Book Review - Terrorismo Religioso. La Guerra del Siglo XXI. El Ataque al World Trade Center y al Pentágono.

Cultic Studies Review, 3, (2/3), 2004

Terrorismo Religioso. La Guerra del Siglo XXI. El Ataque al World Trade Center y al Pentágono.

Jorge Erdely, Ph.D.

Publicaciones para el Estudio Científico de las Religiones, México City, 2001, 190 pages.  Language: Spanish.  ISBN: 970-92771-2-X

Reviewed by Carmen Almendros, Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical and Health Psychology, Psychology Faculty, Autonomous University of Madrid.

Acting on a “moral imperative”, the terrorists who placed thirteen bombs on four of Madrid’s suburban trains on March 11, 2004, had been planning an even deadlier attack than that which occurred. The bombs were synchronized to explode when the first two trains met at Atocha station. Because of a brief delay of the second train, its bombs exploded one kilometer short of Atocha. And the failure (or intended delay) of three of the bombs prevented an even worse tragedy. Only three minutes were necessary to deliver the worst terrorist attack ever experienced in Spain. The death toll was 192 workers and students, people whose close familiarity to me will certainly influence the present review in some way.

Several spontaneous heroes largely reduced the consequences of the explosive attacks. Rafael[1] was one of them. The shocking explosions threw him out of the car onto the railroad at El Pozo del Tío Raimundo. Although not really sure of what he was doing or where he was, he didn’t follow his survival instinct. Instead of running away to a safe place, he dedicated himself to assist those seriously injured, together with others on the same train who were uninjured. No one was in command, but they were perfectly organized. Employing pieces of marquees or benches as stretchers, they spent hours pulling out bodies while considering the chances of survival, in what they themselves perceived as an aberrant but necessary priority of those who were severely damaged but evidently alive. Ignoring the enormous risk to their own lives, they manipulated a backpack that, some hours later, was found to contain lethal explosives. There was an oversupply of every kind of assistance, professional and unskilled, to such a degree that a great number of potential volunteers were excluded from helping. As in the case of September 11, the sacrifice, courage and moving demonstrations of solidarity of so many different people from around the world, reminded us of the human individuals' capacity to act as moral agents and carry out what they consider a humane duty, even at their own peril (Bandura, 2002). It reminded us, as well, of the collective human capacity to generate spontaneously new patterns of behavior, including new definitions for such a confusing situation, instead of being guided by irrational chain reactions (Rodríguez-Carballeira & Javaloy, 2003).

Inevitably, several questions arise when trying to cope with the consequences of such acts and attempting to understand the nature of the “sick” or “perverted” minds which have perpetrated so much indiscriminate destruction. Further details of the lives of the bombers prior to the attacks, describing normal behaviors and interactions with their targeted society members, led us to describe those voluntary executioners (Goldhagen, 1998) as “hidden abnormal people” (Cadena Ser Radio, May 14, 2004), although previous literature evidenced how “disturbingly normal” most terrorists seem when interviewed (Hoffman, 1999; Juergensmeyer, 2001).

In such times and scenarios, we, as social scientists, are particularly responsible for addressing these seemingly incomprehensible paradoxes, for describing phenomena and offering explanations and, in this way, giving back to society as a whole what we have learned thanks to its support (Cialdini, 1997). This is especially important if we are to avoid biased responses and formulas that could lead us to buy into simple solutions to complex situations, disregarding the effects of the actions we take or support and thus perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Dr. Erdely’s book Terrorismo Religioso provides a prompt and competent response to this need for information. Written shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, the book’s stated goal is to bring us closer to a coherent explanation, and it certainly provides tools to understand the growing incidence of fanatic religious behavior and ritual suicides. According to the author, 9/11 was not an isolated event that took place in a vacuum, but has a historical context and a contemporary global dimension that antedates both 9/11 and the more recent Madrid bombings. Hence, he argues, such a topic needs to be addressed from a multidisciplinary approach if proper understanding of its causes is to be achieved.

