Al Qaeda : Secrets of its Hidden Power

Feb 4 11:08 2007 Stephen Morgan Print This Article

What gives Al Qaeda its enormous reserves of strength? What powers its capacity for self-generation and regeneration in the face of repression? Is it just hatred, fanaticism, training and organizational proficiency or is it something more? Why do well-educated, prosperous, middle class family men commit suicide for its goals? Are we dealing with something more sinister than a terrorist group, are we dealing with a “Super-Cult” using terrorist methods.

A recent armed assault by some 800 members of a Shi’ite cult,Guest Posting called Jund al-Samaa or “Soldiers of Heaven,” on the holy place of Al Najaf in Iraq, created a lot of interest and surprise. The group, however, is not so “new” or out of place, as it has existed on and off for centuries. What we do have, nevertheless, is its miraculous reappearance in a new form of the cult now armed with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft missiles, etc., attacking the forces of the state and attempting to murder civilians and leading clerics.

Despite its novelty, Jund al-Samaa is not the only kid on the block. Indeed the biggest kid on the block has been around for far longer doing much more damage – that is the Al Qaeda cult. However, while many psychologists and experts in the field have few doubts about its characterization as such, it is not widely referred to as a cult by the media and politicians.

A certain denial of this fact exists, like the elephant in the living room, whereby every can see it’s the case, but they all silently agree to avoid naming it for fear of the consequences in their everyday lives.

Politicians are hesitant to use the term "cult”; because it undermines and complicates dealing with a phenomenon they know very little about. Cult bashing is not something that they or their spin-doctors are familiar with. Furthermore, they fear that if it were popularly explained as a cult, then its successes and the failures of politicians to combat it effectively, would be seen be in a more confused and negative light than is already the case. It would frame the whole War on Terror in rather bizarre mode, that doesn’t fit with traditional approaches. However, one of the reasons Al Qaeda has been able to flourish is precisely because it is not recognized and treated for what it is – a religio-political death cult, and unless you have to call a spade a spade; otherwise you’re just raking over the ground, not digging it up.

It is much easier for politicians (and many analysts and commentators) to simply characterize Al Qaeda as a terrorist group and lump it alongside national groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Palestine. This is especially easy as they are also responsible for similar activities, especially occasional suicide attacks, as well as having fundamentalist ideologies or leanings. It’s neat, simple and non-distracting. But it is a serious mistake. Clarity in the classification and evaluation of one’s enemy is the first step to defeating him. Failure to do so is the first error on the road to his victory.

Al Qaeda has considerable similarities in tactics with other terrorist groups. It plants bombs, kills both military personnel and civilians, carries out assassinations, abducts, executes and tortures people, fires mortars, uses snipers, etc. It is also secretive, disciplined and fanatical. It aims to overthrow regimes and is very anti-Western. In this way it is no different than the old IRA, groups like ETA or the Greek anarchists. But, unlike them its members also carry out suicide attacks, similar to terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas and the Al Aqsa Brigades in Palestine or the Black Tigers in Sri Lanka. Obviously, like some of them it is also religious and, especially, fundamentalist in its beliefs. However, unlike all of these groups its agenda is not focused on one national territory, but is international in appeal and organisation.

If we went no further in the analysis, then we could say that Al Qaeda is essentially just a very large and dangerous terrorist organisation, like the others. However, we all know that Al Qaeda is very different than the old IRA or ETA and, we have an notion that it is also somehow different from say, Hezbollah or Hamas. We sense that we are dealing with quite a different phenomenon, even if we can’t pin down why. That feeling or suspicion naturally arises from the spectacular nature of its attacks and its level of fanaticism. The two are interlinked, and its unique tactics and nature of operation are an expression of what makes Al Qaeda qualitatively different from all other terrorist groups. It is a cult, while all the others are not. The others may have some features similar to cult organizations, but many non-terrorist, human groups do also. As we go on to discuss these characteristics, it will become more evident that groups like the IRA or Hezbollah are not cults, but essentially terrorist groups, while Al Qaeda is a religious-political cult which uses terrorist methods.

