ATbar Y2K and the Apocalypse: The Potential for Terrorism

Y2K and the Apocalypse: The Potential for Terrorism

20/12/1999 | by Shahar, Yael  

Apocalyptic Ideologies
Religious Ideologies 
Racial Supremacy 
Historical Eschatology: Doomsday Cults 
Common Themes

The Changing Face of Terrorism 
The Leaderless Resistance

Adapting to Changing Times 
Evaluating the Threat

A Window of Opportunity for Terrorists? 
The Y2K Bug and the Apocalypse 
Domestic Terrorism 
International Terrorism 
Jerusalem and the Apocalypse


Extremism, like all sociological phenomena, waxes and wanes according to a complex mix of economic and political factors, and threats from such groups are nothing new. But the approaching turn of the millennium is different. What gives this year’s celebrations an air of urgency for those entrusted with public security is the coincidence of religious, political and technological milestones. 

For many Christians, the year 2000, or “Y2K” symbolizes the beginning of the prophesied “End Times.” For most of the world, the number is associated with the possible collapse of the world’s digital networks, as their computers fail to recognize the difference between the years 2000 and 1900. In addition, the secular New Year this year falls in the middle of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan.

So while some religious groups are awaiting the onset of the “End Times,” characterized by social and political upheaval, people from all walks of life—from government to business—are anxiously waiting to see if essential utilities and communications will collapse as their computers succumb to the Y2K bug.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out a nine-month long analysis of the possible threat of domestic terrorism from apocalyptic groups. The final report, “Project Megiddo” emphasized that the risk, though difficult to pin down to any one group, was quite real nonetheless:

As the end of the millennium draws near, biblical prophecy and political philosophy may merge into acts of violence by the more extreme members of domestic terrorist groups that are motivated, in part, by religion. The volatile mix of apocalyptic religions and NWO conspiracy theories may produce violent acts aimed at precipitating the end of the world as prophesied in the Bible. [Project Megiddo, p. 7]

Apocalyptic Ideologies

The Mirriam-Webster English Dictionary defines “ideology” as: “1) visionary theorizing; 2) a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture; b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture; c: the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.”

The term “ideology” here will be used to refer to any worldview—whether religious, racial or political—that serves to unify and motivate a group of people. We will concentrate here on the various millennial ideologies, in an attempt to find common factors indicative of a worldview’s potential for violence.

The theme of “apocalypticism,” though generally associated with religious worldviews, actually appears in a number of secular politically or racial ideologies as well. Broadly defined, the term refers to a view of history as a one-directional process, marked by clearly delineated milestones. Such beliefs are clearly evident in worldviews as diverse as Marxism, Evangelical Christianity and some varieties of primitive animism.

The more common apocalyptic ideologies can be divided into three main groups: religious, racial, and historical. Adherents of apocalyptic worldviews often hold a combination of these beliefs simultaneously. For example the worldview of many white supremacists, though essentially racially motivated is also built on a foundation of religious beliefs.

Religious Ideologies

Religious Apocalypticism focuses on cryptic revelations about a sudden, dramatic, and cataclysmic intervention of God in history, the judgment of all men, the salvation of the faithful elect, and the eventual rule of the elect with God in a renewed heaven and earth. In the Judeo-Christian religions apocalypticism is based upon two main scriptural sources: the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Christian Eschatology

In Christianity the apocalyptic worldview usually surfaces as Millennialism (from the Latin word for 1,000). Millennialism is a both a theological standpoint and a religious movement now associated with such modern Protestant sects as the Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and certain segments of many Protestant denominations. The term is derived from the imagery of the New Testament Book of Revelation (Rev. 20), in which the writer describes a vision of Satan being bound and thrown into a bottomless pit and of Christian martyrs being raised from the dead and reigning with Christ for 1,000 years. This 1,000-year period, known as the millennium, is viewed as a time during which man’s yearnings for peace, freedom from evil, and the rule of righteousness upon earth are finally realized through the power of God. At the end of the period, Satan is to be loosed for a time to unify the nations of the world under a single evil government, before being ultimately defeated. All the dead are then to be gathered for the final judgment.[See Tabor, James. The Book of Revelations]

Many different interpretations of the millennium have been given. Some, called premillennialists, believe that the Second Coming of Christ will begin the 1,000-year period of righteousness in the world. Others, known as postmillennialists, the Second Coming will occur only at the end of this 1,000-year period, during which Christianity will be accepted throughout the world. The climax of this period of Christian righteousness will be the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.

