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Religious Terrorism

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Religious Terrorism

Religious Terrorism

Apocalypse Now: Armageddon Enters the New Age of Terrorism


This is a CNN special report. This just in. The Center for Disease Control has just declared that an epidemic is widespread in Miami, Florida. Doctors have not yet diagnosed the specific cause of the rampant disease, but the illness initially resembles a chest cold that progresses into pneumonia-like symptoms. It then progresses rapidly into fever and shortness of breath. What is especially peculiar about this epidemic is that all the patients who have sought medical attention attended the Orange Bowl football game on New Year's Day. Authorities have asked that anyone who went to that game seek medical care if cold-like symptoms appear. Stay tuned to CNN for further developments on this story. Elsewhere in the news...(1 )
Terrorism has been defined as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."(2 ) While the 1980s saw a growth of politically inspired terrorism, the 1990s has seen a dramatic increase in terrorism motivated by a religious agenda. As a result, intelligence experts have claimed that we may well be witnessing an emerging trend and shift away from terrorism motivated by political ideology towards a dominant religious terrorism warranting a revision of our notions of the stereotypical terrorist organization.(3 ) This trend has received some attention within the intelligence and law enforcement communities, and should should be of particular interest to individuals and organizations involved in monitoring extremist and new religious groups and movements, especially with regards to the U.S. domestic terrorism threat.(4 )

A History Of Religion And Terror

The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, apparently perpetrated by well organized terrorists with ties to radical Muslim extremist groups, has America grappling with the threat of terrorism as never before. Unfortunately, the combination of religion and violence is not new in history. In fact, many English words used to describe terrorists and their actions, such as "zealot," "assassin" and "thug," derive from the names of religious groups.(5 ) Yet in recent times, the religious motivation for terrorism has been overshadowed by "ethnic- and nationalist-separatist or ideologically motivated" political terrorism.(6 ) While many secular terrorist groups do have religious elements, the political dimension is the predominant characteristic. This began to change in the 1980s with the rise of religious terrorism in the form of militant Islamic Shiite fundamentalism. As we will see, the shift toward terrorism motivated by religious considerations is one of the reasons for terrorism's increasing lethality.

Differing Foundations, Deadly Differences

RAND researcher Bruce Hoffman contrasts the ethical values of "secular political" terrorists with "religious political" terrorists, and notes that these differ radically in that for "holy terrorists...violence [is] first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative."(7 ) For such groups terrorism is a full time vocation and they take public credit for such acts as a means of influencing their perceived constituency on behalf of a goal with terrorism as the means to an end. By contrast, unlike "secular terrorists," religiously motivated groups have no external constituency for whom a terrorist act is designed to influence. Religious terrorists often act anonymously and for no one but themselves, which results in increased levels of violence and lethality. These differing ethical foundations for terrorism provide the basis for the disturbing trend over the last decade towards a willingness to use biological and chemical weapons, as well as the increasing potential for their use in the future.(8 )

Holy Terror's New Players

Contrary to depictions in Western media, and popular stereotypes, religious terrorism is not limited to radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, and the U.S. domestic terrorist threat may lie closer to home. A few new religious groups and movements may pose the greatest threat. Before one is tempted to dismiss this thesis as alarmist and unwarranted, consider the following incidents:

In September 1984, 750 people became sick after eating in restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon. Investigators later learned that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the leader of the nearby religious commune of Rajneeshpuram, had ordered followers to spread the salmonella bacteria in restaurants in order to influence local elections. The event was thought to only be a trial run for a larger attack, and "resulted in the largest outbreak of foodborne disease" in the U.S. that year.(9 )

In 1987, a number of white supremacists, influenced by "Christian Identity teaching" (described below) were indicted for plotting to poison the municipal water supplies of two major American cities.(10 )

In March 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subways killed 12 and injured more than 5,000 in March 1995. Despite the attempts by some to downplay the severity of Aum's activities,(11 ) the Aum attack has the distinction of being the world's first mass-scale chemical terrorist attack. The group built a vast arsenal of biochemical and conventional arms, including mustard gas, anthrax, botulism, Q-fever, sarin nerve gas and TNT. Aum also experimented with seismic weapons designed to trigger cataclysmic earthquakes in Japan, an idea dismissed by geologists but taken very seriously by the U.S. and Soviet militaries.(12 ) While Aum appeared to meet its end with the arrest and trials of its founder, leadership and key members, recent news reports indicate the group is rebuilding and growing in membership. It poses a continued threat worth monitoring.

Acknowledged Possibility

Admittedly, not every new religious group or movement should be considered a domestic terrorist threat to the U.S. Most do not exhibit violent tendencies or incorporate a eschatological emphasis (the theology of "last things," including the supernatural climax of human history) upon an apocalyptic vision which could be used to justify terrorism in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doomsday. But the real possibility for religious terrorism by a few such groups has not escaped the notice of those grappling with the challenge and complexities of national security. Michael Osterholm, state epidemiologist at Minnesota's Department of Health stated, "There is a growing number of millennium cults who believe the year 2000 could be the end of the Earth and should be the end of the Earth, and are actively pursuing ways to bring that about."(13 )

Osterholm's words are echoed by Jessica Stern, a former chemical and biological weapons specialist with the National Security Council: "These kinds of groups might turn to extreme violence and weapons of mass destruction because they believe Armageddon is coming¼. They want to hasten the appearance of the Messiah."(14 )

Even former Defense Secretary William Cohen said, "Regional aggressors, third-rate armies, terrorist cells, and even religious cults  will wield disproportionate power" through the possible use of weapons of mass destruction [emphasis mine].(15 )

Some Worth Watching

Predicting who may commit an act of terrorism, and when, is a risky venture. Even so, given their doomsday eschatology, racist and/or anti-goverment rhetoric and activities, the following groups and movement are worth watching.