Some people might well ask what is the real difference between the Hamas’ individual suicide bomber at a crowded bus stop in Israel and the members of the Al Qaeda groups, which were responsible for 9/11? Firstly, Mosad, the Israeli secret service and the world’s most experienced anti-terrorists force was stunned to learn of the profile of most of the members of the Al Qaeda group. Unlike those from Palestine who generally come from poor backgrounds and traumatized experiences, many of the 9/11 bombers were from comfortable, middle class environments with families and professions. Secondly, although Al Qaeda does strike with lone individuals, other terrorist organizations never use collective suicide groups. And finally, the Palestinian terrorists always use “opportunistic” volunteers, who offer themselves, whereas Al Qaeda trains and calls upon particular members to give their lives.

Generally, the only organization where such a phenomenon takes place, especially involving intelligent, prosperous, non-traumatized persons, who give up their life in mass or in groups, are certain extreme cults. Organizations like Heavens Gate, the Branch Davidians or the People’s Temple spring to mind as examples of collective suicide for the ideology of the group and at the request of its guru. The difference with these groups, even including the bloody siege at Waco, is that they tend to be insular and don’t pro-actively participate in or physically attack society. One such group, which did, though, was Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult of mostly middle class students who killed dozens of people by gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in the 1990’s. Many other cults are not entirely insular, but participate non-violently to different degrees in society, such as the Moonies, Hari Krishna or The Church of Scientology.

Al Qaeda represents a hybrid of these different forms of cults, which like all of them all is based on brainwashing, mind-control and behavioral manipulation of their members. Al Qaeda has also adopted a proactive, violent strategy of intervention into society using terrorist and guerrilla tactics and a perversion of Islam as the foundations of its religio-political ideology.

Does, then, in essence, Al Qaeda have more in common with cults, than it does with classical terrorist groups? Is it essentially a cult using terrorist methods, or more a terrorist group with some similarities to a cult? To answer this let's take a look at some of the key characteristics of cults as drawn up experts like Dr Margaret Singer of the Department of Psychology, Berkeley, University of California, and Robert J. Lifton M.D, and follow those with regard to Al Qaeda, one by one.

Key Cult Features

1) Like all cults, Al Qaeda considers itself to be the upholders of the Absolute and Sacred Will of God or some Higher Power. They consider their ideology, doctrine or theology to be the ultimate Truth, which cannot be questioned or disputed. In many cases they claim to be the only authentic defenders of the real teachings of an existing theology and/or ideology, which has become degenerate in the hands of others. They misquote, twist and fabricate materials to claim to speak in the name of the original theory, founder or God and claim to be the sole spokesman of their beliefs on earth. They view everything in terms of black and white. Their ideology is totalistic. It is the perfect truth, and all other theories or faiths are degenerate and against Nature or God. Just as with all other cults Al Qaeda considers itself to be THE WAY and the only WAY! All those outside of the group are heretics and traitors to the Truth. Moreover, as such, it follows that they are beyond all the rule of all mortal laws or authorities.

2) Like all cults, bin Laden and Al Qaeda believes itself to be on a Sacred Mission to save or redress the sins and imbalances of the world. They are here to save or to reap retribution on the sinners or unbelievers and the cult members alone will be saved and be divinely rewarded because of their unswerving devotion to their beliefs and actions.

3) Similar to all cults, Al Qaeda has its living and dead Gurus who are beyond criticism and who are claimed to be the representative of supernatural forces or of directly carrying out God's wishes directly on Earth. The living Guru is perceived with a mystical aura and his words and sign are listened to with awe and absolute devotion.

4) Like most cults, Al Qaeda's inner structure is authoritarian, secretive and closed from society. Only the initiated are allowed into the inner circles after through testing and indoctrination. They are mostly encouraged to either recruit from or break themselves away from family and friends as it serves the interests of the group's tactics.

