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Terrorist Groups: Those Who Sign On
By Tina Calabrese, LCSW

Terrorist groups exist because there are people who join them. The people who choose to take part in these organizations are of utmost importance in the study of terrorism. Terrorist cells have been compared to cult groups. Many cults in America have ended in mass suicides, taking their group beliefs tot he final stage of their lives. The main difference between cults and terrorist cells is that terrorists are often homicidal as well as hypnotized by a charismatic, narcissistic leader.

Research and study have found that the person who joins a terrorist group is most likely manipulatable, depressed, dependent and deeply frustrated and unfulfilled. Many have "religionized" politics and found a desperate way out of their harsh day to day realities.

For these men a chance to be part of a mission in the name of God is both appealing and invigorating. Their depression, which often includes feelings of hopelessness, is now transcended into belief in eternal paradise and spiritual approval. This experience can feel like a drug to a depressed person. Depression is responsible for 75% of suicides and we have come to know suicidal depression as a desperate pain; yet it can also be an experience of jubilation and resignation.

The "drug" of the terrorists' mission also alienates them from the reality of a murderous rage. They rationalize killing and scaring others to such an extreme that they ultimately see it as truth. They become so dependent on their leader that an enmeshment of ideology is present and they lose all sense of individuality. They believe it is their destiny to die for their group and their leader and not to fear death because they will be rewarded in the afterlife, paradise.

One of the great social work ethics involves self-determination and empowering people to make their own decisions, take care of themselves and allow them to come to their own realizations. Our great American democracy is built on the foundation that all people have the right to be free in speech, religion, assembly and even protest. The men in these terrorists groups are so far removed from themselves that they have lost all sense of reality and perhaps have regressed into such a childlike state that the parent (leader) is always right.

They are not free nor do they fight to be free.

Sometimes a person's social state plays a major role in their falling deeper into the psychology of a cult/terrorist member. Some come from areas in which they have seen those in their families and countries dying of starvation and thirst. There is inadequate medical care, poor schooling and no basic infrastructure on which to build a healthy community. When there is great physical and psychological need there is great risk for people of being seduced into believing there is an easy, often dramatic way out.

In short, these men come to believe in a criminal’s psychotic fantasies and then carry them out.

As we understand more and more the make up of such people we can be more aware when we see this behavior in others. If you know someone who may be in a cult or has the characteristics described in this article, it is important to try to get them professional help. A "de-programming" process of helping the cult/terrorist member slowly and gently see the reality of their situation and then separate from it is the suggested approach. The model of empowerment can help these men learn to trust their judgment so that they are not so easily influenced. They can then regain a sense of what they think, who they are and how to distinguish right from wrong.

It is often hard to state your opinion when the rest of the crowd disagrees. It takes what we call ego strength to resist peer pressure and not go along with the crowd. This can be difficult in a free society, in a loving group even in a family let alone a cult where the norm is to follow the leader. The roots of being in a cult come from this peer pressure or group think that so many of us work hard at resisting.

Now is the time for all Americans to model healthy behavior by reacting to tragic events with a critical, knowledgeable and individualistic passion for justice.  ■

December 2001

Juergensmeyer, Mark, "Terror in the Mind of God; The Global Rise of Religious Violence" California University Press, 2001.
Turner, Frances, "Adult Psychopathology" The Free Press, 1984

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