Although many of the abundant essays written on terrorism and 9/11 talked about “programmed.” Indoctrinated, or deceived suicidal terrorists, most of them do so superficially and sometimes in a sensationalist way due, from my point of view, to low skills on cult-related issues.  The author of Terrorismo Religioso is a person whose focus over the last years has been the study of religious manipulation in totalitarian groups. Dr. Erdely avoids repeating many of the descriptions of 9/11 widely spread by commercial media, focusing instead on relevant aspects to achieve the above mentioned purpose, as well as explain the foundations of such behaviors.  

Dr. Erdely is a member in good standing of the Latin American Association for the Study of Religions, the regional chapter of the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR). His academic credentials include a degree in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Psychology. He also holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a three year graduate specialization in Semitic languages. In 2001-2002 he was a postdoctoral Research Fellow in Theology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.  He is the author of several books and research papers on cult-related topics and edits Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones, an indexed, peer-reviewed journal focused on the study of religious globalization and human rights in Latin America.

In the first two chapters of the book, Dr. Erdely introduces the issue of “collective suicide rituals” and “suicide-homicides” as a relatively recent phenomenon, starting well into the 20th century. He offers a concise review of the several “apocalyptic scenarios” (title of his second chapter) that have occurred since Jim Jones’ mass suicide/assassination in Guyana in 1978. He describes also violent attacks on society at-large, such as that of the Aum Shinrikyo sect releasing nerve gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995. The “apocalyptic scenarios” end with the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.

He provides a detailed description of the events surrounding the massive murder-suicide that took place at Kanungu, Uganda, on March 17, 2000. About 530 members of the “Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God” lost their lives when their church was set on fire. Approximately the same number of people was found in several mass graves in and around the homes of cult leaders during the following days. An offshoot of the Catholic Church, the movement was an apparitionist cult which had predicted that the world would come to an end on December 31, 1999. When such a revealed prophecy failed to occur, a new date was announced: March, 17, 2000. Part of the valuable information provided by the author, discusses whether to describe the events of March 17 as ritual suicide or as mass murder. He describes evidence supporting the first, and concludes that what took place at Kanungu was a religious ceremony that aimed to usher followers into a different dimension of existence, leading to the subsequent church inferno. The author underlines the secrecy factor among members and nonmembers that permitted such an atrocity as the systematic and seemingly unnoticed disappearance of hundreds of dissident members and their families prior to March 17, actions that must have been carried out with the collaboration of some followers. This was achieved “by merely using words.” The author concludes by advising us not to underestimate the power of religious ideologies and discourse that can turn people either into “human torches” or “suicide warriors”.

The third chapter introduces us to the “theology of ritual suicide.” It explores several possible reasons that could drive individuals to commit suicide, and does so taking into account clinical aspects as well as historical events and cultural traditions. The most frequent cause of common suicide is clinical depression. Suicide may also be employed in war contexts to escape capture or torture by an enemy. In some cultures, suicide is used to avoid facing public disgrace, or as an individual act to protest publicly against political or military oppression. The author differentiates between individual actions of self-immolation, like the above mentioned, and suicides as rituals within a given belief system, behaviors that are carried out as an end in themselves to achieve a religious goal, frequently on the “way to the everlasting paradise.”  He explores the mechanisms through which critical judgment can be inhibited and provides useful references and examples of psychological manipulation. Especially interesting is the author’s explanation that there is no religious tradition exempt from being twisted to end in a suicide ideology. This observation prevents us from unfair generalizations that end up blaming a particular religious faith or even culture as the root cause of the actions of terrorists groups. Reinforcing that observation is the diversity of religious backgrounds of notorious groups in recent history which have engaged in ritual mass suicide and/or religiously motivated terrorist attacks against society. Thus, this phenomenon of violence goes far beyond the concrete theologies from which they are supposedly derived. The author concludes the chapter by describing what he has found to be the necessary factors present in such episodes:

The next three chapters define and elaborate on those three factors. Then the author applies this analytical framework to Al Qaeda and the Taliban to see if they fit the model. Chapter Four focuses on messianic leadership, providing a linguistic, historical and theological analysis of Messianic features, in both Western and Middle East cultures. It also deals with the issue of cultural perceptions and what might be called “perceived or functional Messianism,” both in individuals as well as in organizational structures.