Common to all forms of Christian apocalypticism is the belief that the Second Coming will begin with an apocalyptic final conflict, which will engulf the entire world. What makes some of these beliefs dangerous is the fact that their believers see themselves as the harbingers or catalysts of this final conflict. There is a real danger that these people will take steps to set off the cataclysm, which they believe is necessary to bring about the return of the Messiah. Some adherents of apocalypticism see themselves as martyrs who will, by their deaths, set off the battle of the righteous against Satan. In addition, apocalyptic Christians the world over tend to view either their own government, or the United Nations as the Evil Empire of Revelations, which is destined to launch a war against the Christians.

Evangelism, the Jews and Israel

Almost all apocalyptic Christian groups feel quite passionate about the Jews and/or about Israel, this passion taking the form of a kind of love/hate relationship in some cases and virulent anti-Semitism in others. In the United States, the Christian right is one of the staunchest supporters of Israel. The motives for such support are not always clear. In Genesis 15:18, God gives the land of Israel to the Jews, and for most fundamentalist Christians that settles the matter. However, in the worldview of most evangelists, the Second Coming will occur only after the destruction of Israel in the apocalyptic meeting between Christ and the Antichrist at Armageddon, or Megiddo. Those Jews who survive this catastrophe—only a hundred and forty-four thousand, according to some interpretations of the Scripture—will finally turn to Jesus as the true Messiah. [Wright, Lawrence. “Forcing the End”]

Jewish Apocalypticism

Judaism too has its version of the apocalypse. In fact, eschatology originally entered Christianity by way of the Jewish Scriptures. Old Testament eschatology centers on the conviction that the catastrophes that beset the people of Israel happened because of the Jewish people’s disobedience to the laws and will of God. Subsequent conformity to the will of God will result in the spiritual and physical redemption of the Jewish people. Because the Scriptural references upon which this belief are based were almost all written during periods of exile, this redemption takes the form of the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel and the reestablishment of the Golden Age of the Kingdom of David. But the return also has a spiritual component, in the form of a return to righteousness in compliance with the Law. Only after the symbolic cleansing of the Jewish people, will Israel be “a light to the nations” tasked with spreading God’s word to the other nations of the world.

Jewish eschatology is thus closely bound up with the concept of a redemptive history, in which the Jewish people are viewed as God’s chosen instrument for the carrying out of his purpose. Thus upon the fulfillment of God’s promises, the Jewish people are to be the vehicle for both their own salvation and that of the rest of the world.

Throughout history Jewish apocalypticism has waxed and waned with the fortunes of the Jewish people. However, with the establishment of the State of Israel, such beliefs have come to be seen by many Jews as a tangible pattern being worked out in modern history. The recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, brought about a distinct change in Jewish apocalyptic yearnings. For the first time in over 2,000 years, a Jewish government controlled the Temple Mount, the site of the first two Jewish Temples. Several prominent rabbinical authorities came to believe that Israel was already living in the End Time, and that the Jews must now do their part to prepare the way for the Messiah.

But preparing for the Messiah is not a mere spiritual matter. In the modern reality of the Middle East, it has significant political overtones. The Temple Mount is holy not just to Jews, but over Islamic history has come to be regarded as the third holiest shrine of Islam as well. It is the site of two venerated Islamic holy places—the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque, from which according to legend Mohammed ascended to Heaven.

In an article entitled, “The Threat of Jewish Terrorism in Israel,” ICT Islamic expert, Reuven Paz emphasized the growing importance of these shrines to Islam:

Jerusalem in general and the Aqsa Mosque in particular have since 1967 achieved an increasing importance in the eyes of most of the Arab Muslim world, both for governments and for peoples. The radical Islamic revival in the Arab world has succeeded in establishing Jerusalem and the Mosque as the major point of contention between Israel and the Arabs.

The situation is made all the more volatile by the fact that this elevation in sanctity comes at this particular point in history:

This increase in the sanctity of the of al-Aqsa to Muslims takes place on the background of the growing importance of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to the Israelis in general and to Jewish religious-political groups in particular, particularly since 1967. The issue of Jerusalem has become crucial to both sides, not only as a point of political dispute, but even more as the focus of religious-Messianic contention.

Any attempt therefore, to carry out a terrorist operation in the area of the Aqsa Mosque could be interpreted in the Arab world as part of the Muslim-Jewish global war.

The complexity of the matter was illustrated by Lawrence Wright, in his article, “Forcing the End”:

Soon after the Six-Day War was over, Shlomo Goren, who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel, led a group of fifty followers onto the Mount, where they fought off Muslim guards and Israeli police and conducted a prayer service. A week later, the Chief Rabbinate ordered that signs be placed in front of the gates saying that no Jews should set foot on the Temple Mount. The reasoning was that, because Jews are ritually impure, they might accidentally step on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. Such a desecration is punishable by death at the hand of God. This was supposed to put the Temple Mount theologically off limits…

Despite this proscription, there are several Jewish fundamentalist groups who are convinced that the time to rebuild the Temple is now at hand. The obvious drawback is that the Third Temple cannot be built while the Muslim shrines still stand. There have been several serious attempts to blow up the Muslim holy places. Both Israeli and Islamic authorities are extremely concerned that the ill-conceived actions of a small number of Jewish fanatics may set off a violent confrontation between Muslims and Jews.

