Identifying Religious Terrorism through Profiles of Propaganda

Roderick Hindery

The following paper, which I have composed August 4, 2004 as a fifth reading for this website, summarizes and updates my article in The Humanist (April, 2003, 16-19) about how to identify religious terrorists through their profiles of propaganda.

Ayatollah he a symbol of propaganda in religious terrorism?

Ayatollah Khamenei…is he a symbol of propaganda in religious terrorism?

Terrorist activities are rooted in terrorist profiles of language and thinking which share common features both with one-on-one indoctrination and with larger scales of indoctrination which are described in terms of ideology and propaganda. Although indoctrination and propaganda do not always result in terrorism, they logically precede it. And although propaganda and indoctrination do not work like weapons of physical mass destruction directly, in terms of damage to human minds and freedom they function as weapons of incredible mass destruction.

In an article published in The Humanist, April 2003, 16-19, I analyzed several preliminary strategies which seem to pervade the thinking of religious and other terrorists:

  1. repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditations;
  2. the targeting of youth; and
  3. binary thinking in simplistic terms.

Repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditations are illustrated in the language of the documents found in the suitcase of leading 9-11 terrorist Muhammed Atta. “Read verses of the Quran into your hands and rub them over your luggage, knife, and all your papers…. Check your weapons and remember God constantly while riding to the airport. Take courage and remember the rewards which God has promised for the martyrs.” Instant heavenly rewards for terrorist destruction of others by self-inflicted martyrdom were also regularly promised by the Ayatolla Khoumeni, as reported by Judy Woodruff on PBS’s Frontline in the 1980s.

The targeting of youth similarly highlighted the strategies of Khoumeni, as well as those of Sayyid Qutb, who is well known for his impact on Arab, Muslim youth. The terrorists of 9-11 were in their early twenties. The youthfulness of indoctrinated men and women stands out not only within Islam, but also within other political and religious groups–Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic and Protestant Christians, mainstream traditions, and new religious groups like those of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in the U.S. and Guyana.

Binary thinking is a third strategy which prevails within the thinking of religious terrorists and the fundamentalist views with which they are often associated. For many, (though not all) Muslim fundamentalists, such as Khoumeni, Sayyid Qutb, and Sheikh Abduallah Azzam, the United States, Israel, and the West in general are perceived to be a single source of evil. In the documents of Muhammed Atta non-Muslims are called allies of Satan. Such dualistic, simplistic thinking, of course, is disavowed by many Muslims;. and it is hardly unique to Islam. Further, fundamentalists in several traditions are admired in part for their sincerity, fervor, and commitment not just to words, but to action. However, within many forms of religious and political fundamentalism people are divided simplistically into two classes. Dualistic, binary thinking is used as a shortcut to mass suggestion.


In addition to the above three features common to religious terrorism, I have analyzed several others in my book Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? (Lewiston: Mellen Press, 2001). The most telling clue of all is the presence of individual and collective self-deception. Those who most effectively deceive and manipulate themselves are those who best deceive and damage others.

Five further features are given special attention in my book:

  1. unwarranted claims to certitude–religious followers as well as leaders claim to be infallible about their convictions;
  2. the exploitation of emotions–propaganda often works emotionally, even when people know better logically;
  3. other-deception is camouflaged by positive traits such as sincerity, enthusiam, idealism, and apparent good will;
  4. ideologies are characterized by hidden, insular self-interest (e.g. Marxist as well as capitalist); and
  5. special appeal, use, and exploitation of “intellectuals.” Although intellectuals often lead effectively, they remain as vulnerable as anyone else to key aspects of indoctrination and propaganda: emotionalism, excessive fear, resentment, class exclusiveness, and subtle self-rejection and self-hatred.

It is as true now, late in 2004, as much as it was in Oct. 2001 and March 2002, when my analyses were first composed or published, that one of the chief ways in which religious and other terrorism can be preempted among other persons or in ourselves, is to recognize the features described above which precede and generate physical and psychological terrorism.

Proactive defenses against terrorism are aggressive. They include identifying the characteristics of self-deception and propaganda; replacing authoritarian herd-thinking with critical recognition of our own and others’ assumptions; and, unafraid of otherness, interacting with viewpoints opposed to or different from our own. A vital, early clue to recognizing terrorist patterns of thinking and action in the world beyond is to become aware of their presence within the more familiar thought processes of ourselves as well as our adversaries.

(The full article is available in the menu to the left as “The Anatomy of Propaganda Within Religious Terrorism”. Or click here.)

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