The phenomenon of unconditional obedience is addressed with a concise and clear explanation of the manipulative psychological and physiological processes by which followers of messianic leaders or entities can have their critical judgment impaired and their prior moral values distorted so as to allow leaders to act unchecked. Dr. Erdely enriches this remarkable chapter with examples extracted from texts of Sun Myung Moon and Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders’ teachings, as well as with an analysis of the letters left behind by Mohammed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers. Chapter Six discusses how a suicide-inducing discourse is just part of the trigger event, which could arise one day or another without warning signs, once the other two factors are present. The author points out the element of surprise always present in past ritual suicide episodes to support this assertion, thus preventing us from rejecting that possibility in the absence of a suicide-inducing discourse. At this point, his primary emphasis is placed on prevention, providing indicators that could help us better understand the “process” and circumstances under which these actions take form, instead of merely analyzing the end results.

Chapter Seven is an easy-to-read description of the “Islamic World,” useful to inform readers unfamiliar with the very basics of this religion. With the stated purpose of preventing misperceptions, the topic of Islamic pluralism is introduced, as well as basic definitions of faith and creed. To compensate for our adaptive, but sometimes inappropriate, human tendency to generate simple labels and generalize them to describe different realities, the author of Terrorismo Religioso explains the differences between the “Islamic world” and the “Arabic world” and acknowledges the diverse ethnical origins and varied religious expressions within the different geographical locations where Islam is a dominant faith. He even reminds the reader that “not all of those who consider themselves Arabs practice the Islamic faith,” underlining what he thinks to be a common generalization of Westerners talking about “Arabs” when they really mean “Muslims.”

Chapter Eight explains basic Muslim doctrine in relation to the primary concept of Jihad or Islamic holy religious war. It concludes that the West is currently facing a distorted, expansionist version of classic Jihad, what Dr. Erdely calls “the new Jihad” carried out by Islamic sectarian groups that have radicalized and redefined ahistorically many of their core religious concepts. Citing several of these groups and giving details of their beliefs and behaviors, he talks about the several training camps where new generations of suicidal terrorists are indoctrinated and provided with a rationale for mass murder. Accordingly, violent actions are divinely sanctioned means and “holy warriors” who give their lives away for an allegedly transcendent cause as martyrs acquire the direct right to enter paradise, bypassing Judgement Day. They perceive the “Western world,” especially the United States, as a morally perverted and corrupting entity that with its hedonism and crass materialism threatens to defile the “Muslim world,” enticing Muslims to become religiously and morally lax. Dr. Erdely asserts that the enemy in the “twenty-first century war” is not Islam, “but destructive cults that do not represent Muslims.” His conclusions could be summarized citing Zimbardo’s (2001) call to acknowledge “how religiously-based value systems can be perverted to justify and reward the most horrendous of human deeds”.

In a particularly impressive postscript, Dr. Erdely notes how 9/11 and subsequent events have impacted our own security concerns and perceptions of the value of human life and compares the attack on the Twin Towers in New York to those daily, insidious and equally brutal acts that have affected and continue to affect since long ago anonymous people in underprivileged countries and places that are far away from our attention, places like southern Sudan or the Malaccan Islands. He states that both kinds of brutality have similar origins and are qualitatively of the same nature, although their symbolic value is very different.

Hence, in the minds of those who orchestrated the 9/11 tragedy, the aim was the symbolic effect of such a huge atrocity stamped on the minds of both West and East. This symbolic effect was accentuated by the rerunning media images of destruction. Dr. Erdely stimulates further discussion, pointing out how little we know about those other victims that have been slain for decades in countries such as Algiers and Indonesia by the same kind of factious jihadist groups that killed more than two thousand people on 9/11. This in a way reminds us of the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón (2004) when he states: “If the number of collateral deaths in the different worldwide conflicts were counted, the resulting statistics would scare even the most indifferent person.” That indifference, also related to “moral disengagement” (Braginsky, 1986) is, according to Garzón, the best ally of all dictators, fundamentalists and terrorists, and, I would add, manipulators.

