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February 22nd, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Understanding al Queda as a violent religious cult

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

Malcolm Nance has a plan to defeat al Queda. His approach diverges significantly from the military paradigm that has driven America’s foreign policy for decades. His new book on the subject was released for sale February 16. Its title commands attention:  “An End to Al Qaeda: Destroying bin Laden’s Jihad and Restoring America’s Honor.”

An article in “Foreign Affairs” and his interviews in advance of his new book’s release explain his basic premise: al Queda does not represent mainstream Islam, but it is an armed Islamic cult that behaves much like other destructive religious cults. Think of the armed and militant David Koresh in his compound near Waco. His adult followers were so enamored with his philosophy that most were willing to die for the cult. Jim Jones held such powerful sway over his followers that hundreds went to their deaths. The Heaven’s Gate cult members all (apparently) willingly killed themselves based on the teachings of their leader.

Social-psychological research shows generally that cults control people through some form of coercive persuasion, mind control, or psychological manipulation that suppresses their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices that are in their own best interest. The practices of most cults are not hard to understand. Recruits are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations, often isolated physically or emotionally from friends and family, as well as the mainstream culture. They receive attention, encouragement, and acceptance from a charismatic, perhaps megalomaniacal, leader and other followers. They begin to identity themselves as a part of the group.  Their access to outside information is severely controlled, either actually or through psychological manipulation. They become dependent on the group and its leaders and feel pressure from others in the group to conform their ideas and behaviors to the group’s norms.

Understanding al Queda as a destructive religious cult helps explain why some of its members are well-educated and middle class, while others come from impoverished backgrounds. It is not their socio-economic characteristics that draw them to al Queda, but the psychological control al Queda has over them that makes them willing to commit suicide to kill others, whether  in Israel, England, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, or the United States.

As Nance has previously explained, “A militant’s profile lies not in his age, race, culture, or education; anyone can join or be adopted by the al Qaeda network, the only prerequisite being a willingness to accept the group’s radical, cult like ideology.”  For Nance, developing terrorist profiles won’t work because the members of al Queda include all kinds of people.

Nance writes, “Across the world, al Qaeda encourages could-be recruits … to become muhajiroun or ‘émigrés’ who move away from non militant communities, families, and friends to join the brotherhood of armed jihadists.”  They abandon professional careers and leave their families. And al Qaeda “succeeds because, for more than two decades, the network has waged a successful information campaign that pushes its message out to the world” as effectively as its use of suicide bombers has done. “Al Qaeda has dominated the battlefield of the soul among the disaffected, disenfranchised, and dissatisfied. It promises action instead of discussion. It avows to defend Islam through suicide bombings and mass murder. (Recovered jihadists are often horrified to learn, with the help of mainstream clerics, that they have been duped by a fantastical corruption of Islam, best called bin Ladenism.)”

Nance believes that “so persuasive is the rhetoric that al Qaeda regularly convinces converts to reject 1,431 years of Islamic teachings in favor of a mission whose intention is the destruction and re-engineering of Islam itself. Osama bin Laden has managed to replace fear of God and adherence to the Quran with his philosophy of jihad above all else. What’s behind that facade is the true philosophical intentions of al Qaeda: the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate that will defeat democracy as the greater of the two political orders. Al Qaeda’s leaders seek to reverse what they claim are corrupt Islamic practices … [so they can] turn Islam’s clock back to the time of Prophet Muhammad’s original followers.”

Nance’s message is instructive:  “How does al Qaeda do it? The network has perfected the art of turning fantastically corrupt ideas into mainstream, cultist philosophy. Back when al Qaeda first began its campaign, it targeted individuals through face-to-face distribution of militant lectures on cassette tapes, locally produced books, and pamphlets. The network leapt at the opportunity to harness the Internet beginning around 1995, which al Qaeda used to spread its word unencumbered until 2001. The Web’s endless reach magnified a once-localized message. Meanwhile, the message also became more universally appealing to the dispossessed: Come fight in a brotherhood of men who give up their homes, families, and lives to live as nomadic knights. Be part of something. Return Islam to its seventh-century origins. Recruits would embody the mythology they were being told. And all they needed was a few household chemicals, a soft target, and the desire to die.”