One of the more volatile Jewish apocalyptic groups is the Temple Mount Faithful, led by Gershon Salomon. Among the group’s stated long-term objectives is “Liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation.” According to the Temple Mount Faithful, “The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque were placed on this Jewish or Biblical holy site as a specific sign of Islamic conquest and domination.” While the Temple Mount Faithful do not directly call for the destruction of the Muslim shrines, their own suggestion, “that they be removed, transferred to and rebuilt at Mecca,” does not appear to convey much conviction, even within the group itself. []

The secular millennium holds no significance for orthodox Jews, who eschew secular New Year celebrations as being alien to Judaism. The irony is that it is precisely here that Jewish apocalyptic aspirations coincide with those of the fundamentalist Christians, who foresee a cataclysmic war in Israel. For nothing would be as sure to set off such a war as the fulfillment of the designs of the Temple Mount Faithful. Any harm to the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount would be almost certain to bring about a violent confrontation—one that could easily rage out of control.

Nadav Shragai, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and the author of a 1995 book, “The Temple Mount Conflict,” estimates that there are about a thousand active supporters of the most radical Temple Mount movements.[Quoted in Wright] The potential of the Temple Mount Faithful to stir up conflict in this most sensitive of places is illustrated by an event that occurred in 1990. Salomon led a group of his followers to the Mount in order to lay a “cornerstone” for the Third Temple. As many as five thousand Muslims of all ages turned out to “defend the sanctuaries,” and began hurling stones onto Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below. The situation rapidly deteriorated into a riot. The Israeli authorities, who had failed to reinforce a police garrison on the Mount, dispatched border guards to control the situation. In the resulting struggle seventeen Muslims were killed and hundreds of people on both sides wounded.

Just how sensitive the site is can be seen in the fact that the opening of an archeological site near the Temple Mount to tourism in September 1996, led to riots by Muslims throughout the country. In the disturbances eighty people were killed..

In a way, the Temple Mount Faithful are only the extreme manifestation of an underlying trend in Jewish fundamentalism, whose more moderate expressions can be seen in the increasing political activity of Israel’s religious population.

Some see the increasing political involvement of religious Jews as stemming primarily from an apocalyptic view of modern history. According to Emmanuel Sivan of Hebrew University, “Jewish fundamentalism of the nationalist branch is mostly the product of the Six Day War. The fact is that until ‘67 the national religious camp was a very moderate Zionist movement. It has turned extremist because of this apocalyptic vision.” [Quoted in Wright]

Fortunately, the more extreme forms of apocalypticism are in a vast minority in Israel, and are actively represented in only a few organized movements. Israel’s General Security Service is faced with the unenviable task of struggling to keep abreast of every possible provocation by such groups, in a region where a single spark can set off a sweeping conflagration.

Islam and the Apocalypse

Islam is not a messianic religion and has no room for a savior-messiah. However there is in Islam a kind of counterpart to the Christian messiah, in the form of an eschatological restorer of the faith. The concept probably owes a good deal to Christian influence, as the restorer is sometimes identified with the returning ‘Isa (Jesus). However, he is usually considered to be a descendant of the Prophet and is referred to as the mahdi, or the “guided one,” who will usher in the Day of Judgment. [9]

The Day of Judgment is one of the five cardinal beliefs of Muslims. After death, everyone is questioned about their faith by two angels: Munkar and Nakir. Only those who died as martyrs are guaranteed an immediate place in paradise; all others go through a type of purgatory.

Islam usually views the outward manifestations of the End Time pessimistically: God will abandon the godless world. The Ka’bah (the great pilgrimage sanctuary of the Muslim world) will vanish, the copies of the Qur’an will become empty paper, and its words will disappear from memory. At doomsday all will die and be resurrected and judged according to his deeds in life.

These beliefs, though similar in some ways to Christian eschatology are not linked in any significant way with the coming millennium. In fact, the Gregorian year 2000 has no significance at all in Islam; by the Muslim calendar the secular New Year will occur in the middle of the year 1420.

