Four years ago, on April 15, 2013, Boston was attacked by terrorists during its annual legendary Marathon. Four people lost their lives and 264 more were wounded. Boston Strong was the phrase used, but we all were in lockdown while police tried to hunt down those responsible. For me and countless others, it brought up painful emotions of the 9/11 attack.
Soon, reports came out linking the attack to extremist beliefs and rumors of ties to Islamic extremists started circulating. As a mental health professional who lives in Newton and helps people that have been unduly influenced by cults and extremist groups, I was deeply affected. I was contacted and interviewed by many major media including CNN and PBS. I explained how radicalization can happen quickly. I had been scheduled for weeks to speak at M.I.T. about the Psychology of Cult Formation and gave this talk just a few days after the attack.
Though the initial official stance is that they were “not connected to any known terrorist groups,” it later was discovered the older brother had involved with extremists and trained in Dagestan and exerted influence over his younger brother. They were both reportedly influenced by now deceased extremist Anwar al-Awlaki and watched many of his lectures online. They reportedly read the extremist magazine Inspire online and learned to build the pressure-cooker bombs.
This fact is something that should cause great concern. With Trump’s travel ban and anti-Muslim posturing, added to reports of ISIS losing territory, it seems very likely that more and more extremist groups will ramp-up their virtual radicalization efforts. As we learned in Boston, extremist influence is dangerous–even if it is only done through the internet.
The danger of online radicalization and recruitment into any cult is a serious one. As I wrote in Combating Cult Mind Control, “…many organizations now use the internet to mislead and misinform the world.” Be aware of front groups that pose as helpful resources to the public as a way to introduce themselves to those who visit. Once a person begins visiting these sites, it becomes possible for them to be ensnared by the cult or group that runs it.
The way to keep people safe is NOT to promote bans from Muslim countries, or stop refugees from coming to the U.S.. This plays into the ISIS strategy of wishing to influence the vast number of Muslims from being moderate to believing they are under attack. ISIS recent attacks on the Coptic Christians in Egypt was intended to inflame Christians in the United States to see all of Islam as the enemy of Jesus. Fortunately, most American Christians see through this strategy.
What is needed is to develop educational programs to help inoculate people to the techniques of undue influence–particularly online. In addition, family members and friends who observe someone becoming radicalized need to have no government options to help de-radicalize the individuals. Former extremists can be trained to help. I have been teaching my Strategic Interactive Approach for over twenty years and realize that to be effective each case needs to be handled individually. Non-profits like Parents for Peace can be funded to help advise and develop resource people and materials.
Educating everyone about undue influence is the answer! I am proud to say that the newly redesigned website for the non-profit Open Minds Foundation is up. Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Robert Cialdini have recently joined our Advisory Board and we are bringing together some of the world’s top experts to address this “Age of Influence.” Our survival depends on clear headed thinking which relies on science, facts and level-headed decision making. It also depends on our upholding our cherished human rights, including freedom of religion, as well as our social diversity.
I am heartened that Sweden, who was also recently suffered an extremist terrorist act, is resolute to have life go on as normal and to not let the terrorists change them or their human rights values.
As always, my heart is with all who have been harmed by all of these horrible attacks.
Here are some other video interviews of interest concerning counter-terrorism strategy.
Steven Hassan with CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield: ISIS as a Cult 9/17/14
Steven Hassan with Fox News: ISIS recruitment in America 9/5/14
Steven Hassan with Ex-MeK Masoud Banisadr: Iranian terrorist cult MeK 7/12