Cults and Terrorism, Part 2 – Lessons from History

Continued from part one. There have been cult-like groups in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. In 1090 CE, the Muslim Hassan-I Sabbah led the Nizariya faction of Shia Muslims from a mountain fort near the Caspian Sea in present-day Iran. He was called “Sheik of the Mountain” with forts in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. He sent assassins to kill Sunni leaders, by knife or garrote, usually in broad daylight and in public places for maximum impact. Assassin derives from hashishin, a follower of Hassan but can also refer to a hashish user. His followers called themselves Fedayeen (people of the new doctrine) the same term today referring to radical Muslims. Hashishin training was similar to that in ancient Greek and Roman mystery cults, involving dying and being reawakened. In a moving ritual Hassan himself intervened and followers believed it was to him they owed their lives.

The Thuggi of India were Hindu followers of Kali, god of death and destruction. Like Hassan their prime motive was to use terror to assume more power. They also killed by garrote. The word thug derives from the Thuggi. They were active for 300 years and it is reported that in the 1830s the British hanged 4000 of them.

An example of a cult-like group regarded as positive is the Knights Templar, a Catholic religious order founded 1119 CE after the 1st Crusade. They called themselves Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon and their mission was to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. In 1129 the pope endorsed them which facilitated fundraising. Uniforms were a white tunic with a red cross, worn over armor. Initiated by secret ceremony, vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their Grand Master they became a feared combat force and they usually led the charge. They originated a banking system from Europe to Jerusalem using coded accounts, built castles, and owned a fleet of ships. In 1305 they were charged with heresy, their assets seized, and leaders were burned at the stake.

The Essenes were an isolated Jewish desert commune at Qumran credited with writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had initiation rituals, communal rules, and believed there would be a war between armies of light and darkness. Some speculate Jesus spent some time there.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the second article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – “Good” Cult-Like Groups will follow.


Lewis, Bernard. The assassins: A radical sect in Islam. New York: Oxford University Press. 1967.

MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist who worked 30 years in mental health clinics and hospitals and in private practice. In addition to BA, MA, and PhD degrees, he earned two post-PhD diplomates and was a certified forensics examiner who testified as expert witness in civil and criminal cases.
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