And in the United States cults can operate with relative impunity as an unregulated industry.

No one knows exactly how many cult members there are in the United States. But almost every day I learn of a new group or organization that seems to fit the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for most definitions of a destructive cult. These core criteria were established by Robert Jay Lifton back in the 1980s. Rather than focusing on what a group believes Lifton’s criteria focus on the structure, dynamics and behavior of a group.

First, the single and most salient feature of a destructive cult is that it is personality-driven and animated by a living, charismatic and totalitarian leader. It is that leader who is the defining element and driving force of the group. Whatever the leader says is right is right and whatever the leader says is wrong is wrong. He or she determines the relative morality of the group and its core identity.

Second, the group engages in a process of thought reform to break people down and then redevelop them according to a predetermined mindset, which includes a diminished ability to think critically and/or independently. This is accomplished through a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques, relentlessly focused on individuals subjected to the group process.

Finally, the third criteria, is that the group does harm. This may vary from group to group as some groups are more harmful than others. One groups may simply exploit its members financially or through free labor, while others may make much more intense demands such as sexual favors, medical neglect or even criminal acts.

Whatever the group may present as its facade, be it religion, politics, exercise, martial arts, business scheme or philosophy, it is the structure, dynamics and behavior of the group that sets it apart and aligns it with the core criteria, which forms the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult.

For those who would attempt to diminish the power of persuasion used by cults we have only to look at the pattern of behavior within such groups. Why would people act against their own interests, but instead consistently behave in the best interest of the cult leader? Why would cult members allow their children to die due to medical neglect or surrender them for sexual abuse? The most compelling explanation for such otherwise improbable behavior is that cult victims are under undue influence and therefore unable to think for themselves independently.

The dirty little secret about cults and their bag of tricks, is that we are all vulnerable to coercive persuasion and influence techniques. And this is particularly true when we are at a vulnerable time in our lives. This might include a period of grief, financial instability, isolation or some other personal setback. It is at these times that cults can more easily and deceptively recruit people. No one intentionally joins a cult. Instead, people are tricked by cults, through deceptive recruitment practices and a gradual indoctrination process that doesn’t immediately fully disclose the group’s expectations and agenda.

If people were not vulnerable to persuasion and influence techniques there would be no advertising or political propaganda. Every person approached isn’t taken in by cult recruitment tactics, just as everyone doesn’t buy a product promoted by slick advertising. The question is not why don’t cults recruit everyone, but rather how do they recruit people and why do those people often stay to their determent.

Instead of denial and fanciful claims about the decline of cults our best response regarding such groups is education and increased awareness. Understanding the basic warning signs of a potentially unsafe group is a good start. And utilizing the Web to find information about specific groups before becoming more deeply involved is always a good idea. More information helps people make more informed choices. Ignorance may lead to devastating consequences.

As Tony Ortega concluded, “As long as the media remains in the dark about destructive cults and the way they work, we’ll continue to get bewildering statements about ISIS, and ignorant columns from the New York Times.”