  • House of Yahweh, founded by "Yisrayl" Hawkins, with branches in Odessa and Abilene, Texas. This group may have a large collection of weapons, they believe their group will play a major role in the coming War of Armageddon, and members of the group have been linked to Posse Comitatus , a radical, anti-government group connected to the racist Christian Identity movement.(16 )

  • Nation of Yahweh, founded by Hulon Mitchell, Jr. (Yahweh ben Yahweh), in Miami, Florida. Although Mitchell is currently in prison for a murder conspiracy conviction, this militant black separatist group has a history of violence, including an incident in 1986 when Mitchell ordered the fire-bombing of a neighborhood, the sending of "death angels" to kill whites, and acts of retribution against blacks who interfered with Mitchell's business activities.(17 ) The FBI has investigated this group in the past under terrorism guidelines established by the attorney general.(18 )

  • Nation of Islam under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. This is another black separatist sect with militant tendencies. Although he has softened his rhetoric in recent years, Farrakhan has prophesied a doomsday for white America, including the total destruction of the country, while also calling for the establishment of a separate black territory in the U.S.(19 ) He frequently makes anti-American statements in the media both in the U.S. and abroad, and has close ties to Libya and it's leader Qaddafi, a nation and leader known for supporting international acts of terrorism. He also has ties to El Rukn , a radical, black Muslim street gang in Chicago, which "reportedly offered to carry out terrorist operations in the United States on behalf of Libya in return for money."(20 )

  • Christian Identity Movement. Many of the episodes of terrorist violence in the U.S. have been perpetrated by white supremacists. They come from a variety of organizations, including neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and the growing militia movement, with sympathizers found across the U.S. These white supremacists are radically anti-government, racist and anti-Semitic. The increasingly popular Christian Identity teaching is the ideological glue which holds a large segment of this movement of hate together:

    The basic tenets of the Identity movement include the beliefs that Jesus Christ was not a Semite, but an Aryan; that the Lost Tribes of Israel are composed not of Jews, but of "blue eyed Aryans;" that white Anglo-Saxons and not Jews are the true "Chosen People;" and, that the United States is the "Promised Land."(21 )

The Christian Identity movement is of special concern given its emphasis upon a future racial and religious Armageddon, a holy war between Yahweh's Aryan race on the one side, and the Jews and other "sub-human races" on the other. Identity teachings are spreading rapidly through a growing number of hate groups,(22 ) as well as undiscerning Christian fundamentalist churches in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest. It represents a powerful religious ideology who's teachings or teachers may have influenced both Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City,(23 ) and the perpetrator(s) of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.(24 )

Increased Vigilance

In commenting on the Aum gas attack in Tokyo, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman stated, "We've definitely crossed a threshold. This is the cutting edge of hi-tech terrorism for the year 2000 and beyond. It's the nightmare scenario that people have quietly talked about for years coming true."(25 ) It is also a scenario that may be repeated elsewhere, therefore the significance of Aum and other groups, must be noted and we would do well to learn the lessons in preparation for the possibility of similar incidents.

We have noted the current trend toward terrorism dominated by a religious imperative, coupled with the tendency towards increased violence and lethality. The FBI has also noted an increase in terrorist activities from right wing extremists and "special interest groups." These facts, combined with recent examples of terrorist acts carried out by new religious groups or movements, and the probable rise of new doomsday groups, as well as existing groups putting a new emphasis on doomsday eschatology(26 ) give great cause for concern.

After investigating the Aum attack (within the context of the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction), a U.S. Senate investigative report asked:

'How does a fanatic [Aum and its founder, Shoko Asahara], intent on creating Armageddon, with relatively unlimited funds and a world-wide network of operatives, escape notice of Western intelligence and law-enforcement agencies outside of Japan?'

The answer was as direct as it was alarming. 'They simply were not on anybody's radar screen,' replied a top U.S. counter-terrorism officer.

Not on anybody's radar screen? Apparently we need a new radar.(27 )

While the intelligence, defense, disaster response and medical communities continue to grapple with the implications of the Aum, and now World Trade Center attacks, and the prospect for future acts of domestic terrorism, those who monitor new religious groups and movements have an important contribution to make. Here those who labor in this field must give due recognition to the present trend and future prospects presented by such groups. While special attention is usually paid to the possibility of a new religious group's self-destruction in the wake of the Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate tragedies, as we have seen, consideration must also be given to the possibility that some groups may direct acts of violence outside the group. While it may be that "[i]n dealing with unconventional groups that have both religious and political agendas, government officials and law enforcement agents have not always been sufficiently sensitive to their [religious] self-definitions,"(28 ) hopefully those monitoring extremist, fringe and new religious movements and groups can provide a needed corrective. With an increased vigilance, we may be able not only to stem the tide of false teaching and abusive practices, but may save lives as well.

About the Author

John Morehead is associate director of Watchman Fellowship, a non-profit organization specializing in cults and new religious movements. He is also adjunct instructor at Capital Bible College in Sacramento, California teaching courses on cults, as well as new and world religions. Comments and questions may be directed to P.O. Box 227, Loomis, CA 95650-0227, (916) 631-7896.

Web site: Watchman Fellowship, California Office.
E-mail: morehead@quiknet.com.


About this page:
Religious Terrorism
Posted: Sep. 14, 2001
Last Updated: Nov. 8, 2001
Copyright 2001 Watchman Fellowship. All rights reserved. Posted by permission.
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