Definitions of Both Hotly Contested
Attempting to identify terrorist organizations as religious cults or religious cults as terrorist organizations is a challenging task for several reasons. Both the definition of cult and the definition of terrorism are hotly contested and thus their combination is unsurprisingly exponentially more so. Why is this the case? Definitions of both cults and terrorism are based on subjective lists of characteristics, rather than undisputed definitions. Thus a terrorist is someone who employs terrorism - and terrorism is defined according to certain characteristics of an act often (but not always) including the target of the attack, the social position of the attacker, the intention of the attacker, etc. A cult is also defined by characteristics including (sometimes) a particular structure of leadership, conditions of the followers, and elements of an ideology. Both “terrorism” and “cult” are pejorative words and their use often indicates as much about their user as those they seek to define. Accordingly, when one attempts to identify a terrorist organization as religious cult, or vice versa, he finds himself in very murky waters. Therefore, this article will consider less the definitions of either term and more the characteristics of both. Using a matrix of attributes, this article will classify existing organizations into a spectrum of religious cults and terrorism and identify common conditions that are present when particular cults engage in acts of terrorism.