Nov 9, 2017

What Doomsday Cults Can Teach Us About ISIS Today

New York Times
November 5, 2017

How ISIS Resembles the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s

Can the lessons we learned from extremist cults decades ago be used to fight ISIS recruitment today?

A disturbing 1981 film from Canada could serve as an enduring learner’s manual for any family worried about a son or daughter succumbing to the lure of a religious cult. The movie, “Ticket to Heaven,” describes how a young man, adrift and vulnerable, falls prey to a sect closely resembling the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Deprogramming — rescuing him from the zombielike state into which he has fallen — proves a challenge for his friends and relatives.

More than three decades later, a ticket to heaven is what Abdirizak Warsame thought he had bought when he and other young Minneapolis men of Somali origin came under the spell of recruitment videos posted online by the Islamic State. The power of that propaganda to inspire acts of terror was evident again last week in New York, where the authorities said such videos impelled Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, to drive a truck along a bicycle path at high speed, killing eight people and injuring 11 others.

In Minneapolis, the aspiring jihadists were like the fellow in the 1981 film: nowhere men. They felt distant from both family traditions and the conventions of their adopted country. In 2015, they set out to join Islamic State fighters in Syria, only to be arrested by federal agents who had them under surveillance.

“My son was brainwashed because he was watching this propaganda video,” Mr. Warsame’s mother, Deqa Hussen, said to Retro Report. “He thought that if he go to Syria, he’s going to go to heaven and all my family is going to go to heaven.”

Retro Report, a series of documentary videos that mine past news events for their continuing relevance, explores the behavioral threads that run through the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and apocalyptic cults from years ago. “When you’re in a vulnerable situation,” Leslie Wagner-Wilson said, “by gaining your trust, slowly, you become indoctrinated into the ideology of the organization.”

That description fit Ms. Wagner-Wilson and her family 40 years ago. They were mesmerized by Jim Jones, a charismatic figure who declared himself God incarnate. He founded the Peoples Temple, a cult that promised a future utopia where poverty, racism, injustice and war were banished. Based first in Indiana and then Northern California, Mr. Jones drew thousands to his side. But he became ever more paranoid, and his behavior ever more erratic and menacing.

In the mid-1970s he moved his flock to a jungle base in Guyana called Jonestown. On Nov. 18, 1978, feeling threatened by deepening scrutiny from American officials and the news media, Mr. Jones organized one of history’s most devastating acts of mass suicide and murder. He compelled his followers to drink a fruit punch laced with cyanide.

Ms. Wagner-Wilson managed to escape in time with her young son. Others in her family were not so fortunate. They died, along with more than 900 others, including at least 270 children, their bodies strewn across the jungle floor. The horror shocked the world (and gave rise to a lasting expression for blind adherence to a perilous idea: drinking the Kool-Aid).

Jonestown was not the last cult twisted by visions of apocalypse. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Branch Davidians in Texas, Heaven’s Gate in California, the nonreligious Manson Family — all had faithful disciples. All embraced death.

Now, groups like the brutal Islamic State and the Shabab in East Africa are magnets for several thousand readily duped Westerners, including scores of Americans. Many of them feel isolated from family and community, and long for something to believe in. They’re typically young men like the Minneapolis Somalis. “ISIS tries to instill that there is something greater that you can be doing,” Mr. Warsame said in an interview last year with the CBS show “60 Minutes,” after his arrest and before a federal judge sentenced him to 30 months in prison. “It kind of takes control of you,” he said.

Social media and online videos are powerful recruiting tools that the Islamic State has exploited skillfully and aimed at young people like him and his friends. “If they’re living in a context where they feel alienated, they feel like they’re not getting a fair deal, they can be open to indoctrination,” Charles B. Strozier told Retro Report. Mr. Strozier, a psychoanalyst who is the founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, added, “They’re susceptible to thinking of these larger messages which come flooding at them through the internet.”

They are not necessarily beyond salvation, though. Almost as if “Ticket to Heaven” were a training film, the federal court in Minneapolis has turned to a version of deprogramming as a possible solution. Only the word used in connection with jihadists is deradicalization. The court invited in Daniel Koehler, founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies in Berlin. Mr. Koehler has concluded that extremists of all stripes share a sense that what is wrong with the world and what is wrong in their own lives are intertwined.

Many high school or college students feel woebegone: Parents are annoying or teachers are oppressive. Most young people figure out that there are various ways to cope. But for someone who has been radicalized — say, a teenager led to believe that his religion is being persecuted — the perspective can narrow and obvious solutions fade (except maybe violence). Mr. Koehler calls it “depluralization.” What he attempts, he told Retro Report, is to “repluralize the worldview, make it broader again, make them understand that there are no easy answers for single problems.”

That means, in part, reintegrating them back into the larger society and inculcating skills other than how to fire an AK-47 or strap on a suicide vest. He thinks that progress has been made with some of the young Somali men, but not all. The judge in Mr. Warsame’s case, Michael J. Davis, said he remained unpersuaded that the defendant had abandoned jihadist aspirations.

While the Islamic State in recent months has lost much of its territory in Syria and Iraq to United States-backed coalition forces, experts say it is not defeated. Thousands of militants remain in those two countries and presumably are still able to tempt gullible Western recruits, who are within reach via laptops and smartphones. And there’s always a chance that new death-hugging cults will arise. If the past is a guide, some young people are bound to be seduced into picking up a gun, convinced it’s their ticket to heaven.

The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Previous episodes are at To suggest ideas for future reports, email

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