Viewing cults and terrorist organisations through a new lens


Terrorist organisation?

This short article illustrates how the systemic principles proposed by Bert Hellinger (1994) for family systems and adapted by Gunthard Weber (2000) for organisational systems, apply in cult and terrorist organisations. Most systemic principles are adhered to but others are intentionally violated to keep the organisation functioning.

How are cults and terrorist organisations similar? (Jennifer Rees, 2019)

The underlying psychology of cults and terrorist organisations is very similar:

  • The process used to recruit people into terrorist organisations is very similar to the three-stage process used to recruit people into a cult.
  • The leaders of both types of organisation share similar characteristics (including being charismatic, intelligent and authoritarian with a high need for stimulation).
  • Those recruited into these organisations are similar (including being from comparatively well-off families, having average to above average intelligence with a good education and being idealists).
  • Where people are recruited is similar (including educational institutions/courses, prisons, festivals, youth/recovery groups, religious centres).

Although the psychology of cults and terrorist organisations is well studied by academia, it does not appear that the systemic principles of organisational systems have been considered.

What is noticeable through the lens of the Systemic Principles?

Intentional imbalance of exchange: Both organisations, cults in particular, begin their recruiting by giving free food/gifts/education etc to create an obligation for the receiver. For example, in the street you might be offered a brochure or a place on free seminar. Since people in a healthy system expect there to be a balance of exchange or reciprocity, potential recruits who have accepted the gift respectfully give more time to listen to the recruiter. This gives the recruiter more chance to connect with the potential recruit and already shows that the potential recruit is potentially vulnerable (e.g. they may be seeking a purpose or meaning to their life).

Impossibility of impermanence: Unlike healthy organisations, where the possibility of dissolving the organisation once it loses its purpose must be acknowledged, the typical cult or terrorist organisation preserves itself through a “purpose” that is valid indefinitely. This “higher purpose” or “cause” is a critically important part of the organisation. Purpose is something that humans strive for and the purpose of greater good offered by a cult or terrorist organisation is very attractive to the idealistic personality types that these organisations tend to recruit.

Belonging: Alongside the need for purpose, another basic human need is to belong; to be accepted. Cults and terrorist organisations emphasise this. Their recruitment processes are orientated towards both showing you that you belong within them and reinforcing the impression that the recruit holds about themselves that they do not belong outside the organisation. The distinct boundaries between membership and non-membership reinforce the sense of “belonging” that the recruit benefits from by being a member of the organisation.

Respecting the order of time: As in healthy organisational systems, the order of time is respected. Those that joined the organisation first are honoured, those that have joined most recently acknowledge their place and are usually given the lowliest of jobs until newer recruits join. Members are incentivised to recruit other members and in doing so they elevate their status in the organisation through this respect of the order of time. The founder, of course, is greatly honoured and revered, even if they are dead.

Leadership has priority: As in healthy organisation systems, leadership has priority. However, in a cult or terrorist organisation the leaders usually use coercion and strict rules (e.g. control of sexuality and reproduction, discouraging or forbidding contact with non-members) to ensure the survival of the organisation.

Achievements and special competences are acknowledged: As in healthy organisations, special accomplishments and effort made by organisation members are acknowledged. In cults this is particularly obvious in the third and final step of the recruitment process known as the “sacrifice” where the individual demonstrates their personal commitment and is acknowledged for it. In terrorist organisations, the equivalent is, for example, the martyr video that is filmed for release to friends and family after the individual’s death in service of the cause.

In cults, it is often the case that the founding leader claims to have special competences – not available to anyone else – which they have perhaps had since childhood. For example, having visions of the future, receiving messages from a “higher authority” (e.g. religious or alien), being a genius or in some way “pure”.

In terrorist organisations, those with special competences (e.g. bomb design, media relations, torture) are given a higher status and revered.

Exploitation of family entanglements: People recruited into any organisation, whether healthy systems or not, bring with them the effect of their own family dynamics, i.e. their historic and current relationships with their parents, siblings, partners and potentially trans-generationally transmitted patterns.

However, these family entanglements are exploited in a cults and terrorist organisations to recruit and retain members. Typically, recruits are well educated and idealistic but they have some area of dissatisfaction or ‘stuckness’ which often stems from their development as a child. The cult or terrorist organisation offers them a way to seemingly overcome this unresolved relationship dynamic. If the recruit did not feel loved as a child, they will be “love bombed” by the cult recruiter.

In conclusion

Cults and terrorist organisations share much in common in the way they intentionally violate some of the systemic principles adhered to by ‘healthy’ organisations. Cults and terrorist organisations appear to ‘exaggerate’ their adherence to some principles, using them to their advantage. The ‘systemic principles lens’ appears to offer a form of ‘diagnostic’ for helping to determine whether an organisation or group is a cult or terrorist organisation or not.

Terrorist organisation?

If you have any experience in a cult or terrorist organisation or researching them, we would be interested in your thoughts and feedback on this article. Please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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