5) As in all cults, emersion into the inner circles of Al Qaeda takes place away from the polluting influences of degenerate society. This make be in country retreats or camps, where all day for weeks and months, they are subjected to the repetitious and hypnotic recital of prayers, texts, lectures, images, etc. These are classical methods of mind-control, brainwashing techniques, often supplemented with personal deprivation and physical regimes aimed at breaking down the person's psychological defenses. Then they can be detoxified and cleansed of any remnants of the old « soiled » and « contaminated » personality. The shell, which is left, can then be filled with the new group “cult personality". For Al Qaeda, the Pakistani maddrasess serve in part in preparation of this process by pre-indoctrinating new child followers, who are then put through military and terrorist training. Afterwards, they attend cells where they meet and psychological control, indoctrination and monitoring of behavior and tasks is maintained.

6) In Al Qaeda, as in all cults, no internal dissent or debate is allowed and absolute purity is demanded of members, sometimes accompanied by episodes of confessions, punishment and self-flagellation. Members become cloned to think and talk in "groupthink" or "grouptalk" with their own secret member language. They are easily recognized by the way they all monolithically respond to any external questions with rehearsed, mechanical replies.

7) Finally, like all cults, the greatest gift and honor of all honours is to be called upon by a higher member, especially if it is through or by the Guru himself, in order to carry out some supreme and difficult, self-sacrificing act, which brings with it the glory of external praise and adoration and awe on the part of the other members. For Al Qaeda this is the suicide mission. For which they will be rewarded by being immortalized and accepted directly into Paradise or Heaven.

If one aligns these criteria with any other major terrorists, militia or insurgency group, be they Hamas, the IRA or the Mehdi Army, then you will find that they will not pass the “cult test“ by a long shot. It is precisely, Al Qaeda’s character as a cult, which sets it apart from these other groups and which gives it its huge internal power. Its cult nature provides it with an enormous self-generating and regenerating capacity for revival and expansion. It is not a “Super-Terrorist” group, but a “Super-Cult” using terrorist methods. It is its cult nature that makes it so deadly and so difficult to combat and eradicate. It is a cult of suicidal, messianic, warrior martyrdom.

Unlike the other militant terrorist groups, including all those with a fundamentalist ideology, Al Qaeda alone has acted like a magnet to the disaffected and radicalized among the Islamic youth worldwide. Disgusting, as it may be, the unprecedented, spectacular, audacity, of its world-shaking attack on 9/11 mesmerized those who wanted to attack American Imperialism. For those types it was a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring marriage of martyrdom, fearlessness and precision planning that dared to strike at the heart of the world's superpower. While its followers and even members were not conscious of the fact, it was precisely Al Qaeda's character as a cult, which gave the group the necessary powers of planning, perseverance, precision and ultimate ability to implement such an act. Indeed, no other type of organization could have carried it out this way,

When the Roman Empire was in decline it was besieged by a “plague of Egyptian cults.” In the social, economic and military impasse that heralded its implosion people began grasping in neurotic despair at all kinds of weird and wonderful elixirs in a search to find solutions and meanings to the crisis. In the conditions pertaining in the Middle East and internationally, Al Qaeda is a harbinger of a modern plague that is beginning. Already 2 million Americans are members of cults, nearly all of which are luckily socially harmless. But more ant-social, terrorist cults will pop up from the most unexpected directions and in the most amazing forms in the coming years. They will become a principal cause of instability worldwide and one, which we will need to address squarely and honestly.

Next - Part 2. Al Qaeda’s Secrets of its Hidden Weaknesses

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About Article Author

Stephen Morgan
Stephen Morgan

Stephen J. Morgan is a former member of the British Labour Party Executive Committee, a political writer and accredited Emotional Intelligence Coach. His first book was the "The Mind of a Terrorist Fundamentalist - the Cult of Al Qaeda." He has lived and worked in more than 27 different countries and including crisis situations in Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. He is also a professional speaker who has spoken at more than 2000 meetings including the National Convention of the American Psychological Association and The Global Human Resources Conference. He is currently writing a book on the Bush Administration. He is a political psychologist, researcher into Chaos/Complexity Theory and lives in Brussels (Old Europe) Contact

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