Writing on the significance of the millennium to modern Muslims, UK Islamic scholar, Abdal Hakim Murad emphasized that while, the passing of the first millennium of the Muslim calendar raised the same type of anxiety that is currently sweeping believing Christians, this milestone was safely passed several hundred years back. [Murad, Abdal Hakim. “Islam and the New Millenium”]

Imam al-Suyuti, the greatest scholar of medieval Egypt, was concerned about the nervous expectations many Muslims had about the year 1000 of the hija. Would it herald the end of the world, as many thought?

Imam al-Suyuti allayed these fears by examining all the hadith he could find about the lifetime of this Umma. He wrote a short book which he called al-Kashf an mujawazat hadhihi al-umma al-Alf (‘Proof that this Umma will survive the millennium’).

However, Murad does point out one rather ironic outcome of this work:

But rather soberingly for our generation, he speculates that the hadiths at his disposal indicate that the signs which will usher in the return of Isa (a.s.), and the Antichrist (al Masih al-Dajjal), are most likely to appear in the fifteenth Islamic century; in other words, our own.[Ibid.]

According to Reuven Paz, none of these beliefs are such as to motivate Islamic groups to violence in connection with the turn of the millennium, as the secular millennium holds no significance for Islam. Thus Islamic apocalypticism is not a primary danger either in Israel or in other countries. This is not to say that Islamic groups will not carry out actions during the secular millennium, but only that such actions will stem from operational concerns alone and not from any apocalyptic beliefs.

Racial Supremacy

The principle racially motivated apocalyptic ideologies stem from intense and usually mystical beliefs in the innate superiority of one race above all others. In many of these ideologies the superior race is seen as the descended from some mythical “chosen race.” Invariably this race is seen as a persecuted minority, involved in an ongoing race war with the inferior races of the world. This war is destined to end in a final cataclysm, in which the chosen race will utterly destroy or enslave all the others and will take its place as ruler of the world.

One of the factors making racial supremacy so dangerous is the fact that this worldview is so often founded on religious beliefs or itself constitutes a religion. Thus the adherent of such a worldview combines the intensity of religious belief with the virulent xenophobia of the racist.

Conspiracy Theories

Racial Supremacist ideologies often revolve around intricate conspiracy theories, which serve to explain how the chosen race is kept from assuming its rightful place by the combined action of the other races of the world. Without such a conspiracy, in the eyes of the racial supremacist ideology there would be no explanation of how an innately superior race is kept “enslaved” by an inferior one. The need for such explanation stems from the tenant underlying most supremacist worldviews that the chosen race’s superiority is one of “fitness” to rule or to survive. It is this evolutionary point of view that makes such ideologies so amenable to an apocalyptic view of history.

A number of the main apocalyptic racial supremacy groups are based in the United States, and were given special attention by the FBI’s report on the threat of apocalyptic violence, “Project Megiddo.” For the most part adherents of these ideologies present a threat of domestic rather than international terrorism. Yet the fact that followers of these ideologies have already been involved in a number of racially motivated murders and indiscriminate attacks in several different countries clearly illustrates the potential for violence inherent in such beliefs.

Central to many of these conspiracy theories is the notion that the United Nations has a secret plan to take over the world and set up a world government, beginning in the year 2000. This is known as the New World Order (NWO) conspiracy. The New World Order take-over is to be activated by the Y2K computer crisis. The New World Order conspiracy is not limited to the UN. Adherents of the NWO conspiracy theory believe that the conspiracy also involves such diverse groups as the Jews, the World Monetary Fund, the Communists, and the American Council on Foreign Relations. Believers point to the merging of European currency, the Y2K bug and a number of other signs and portents as allegedly supporting their beliefs.[Project Megiddo, see also Jensen, Carl J. Law Enforcement and the Millennialist Vision: A Behavioral Approach ]

Historical Eschatology: Doomsday Cults

The term “cult” is often used by members of established religions as a derogatory term to refer to other non-standard religions. Here the term will be used in a very narrow sense to refer only to a group of individuals who have surrendered their own will and opinions to that of a charismatic leader. Cults generally have a very rigid hierarchical structure in which the cult leader is seen as the ultimate authority. These groups, though often enigmatic and sometimes contentious generally are not a danger to the society around them.

However, Those cults motivated by apocalyptic worldviews, even when not constituting a present danger to their societies generally have the potential to do so. At the very least, they can present a to their own members, as for example the Heavens Gate and Solar Temple cults, both of whose members were induced to participate in mass suicides.

The ideology of apocalyptic cults revolves around the cult as a harbinger of a new age for humanity. Often they see the cult leader as a prophet, a messiah, or even the personification of a deity. A number of such cults ascribe supernatural powers to the cult leader and to a lesser degree to the inner circle. They often view these powers as indicative of their superiority over the rest of humanity. Cult members tend to see themselves as being, not only the future participants in a new era, but those who will bring about the next phase of human history.