For Nance, out of this understanding can grow the means to defeat bin  Laden:  “Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, and Indonesia have successfully broken up al Qaeda wings using appeals to save the souls of the misguided, breaking recruitment and logistics support from within the community. These countries have realized that bullets cannot kill terror in their midst, and their rehabilitation programs are focused on training the militants with a counterideology. Mentors and counselors show deep concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of the former militants, asking them to debate with Islamic scholars who bring the ex-terrorists to see the cause itself as so un-Islamic that the end result in the next life could only be damnation. Militants meet with others who have renounced terrorism, and their redemption and forgiveness are linked with accepting a new worldview.”

Nance points to the recent arrest of five al Queda recruits in Pakistan as an example of what can be done with the right understanding of this religious cult and the right methods to counteract their indoctrination.

The book-seller Amazon summarizes the ideas expressed in Nance’s new book:
“Osama Bin Laden is unquestionably the leader of the world’s most deadly terrorist cult. He has perverted the teachings of Islam to create a fringe religious ideology, Bin Ladenism, where only al-Qaeda speaks for God. In his cult, suicide bombing is the highest form of worship and the mass murder of Muslims proves one’s devotion.”

“Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the United States was just a small part of Bin Laden’s long-term strategy to win a civil war for control of Islam. By fighting his terrorists solely with bullets and bombs and ignoring his war on Islam, we have bolstered Bin Laden’s recruiting efforts abroad, undermined civil liberties and economic security at home and tarnished America’s reputation internationally.”

According to Amazon, Nance believes that the U.S. can “eliminate al-Qaeda in less than twenty-four months, while recreating America’s reputation as a force for good around the world.”  Nance’s plan includes exposing al-Qaeda’s mission, “challenging and breaking the perceived spiritual link between the mainstream Islam and al-Qaeda’s cultist ideology,” using intelligence and special operations missions to attack al Queda fighters (which will reduce the deaths of innocent civilians), and reinvent America’s image in the world by supporting the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts of other countries beset by al Queda terrorism.

Amazon describes Nance’s ideas as moving the U.S. toward “both a revolutionary blueprint for destroying al-Qaeda and a fierce critique of America’s poorly executed war on Bin Laden’s terrorists.”

According to his brief biography Nance is more qualified to help us understand a better way to end the al Queda threat than almost anyone else. He is described by Amazon as “one of the world’s leading experts in the strategy and tactics of the al Qaeda organization, international terrorism, global security policy and torture.”   He has almost 30 years of field experience in anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism in the part of the world where al Queda is most prominent. He has worked directly with US Special Operations and the intelligence community, and has “combat experience as a naval and land warfare intelligence collections operator, interrogator, wartime Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor and terrorist hostage survival instructor. “

Nance has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other front-line states in the fight against al Qaeda. He is a lecturer on terrorism intelligence and author of “The Terrorist Recognition Handbook: A Practitioners Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activity,” “The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency,” as well as his forthcoming book.

I look forward to reading Nance’s new book. I hope that our leaders do so as well. I have been so focused on combating the extreme militarism of American foreign policy and grieving the tragic milestone that we are close to reaching–1000 U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan–that I haven’t thought about the nature of al Queda as a religious cult and the implications of this for our efforts to defeat them and the threat they pose. My thanks to Nance for refocusing my attention. I don’t think the world has ever experienced a more virulent religious cult with such a wide reach. Nance’s ideas make more sense than anything else I have heard or read on the subject since 9/11. I look forward to a policy discussion that will fully consider Nance’s approach to al Queda.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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8 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Understanding al Queda as a violent religious cult

  1. Ah, it is so nice to see people beginning to pay attention to more than just surface appearance.

    Al Queda (radical Islam in its various forms) is the foster sibling of radical Christianity (and any other organized religion). The common thread to any of the would-be conquerors is hate; a virulent form of hate which seduces people through its simplicity and its ability to target virtually any group the leaders wish.

    Much like Fascism in another era (which at its most basic was truly no different) the leaders of any “cult” or religious movement as seeks to remake the world in its narrow image has a very sweet siren song that lures hearts and minds by placing the blame for people’s troubles on an easy to target group.

