Cults and Terrorism, Part 4 – Destructive Cult-Like Groups

Continued from part three. Heavens Gate was a California UFO/apocalyptic group founded by Marshall Applewhite, son of a Presbyterian minister who dropped out of seminary to study music. He taught music at the University of Alabama but was fired for alleged sex with a student. His wife left him taking their two sons. In 1972 he had vision that he was on a special mission but it so alarmed him he committed himself to mental hospital. There he met nurse Bonnie Nettles, herself married with three children. In 1973 they called themselves “the two” from the Book of Revelations, to save people from evil UFO aliens. Their followers were forbidden to have sex because, they claimed, heaven is asexual. In 1976 the group of 100 moved to Laramie WY and there Applewhite became Doe and Nettles Ti, as in the words for the musical scale and they began astronaut and mental telepathy training. Nettles died 1985. In 1992 the group moved to San Diego CA as Overcomers Anonymous. They raised money programming computers, opened a website, and wore black uniforms with Heavens Gate Away sleeve patches. In March 1997 they videotaped themselves, smiling and cheerful. On March 22 the Hale Bopp comet came nearest Earth and Applewhite announced it was time to leave their bodies and power their souls to the comet. In shifts, 21 men and 18 women, 26 to 72 years old, drank juice with vodka, phenobarbital added, put plastic bags over their heads, and died. They wore their uniforms, new Nike shoes, each of them covered with a square purple cloth. They had one 5-dollar bill and four quarters in their pockets.

The Peoples Temple left 913 men, women, and children dead in their jungle commune in Guyana. It began Indiana as an interracial mission for the homeless by James Warren Jones, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister. When his alleged cures for cancer and heart disease were being investigated, he moved to Ukiah CA, then San Francisco, then Los Angeles, and finally to a 4000 acre commune in Jonestown, Guyana as an agricultural co-op. He preached the imminent end of the world and regularly practiced mock mass suicide chanting “die for your faith, leave the world a message.” He began abusing drugs and became increasingly paranoid. In 1978 Congressman Ryan and his staff visited Jonestown to check claims of abuse. He and four others were killed and 11 wounded and Jones exhorted 913 including 276 children to drink cyanide in Kool-Aid and die. Jones died last, his final words taped.

The Branch Davidians began as The Davidian Branch, a splinter group in Waco TX of Shepherd’s Rod, a group excommunicated from the 7th Day Adventist Church. Vernon Wayne Howell joined in 1981 and by 1984 he formed a group that moved from Waco but returned in 1988 to take over the Waco property. In 1990 he changed his name to David Koresh, after Biblical King David, and claimed he was the Lamb of God to open the seven seals described in the Book of Revelations. He said the group had to defend itself against the government and God told him to have babies with girls and women members to start a new House of David. News media reports that he had a dozen children, some by girls as young as 12, and illegal weapons in the commune, led to a search warrant in1993. Refused access, federal agents laid a 51 day siege that ended in a raid in which four agents and six Davidians were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Then a wind-blown fire killed 76 commune members including Koresh, found with one gunshot to the head.

Aum Shinrikyu was founded in Tokyo in 1984 by Shoko Asahara as The Aum Club, a blend of Buddhism, Hindu yoga, and Christianity. In 1992 he claimed to be Christ and claimed there were conspiracies of Jews, Masons, the British royal family, and the U.S. was the beast described in the Book of Revelations. He said the world would end in World War 3 but he and his followers would survive. In 1995 his followers released sarin gas in Tokyo subway trains killing 12, hospitalizing 54, and injuring 980. Police raided Aum locations and found explosives, biological and chemical agents, and meth and LSD labs. 150 Aum members were arrested. Later, cyanide bombs were found in subway stations that could have killed 20,000, and a mail bomb to Tokyo’s mayor blew fingers off his secretary. Asahara was charged and convicted of 23 murders and sentenced to death.

The Solar Temple was founded in Canada by Luc Joret who prophesied the end of world but he and followers would be reborn in the star Sirius. The group stockpiled weapons as Joret lived lavishly on member assets signed over to him. Charged with gunrunning and money laundering he fled Canada. In 1994 the bodies of 53 members were found in Switzerland, most shot in the head, others stabbed, arranged in circles, wearing white, black, or gold costumes, Joret among them. In 1998 a psychologist member was arrested on the Canary Islands planning the suicide of 29 affiliated with Solar Temple.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are cult-like groups that use terror as a political tactic. Cult aspects are in hero worship of bin Laden and tribal leaders, and martyrdom that guarantees hero status, heaven, and 72 virgins. Their goal is to impose an Islamic theocracy on the West, as much political as religious motivation. Extremist Islam is a complex phenomenon. Imagine an American soldier in Waziristan, Pakistan, at the Afghan border confronted by a man in middle Eastern garb with an AK-47 pointed at the soldier, ready to shoot. Unlike previous wars, this enemy is not in uniform. He could be al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, or the U.S., or a local Waziri or Mehsud tribesman, competitive tribal groups, or a Pakistani Taliban, or an extremist Iraqi Sunni or Shiite Muslim who kill each other back home. He could be a kidnapper, a cattle thief, a vengeful family or tribe member to settle a grudge or uphold family or tribal honor, or fight for whoever pays well. Afghans have fought the British in colonial times, then Russians, and now U.S. or Pakistani troops. The literacy rate in Waziristan is less than 20% for men, 3% for women. To understand these complex dynamics watch the skilled actors in Lawrence of Arabia again, King Faisal (Alec Guinness), the rival leaders Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn, the British military (Jack Hawkins), diplomat (Claude Rains), and Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), all with their own agendas. Khartoum starred Charlton Heston as Chinese Gordon, and Lawrence Olivier as the Muslim leader The Mahdi. Both believed deeply in their cause. That is the true nature of “the war on terror.”

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 fourth article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Features of Destructive Cults will follow.


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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