Almost universally the millennium is held to be the time during which this new phase is to begin, often after a cataclysmic war. Some apocalyptic cults see themselves as the destined survivors of the cataclysm. Others see themselves as being essential to the occurrence of the cataclysm. While the former are most concerned with preparing themselves to survive the end of the world, it is the second type of cult that presents the greatest danger.

In order to determine which cults should be classified as “doomsday cults,” B.A. Robinson of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance has identified several main factors commonly found in such cults. [“Factors Commonly Found in Doomsday Cults”]. These factors were present to an extreme degree in organizations with a history of mass suicide or killing:

Apocalyptic Beliefs:

  • The leader’s preaching concentrates heavily on the impending end of the world, often at a great battle (e.g. War of Armageddon). Alternately (as in the case of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate groups) the leader preaches that through group suicide at a particular time, they will all be transported to a wonderful place and escape the devastation that is about to come to the earth.
  • The group is expected to play a major, elite role at the end time.

Charismatic Leadership

  • They are led by a single male charismatic leader.
  • The leader dominates the membership, closely controlling them physically, sexually and emotionally.

Social Encapsulation

  • They are a small religious group, not an established denomination.
  • The group (or at least the core members) lives together in an intentional community which is isolated from the rest of society.
  • There is often extreme paranoia within the group; they believe that they are in danger and that they are being closely monitored and heavily persecuted by governments or people outside the group.
  • People on “the outside” are demonized.
  • Information and contacts from outside the cult are severely curtailed.

Other Factors

  • The group leadership assembles an impressive array of guns, rifles, other murder weapons or weapons of mass destruction. They may prepare defensive structures.
  • They follow a form of Christian theology (or a blend of Christianity with another religion), with major and unique deviations from traditional beliefs in the area of end-time prophecy

Many intentional communities and most religious groups exhibit a few of the above factors. They are probably not dangerous, because some of the factors are absent and/or because the factors are not practiced to an intense degree.

Ex: Concerned Christians, House of Yahweh

Many apocalyptic groups are inspired by science fiction scenarios or a belief in alien visitations. Last summer around 60 members of the Stella Maris Gnostic church went missing in the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern Colombia where they were due for an alleged rendezvous with a spaceship. They were hoping to be carried off by extraterrestial beings in time to escape the end of the world, due at the turn of the millennium. The sect believed the extraterrestials would rescue 140,000 people in a kind of new Noah’s Ark.

Member of the Heavens Gate cult believed that the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp comet was a signal that the world was about to end. They committed mass suicide in the belief that they would be reborn on another planet. [see O'Leary, Stephen. D. Heaven's Gate and the Culture of Popular Millennialism ]

Ex: Aum Shinrikyo, Heavens Gate, Solar Temple

Common Themes

While apocalyptic worldviews can be motivated by religious beliefs or by political or racist ideologies, a number of common themes can be seen running through most of these worldviews. These common themes include:

Isolationism/nationalism – the group sees itself as constituting an elite, separate from the rest of humanity. This isolationism can be that of a race, a nation or a cult.

Extreme paranoia – members of the group are convinced that they are persecuted by powerful enemies, that they are under surveillance by their governments, or that the world is somehow united against them.

Xenophobia – outsiders are feared and hated by members of the group. To some extent this is a function of the group’s paranoid “us-against-them” outlook.

Belief in historical destiny for the elite – members of the group see themselves as destined to bring in a new era, or to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Often they believe themselves to be the only ones destined to survive the imminent destruction of the world. Such a belief reinforces the group’s view of itself as superior to the rest of humanity.

Dualism – members of the group see the world as being divided into two opposing camps of Good and Evil. Events on the local scene are viewed as evidence of this great cosmic struggle.

Nationalism and Internationalism

For many people, the theme of the millennium is “unification.” The growth of the Internet has done more than anything else to erase national borders, while in world economic interdependence is greater than ever before. Not everyone is happy with these developments.

Oddly enough, one of the common threads running through most apocalyptic worldviews, whether evangelical or conspiracy theories is the role played by global unification, as embodied by the increasing ascendancy of the United Nations in world affairs. In both worldviews, the apocalypse is preceded by the formation of “one world government” under the control of the United Nations.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. Paranoia thrives on disorder and lack of cohesion; extremist worldviews have always vigorously opposed the “threat” of internationalism. Naturally many of the paranoids of the world view increasing internationalization—the advent of the “global village”—as a threatening development.

Typical of the paranoid worldview is the theme of “us against them.” Such a worldview is essentially xenophobic—it requires an external enemy, and in the absence of such will happily invent one. Such an outlook is in direct contrast with the standpoint of the “global village,” whose theme is “no more us and them; no more national borders.” In fact these two worldviews are true dichotomies which, in one form or another, can be seen running throughout all of human history. It is the classic battle between the philosophy of the “nationalist” and that of the “internationalist.”