    Inevitably as time goes on such organizations begin to target other groups and ultimately many of their former supporters who are “dedicated” enough. Nazi Germany went after Jews, homosexuals, the mentally and physically halt, and then went on to target other groups they found objectionable (i.e.: Gypsies, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russians, Ad Nauseum…).

    While I haven’t read the book (and doubt I will) the point Nance is making is that any group seeking to elevate itself by treading upon the necks of its enemies is corrosively deadly. In fighting such groups governments too often in the past have come to resemble those enemies being fought and the liberties lost in such conflicts are regained only through the sacrifice of those willing to place liberty above “security”, comfort and / or profit.

    One point to also keep in mind is that corporations often work closely with such groups as it is easier for them to make higher profits under totalitarian regimes. If the money trail were followed in a transparent way, it is likely that more than one corporation has aided Al Queda (and profited thereby).

  2. Hankins, who is asking us to “Think of the armed and militant David Koresh in his compound near Waco. His adult followers were so enamored with his philosophy that most were willing to die for the cult. Jim Jones held such powerful sway over his followers that hundreds went to their deaths. The Heaven’s Gate cult members all (apparently) willingly killed themselves based on the teachings of their leader,” when thinking about al Queda? Would that be you or Malcome Nance?

    That analogue is a very weak one. Al Queda followers have one objective: kill infidels and spread Islam through violence and intimidation. If left alone, they will still try to kill infidels.

    In contrast, followers of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Heaven’s Gate were, for the most part, looking to be left alone. They didn’t wish to kill a certain group of people or annihilate a nation. Their motive was not to destroy people who thought differently. Sure, their supporters were radical, hard core, brainwashed followers of lying, deceitful, manipulative, egomaniacs. But terrorists? Not quite.

    You, or Nance, might want to go back to the drawing board on that one.

  3. The Taliban sprung up in part as an extreme answer to the treat posed by the Russians in Afghanistan. Al Queda didn’t exist in any organized fashion in Iraq until after the American invasion as Saddam Hussein was keeping his foot on their necks. One religion or the other is constantly trying to put it’s brand on others or to go to war to eliminate the one they consider evil or an intruder. Gunpoint or Swords point conversions or elimination have been going on since the beginning of time.

    The deserts of Bin Laden’s Saudi Arabia were almost as fertile fields for his kind of fanaticism as Waco was for David Koresh.

  4. I also have a big problem with your second paragraph. It’s not ideology that sets al-CIAduh apart, (that and the insinuation that those in Waco somehow agreed to be burnt alive). It’s the love of money. As someone pointed out without US there’s no al-qaeda. Every contract has protection money built in. Look it up on wsj.com They agree not to disrupt a project until after a certain date, after which the cycle repeats itself, beginning with a bomb blast.

    Anyone with their eyes open (or at least pointed at a computer screen) are able to tell that 9/11 was as misrepresented as the war in Iraq, on Terror, and the misdirections came straight from the top.

    Don’t let yourself be misdirected any longer by cutesy language like that used in another of Nance’s pieces on al-CIAduh: “Journalists and pundits who transmogrify a snarling, wounded wolf (that has successfully mauled you before) into a Labradoodle, because it has lost a tooth or two while biting one’s leg off do their readers a disservice.” On the contrary, every bite they taste is twice as sweet because we brought them the proverbial bacon.

    No, Mr. Nance, you’re doing all a disservice with your inflated half-truths.

    Those of us now in full revolt will not stop so long as we have blood coursing through our veins.

  5. Response to Kat and Dan:

    The lead-in sentence to mentioning Koresh, Jones, and Heaven’s Gate is “…al Queda… behaves much like other destructive religious cults.” The paragraph following explains the characteristics that all or most religious cults have in common. I never suggested that Koresh, et al. were engaged in efforts to destroy the broader society in which they were found.

    Nance’s analysis may be wrong, but it rings truer than any other analysis I have read. His hypothesis has been tested in a few places and found to have merit. Time will tell how accurate it is.

  6. What part of we are paying our own enemies to fight us didn’t you understand. They are not a religious cult, but a profitable arm of the clandestine deep state.

  7. I don’t disagree with that view. I was just trying to answer your question. However, Nance’s views and yours are not mutually exclusive. They can be a violent religious cult that is paid by the clandestine security state.

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