When I left a terrorist organization twenty years ago, I discovered that the number of reasons why people got involved in my group was exactly equal to the number of members. In other words, we all took our individual paths into the group.
In the search for ‘what makes young people vulnerable to radicalization', there are many push pull factors we can consider: home life, culture, politics, religion, criminality, social ills and the very children themselves - what on earth is wrong with them?!
A different approach is to focus instead on the actual process of radicalization. Who and what is it that changes an ordinary young person into a monster?
When I left a terrorist organization twenty years ago, I discovered that the number of reasons why people got involved in my group was exactly equal to the number of members. In other words, we all took our individual paths into the group. But once inside, we were all subjected to the same controlling methodology, we were all subjected to abuse. And for those who managed to get out, we all suffered the same emotional and mental difficulties toward recovery.
I also learned that this devastating and traumatizing experience was the same for people involved in other cultic groups and that academics and scientists have described and explained this process in detail. This is important because by understanding the harm that the process of radicalization does to its victims, we can recognize it as abuse. We can then better understand it, identify it and try to prevent it. We can give this abuse a specific name: cultic abuse.
For most people the word cult conjures up weird religious groups which suck in vulnerable people. But sticking a label on groups does not explain the harm they do. Instead we can explain cultic abuse, like any other form of abuse, not from the point of view of the beliefs but by looking at their behaviours - what they actually do.
To explain the very real harm that cultic abuse does we should begin by looking at the outcome. We know what grooming for child sexual exploitation (CSE) is for. We know what coercive control in domestic violence (DV) is for. What is cultic abuse for?
The ultimate aim of any form of cultic abuse is to enslave so-called followers, to produce people who are: controllable, exploitable, deployable and disposable. Somebody who will act to order, even when that is against their own and their society's best interests. Now we can see how this would be of interest to groups pursuing violent and criminal agendas. Interestingly, a defining feature of cultic abuse is the no exit principle. As a slave, you are not supposed to leave. There is no exit.
Our next question is - who wants slaves and why?
Terrorism and extremist violence doesn't simply spring up on its own. The driving force behind this kind of behaviour will be a charismatic narcissist - it's all about them! - they are self-appointed, unaccountable and totalitarian leaders and they are motivated by power, sex and money. Usually all three, but notice, religion is not one of them.
In order to recruit followers, they begin by creating a deceptive recruiting script based on a genuine grievance which reflects their own personal philosophical concerns and which may appeal to a particular audience. The script essentially acts as bait to attract potential recruits to the cause. The ideas it expresses are exclusive - ‘you must believe this and nothing else for only we have the answers' - and simplistic, with black and white thinking - ‘they are wrong, we are right, there is no room for questions'. This script is essentially fictitious. What matters is that you believe in it. This is what we on the outside refer to as a group's ideology.
Of course, getting people to fall for this dodgy script which aims only to enslave them requires the kind manipulative recruitment methods used in hard sales - foot in the door, soft sales, hard closure. Using their charismatic style to preach their ideology, such leaders will find other intuitive manipulative persuaders who can literally con people into believing. The kind of people who can sell snake oil and other miraculous cures to just about anyone. Thus the process begins with deceptive recruitment.
Victims who have resisted or escaped radicalization often talk about the relentless nature of the assault on their minds and hearts. This is, of course, a deliberate act. Here's why.
Simply put, there is a world of difference between getting somebody to believe in extremist ideas and actually getting them to act on them. Getting ordinary people to take part in extremist violence requires them to make a radical break with their past values and beliefs and relationships. They must be isolated from their normal forms of support and stability and security - their family and friends - in order for the process of coercion to begin which will change their emotional and moral response to outrageous acts, which will literally ‘change their minds'.
For this reason, cultic abuse involves the systematic and sustained application of recognized methods of psychological manipulation. Relentlessly swamping the victim with stress in this way supresses critical thinking. Once this is achieved, new beliefs can be indoctrinated into the unprotected mind of the victim.
The success of cultic abuse rests on the end product - if the recruiter is successful and the radicalization has claimed its victim they can then be deployed according to the whims of the leader.
The radicalized person will never recognize their own predicament. They sincerely believe their group and their relationships are righteous and no amount of logic will persuade them otherwise. They weren't converted by logic so you can't argue them out of it by logic.
To our eyes, the overt horror of terrorism and extremist violence appears a crude instrument. But recruiters are involved in a highly sophisticated game of mind control which we ignore at our peril. If we don't take seriously the methodology behind the bloodied images, then we will continue to allow our young people and even whole families to be deceptively stolen away from their normal lives and put on a conveyor belt toward death and destruction.
Co-authored by Anne Khodabandeh