The Changing Face of Terrorism

One of the lessons brought into sharp relief by the efforts to combat millennial terrorism is the changing nature of the terrorist organizations themselves. Gone, for the most part, are the days of the clearly delineated, hierarchically-organized terrorist group. Today’s terrorist is just as likely to be an individual unaffiliated with any known group, who’s operational knowledge was gleaned from the internet and who’s inspiration and marching orders come from an extremist website. Such an individual has no defined place in an established hierarchy and is on no government’s list of possible terrorists.

This point was particularly emphasized in the FBI’s “Project Megiddo” in which the difficulties facing law-enforcement agencies were underscored:

Quite simply, the very nature of the current domestic terrorism threat places severe limitations on effective intelligence gathering and evaluation. Ideological and philosophical belief systems which attach importance, and possibly violence, to the millennium have been well-articulated. From a law enforcement perspective, the problem therefore is not a lack ofunderstanding of motivating ideologies: The fundamental problem is that the traditional focal point for counterterrorism analysis—the terrorist group—is not always well-defined or relevant in the current environment.

The FBI report pointed out that the general trend in modern terrorism is a movement away from the traditional, hierarchically structured terrorist organizations. “Even well-established militias, which tend to organize along military lines with central control,” the report said, “are characterized by factionalism and disunity.” And although the more traditional hierarchical terrorist groups still exist, and are still a force to be reckoned with on the international scene “the overwhelming majority of extremist groups in the United States have adopted a fragmented, leaderless structure where individuals or small groups act with autonomy.” Although the FBI report focused primarily on the threat of domestic terrorism, the same trend can be found to some extent in international networks, such as that of Ossama bin Ladin.

The Leaderless Resistance

In February 1992, an American white-supremacist named Louis Beam published a pamphlet entitled “The Seditionist.” In this work, Beam proposed a new strategy to be followed by what he called “the brave sons and daughters [willing] to fight off ever increasing persecution, oppression…and tyranny” of the U.S. federal government.

Beam pointed out that the usual hierarchic structure leaves an organization open to infiltration by security forces. Do away with the hierarchy, says Beam, and replace the pyramid of command with individuals and cells operating according to broadly disseminated ideology, and you do away with this vulnerability. In such a system there is no central direction. Rather the organization is made up of what Beam called “Phantom cells,” which operate independently of, and unknown to, one another.

Such an organization is “leaderless” in the sense that its individuals never report to a central headquarters or a single leader for orders. However, leadership of a sort is there nonetheless, in the form of a common ideology and common goals.

In his article “Right-wing Terrorism on the Rise,” ICT researcher Ely Karmon describes the mode of operation of such an organization:

The participants in a program of Leaderless Resistance, through phantom cells or individual action, must know exactly what they are doing, and how to do it. It becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done. This is by no means as impractical as it appears, because it is certainly true that in any movement, all persons involved have the same general outlook, are acquainted with the same philosophy, and generally react to given situations in similar ways.

The individual cells communicate by means of newspapers, leaflets and, increasingly, the Internet. According to Beam such communications “keep each person informed of events, allowing for a planned response that will take many variations. No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.”

In the words of Dr. Karmon, “Such a situation is an intelligence nightmare for a government intent upon knowing everything they possibly can about those who oppose them.”

Adapting to Changing Times

Among the more obvious changes in the terrorism arena is the displacement of politically motivated terrorism by primarily religiously motivated terrorism. The changing operational structure of terrorist organizations, as well as the upsurge of religiously motivated terrorism requires security forces to alter the way they fight terrorism.

In the past, counter-terrorist analysis was group-oriented; the principle task of a counter-terrorist operation was to identify an organization as having the potential to carry out terrorist acts, name its chief members and infiltrate or otherwise discover its operational plans. However, these days some of the most dangerous terrorist groups operate without a centralized structure and without identifiable leaders. In such cases, there is no organization to infiltrate, and few pre-determined operational plans.

Thus, rather than focusing on organizations as the basic “elementary particle” of terrorism, today’s security services must focus less on groups and more on ideologies. The principle task facing law enforcement agencies will thus be to determine which ideologies should be regarded as having the potential to inspire their adherents to carry out violence in the service of their beliefs.

This of course gives rise to some extremely thorny dilemmas for democracies, which must walk a fine line between insuring the security of their citizens, while at the same time allowing freedom of opinion.

Evaluating the Threat

All of the forgoing leads us to some common traits that may serve as signs that an apocalyptic movement is potentially dangerous. For this it is not enough that an organization or group of people follow a discernibly apocalyptic ideology. We must be able to point to indicators that this ideology is likely to spur its adherents to violent action.