This book encourages the reader to develop a better understanding of how normal people can be recruited and indoctrinated to transform themselves into suicide hijackers in order to follow a purportedly divine commandment. It doesn’t end there, as it also stimulates reflection on how our actions, presented as the fight against terrorism, have only treated terrorism's consequences.  Our actions, however, have been useless in reducing terrorism and have contributed to the daily recruitment of new jihadists, even in our own countries. But we could go even further because if we take only related cultic attributes into account, we could easily conclude: “Many pundits are saying that the eradication of bin Laden will be fruitless unless certain ‘underlying causes’ in the friction between East and West are addressed. But that presumes a rational stance in modern terrorism, and there is none” (Pearson, 2001). We ought not to take only the terrorist mind into account when trying to measure rationality, but should also analyze the cultural implications of the phenomenon. Polk (2004) tells us that 73% of Lebanese people, 43% of Jordanians, 47% of Nigerians, 33% of Pakistanis and 27% of Indonesians approved of suicide attacks, if that could stop Western ideas from being disseminated. This finding may cause in the West a similar discomfort to that created in the Muslim world by Madeleine Albright’s assertion that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a “hard choice” but “the price is worth it” (Burgat, 2004 on Albright’s 2001 response about U.S. sanctions against Iraq). These in a way remind us of the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón (2004), when he states: "If the number of collateral deaths in the different worldwide conflicts were counted, the resulting statistics would scare even the most indifferent person."  That indifference, also related to "moral disengagement" (Braginsky, 1986) is, according to Garzon, the best ally of all dictators, fundamentalists, and terrorists and, I would add, manipulators.  It seems easy to find good reasons for our own actions, which we justify based on the behavior of others.  It is easy to engage the general population in “us vs. them” solutions. In doing so, however, not only are we deafly ignoring the causes of terrorism, which begin at the very first stages of education, but also we are day after day adding new reasons for supposedly “moral justifications” to violence. Meanwhile, why is it that the victims are always mostly innocent civilians, sometimes very near, but other times so far removed from our humane interest and compassion?

This book is based on well-documented research from a multidisciplinary approach. It is written in a clear and readable form, intentionally avoiding the use of academic jargon. Highly recommended.


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31 (2), 101-119.

Braginski, B. (1986). The meaning of indifference. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 4 (2), 235-243.

Burgat, F. (2004). ¿Locos por Dios? De la retórica religiosa a la reivindicación política. La Vanguadia. Dossier 10, 50-53.

Cialdini, R. B. (1997). Professionally responsible communication with the public: Giving psychology a way. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23 (7), 675-683.

Garzón, B. (2004, 28 February). Tiempo de canallas. El Pais, Opinión.

Goldhagen, D. J. (1997). Los verdugos voluntarios de Hitler. Los alemanes corrientes y el holocausto. Madrid: Taurus Pensamiento.

Hoffman, B. (1999). Inside terrorism. Columbia University Press.

Juergensmeyer, M. (2001). Terrorismo religioso. El auge global de la violencia religiosa. Madrid: Siglo XXI.

Pearson, Patricia (2001, November 5). Apocalyptic Cult Methods Explain bin Laden. USA Today.  Retrieved 23 December 2001 from

Polk, W. R. (2004). Terrorismo mundial. La Vanguadia. Dossier 10, 70-76.

Rodríguez-Carballeira, A., & Javaloy, F. (2003). Reacciones colectivas tras el ataque del 11 de Septiembre. Encuentros de Psicología Social, 1(4), 249-254.  

Zimbardo, P.G. (2001). Fighting terrorism by understanding man’s capacity for evil. Fresno Area Psychologist, 9 (3). 

Cadena Ser radio. (2004, 14 May). La Ventana.



I am a member of the University community as well as a wounded person at the terrible 11M. What I have lived through has been difficult, but fortunately my physical and psychological injuries are reversible. As many Spanish people, I have deeply felt the pain of so many families who suffered irreparable damages, which is so hard to overcome when circumstances are so absurd, indiscriminate and unjust…

To support politics and thoughts of global peace and justice is the best way to prevent such sufferings that have hit, in one way or another, so many world citizens…

It would be my desire that such a barbarian act wouldn’t be of use to generate more hate, as hate has been the reason that brought so much death. Let us learn about it, in order to end this dynamic of injustice and terror.

Carlos M. Professor at Autonomous University of Madrid. Cantoblanco, April 1, 2004.

[1] Rafael who had recently stopped attending a manipulative psychotherapy group thanks to his family intervention after that experience, wished to return to the group. He finally decided not to do so after receiving some advice from us.