Danger Signs in Apocalyptic Movements

An analysis of this kind was given by Kevin M. Gilmartin, in “The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated Extremist Groups.” According to Gilmartin, there is a “lethal triad” of factors, which when combined in a single group should set off danger signals for law enforcement authorities:

“... isolation causes a reduction of critical thinking on the part of group members who become entrenched in the belief proposed by the group leadership. As a result, group members relinquish all responsibility for group decision making to their leader and blame the cause of all group grievances on some outside entity or force, a process known as projection. Finally, isolation and projection combine to produce pathological anger, the final component of the triad.”

Both the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have recently issued reports aimed at keeping local law enforcement agencies informed of the possible millennium violence from cults and extremist groups.

The following list combines the reports of these and other law enforcement agencies in determining common factors and danger signs regarding potentially dangerous apocalyptic movements.

  • Active apocalyptic Ideology – Apocalyptic beliefs that involve the believer to take positive action to bring about a cataclysmic change in history. The movement’s members see themselves as being essential players in a cosmic drama. They feel that their action is needed to pave the way for the victory of the forces of good over evil.
As the millennium draws near, believers may feel the need to take immediate action to ensure their salvation.
  • Demonization of Outsiders – believers feel that their salvation and the victory of the forces of good depends on the eradication of their enemies. The profound xenophobia of such movements leads them to demonize all those that do not belong to the movement. The group is always on the verge of anticipating confrontation, which justifies action to eliminate evil and eradicate enemies.
  • Extreme Paranoia – The belief of members that their movement is under constant or imminent attack by outside forces can lead them to justify violent action against perceived enemies.
  • Charismatic Leadership – Although many extremist groups adhere to a leaderless structure, the presence of a “prophetic” personality can add to the potential for violence by an apocalyptic movement. Often such a leader will portray himself as a prophet or messiah.
  • Absolute control over member’s beliefs – Apocalyptic movements can exhibit a dangerous control over the morality and inhibitions of their movements. The creed of the movement takes the place of external belief systems, thus insulating their members from the influence of broader social constraints.
  • Moral and physical isolation – An apocalyptic movement is demonstrably more dangerous when its members live iphysical isolation from the surrounding society. This isolation fosters and feeds off the belief on the part of the movement’s followers that they are above the laws of society. The movement’s own social code is established as the basis of all acceptable behavior. It’s members operate in a social vacuum where there is a relative absence of normal institutionalized restraints to curb their whims.
This isolation also increases the dependency of the movement’s members on their leader and/or the social structure of the movement.
  • Arms acquisition –Violence plays a major role in the ideology of many apocalyptic movements. This, together with the paranoia and xenophobia can cause a movement to live in expectation of violent conflict with outside forces. Such a belief generally leads to the hoarding of arms and preparation of defensive arrangements.
Cults: A Different Focus

By contrast to the trend toward the unstructured, non-hierarchical, leaderless structure of many newer terrorist groups, cults retain a rigidly hierarchical structure, based upon a charismatic leader. For this reason, counter-terrorism efforts must put great emphasis on understanding the leader, his background, his worldview and his plans for the future.

Project Megiddo listed the principle signs that law enforcement officials need to watch for in a cult and its leader to determine whether the cult had the potential for carrying out millennium violence:

  • Sequestered Groups – Members of sequestered groups lose access to the outside world and information preventing critical evaluation of the ideas being espoused by the leader.
  • Leader’s History – The fantasies, dreams, plans, and ideas of the leader are most likely to become the beliefs of the followers because of the totalitarian and authoritarian nature of cults.
  • Psychopaths – Control of a group by charismatic psychopaths or those with narcissistic character disorders.
  • Changes in the Leader – Changes in a leader’s personality caused by traumatic events such as death of a spouse or sickness.
  • Language of the Ideology – Groups that are violent use language in their ideology that contains the seeds of violence.
  • Implied Directive for Violence – Most frequently, a leader’s speeches, rhetoric, and language does not explicitly call for violence, rather it is most often only implied.
  • Length of Time – The longer the leader’s behavior has gone unchecked against outside authority, the less vulnerable the leader feels.
  • Who is in the Inner Circle – Cults with violent tendencies often recruit people who are either familiar with weapons or who have military backgrounds to serve as enforcers.

The following Table sums up the danger signs for both types of apocalyptic movement. 

Danger Signs Apocalyptic Movements Doomsday Cults
Ideology Actively apocalyptic 
Actively apocalyptic 
Charismatic but unstable leader
Rhetoric Use of violent imagery 
Frequent mention of need to take action 
Emphasis on salvation through conflict 
Demonization of outsiders
Frequent reference to “punishment of sinners” or eradication of “enemies”
Actions taken by group Movement to isolated area 
Hoarding of arms 
Building defensive perimeters 
Increased involvement in criminal activities
Movement to isolated area 
Hoarding of weapons 
Building defensive perimeters 
Recruitment of military types into inner circle


A Window of Opportunity for Terrorists?

The Y2K Bug and the Apocalypse

The Y2K phenomenon plays a major role in the conspiracy theories of a number of worldviews. Some see the entire scenario of possible computer shutdowns and technological chaos as being yet another tool for the manipulation of the unwary masses, who have purposely been kept in the dark by their governments. Others see the entire Y2K phenomenon as being a tremendous hoax perpetrated by governments bent on sowing panic in their populations, the better to gain supreme control of fringe elements and militias.

Such groups are likely to view any power outages or computer malfunctions as proof of their conspiracy theories. Neil Gallagher, head of the FBI’s national security division said that one danger was that conspiracy theorists would misinterpret any system failures “as a sign that in fact the New World Order is beginning.” John Trochmann, leader of the Militia of Montana, foresees terrorist attacks around the country if computers fail and utilities break down.

James G. “Bo” Gritz, once a decorated Army colonel in the Green Berets, now deep in the militant Patriot movement, toured the country this year cautioning that Washington is planning Y2K problems to allow a global organization to take over America.

But while some see the Y2K bug as a mere government ploy or catalyst, there are others who see in the phenomenon something more; they view Y2K as a window of opportunity. There is every possibility that terrorists will take advantage of any minor breakdowns to advance their own agenda.

Domestic Terrorism

The approaching millennium has confronted a number of countries with an increased threat of terrorism on the part of anti-government groups within their borders. Such threats tend to come from two main types of organization: religious extremists, who see the millennium as the onset of the “End Times,” and secular right-wing groups, based on various conspiracy theories.

In the United States, for example, organizations of the second type style themselves “Patriot groups,” and share a common goal of overthrowing the American government. American law enforcement officials estimate that there are nearly 1,000 cults and more than 500 hate groups. Of the latter, many are quite well-armed.

While some domestic groups are believed to have the potential for violence, they generally confine their activities to their countries of origin and for the most part are not expected to cross international boundaries. The FBI report cautioned that power outages or other problems associated with the Y2K bug could be interpreted by American apocalyptic movements as a sign of the impending UN take-over, and could spur their members to take action against what they see as an immediate threat.

Case in Point: The Sacramento bomb plot

During the first week of December, U.S. Federal agents arrested two anti-government militia members who were reportedly planning to blow up a Sacramento, Calif., propane plant, possibly around New Year’s Eve. The authorities believe the plot was designed to exploit Y2K fears among the nation’s hate groups.

A threat assessment report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory concluded that a successful attack on either tank “would likely result in a firestorm that could reach as far out as 14 kilometers from the site and could cause a fatality rate as high as 50 percent up to five miles away.”

U.S. law enforcement officials said the two were planning to commit terrorist acts against multiple targets in northern California, including television and radio towers, in an attempt to prompt a declaration of martial law. They apparently hoped that the ensuing civic unrest would ultimately pave the way for a militia takeover of the federal government.

An FBI affidavit said “It was further believed that if the government declares martial law, the militia will develop a public following and the current United States government will be overthrown by revolution.” Both men were previously involved with the San Joaquin County Militia, which authorities said planned to use violence to bring about martial law in the belief that this would help the group attract a public following to launch a revolution to overthrow the U.S. government.

In general the threat of domestic terrorism to Muslim countries arises not from any significance of the millennium to local countries, but from the possibility that internal terrorist groups may exploit any problems arising from the Y2K bug to advance their own agenda. In several countries in the Middle East, the greater danger as far as domestic terrorism involves religious extremist groups, which may step up their attempts to overthrow secular governments in favor oftheocracies.

International Terrorism

While many Millennial groups confine themselves to changing the established order in their own countries, the majority also express rather sharply defined beliefs about the relationship of events in their own countries to those on the international scene. In this sense the Millenium has served to refocus the interests of some millennial groups from local to global happenings. In fact, it is the onset of the Millenium that has in many cases lent an air of internationalism to what would otherwise be a rather insular worldview.

Thus even the domestic groups may constitute a threat on the international scene, should they feel the need to re-write events on the world stage to suit their own views of what “ought” to transpire. Of particular importance here are the groups based on a religious or apocalyptic worldview. Such groups are by their very nature, concerned with events in countries other than their country of origin. Many express very particular views on the abrupt changes about to take place on the world stage with the onset of the Millenium, and see themselves as catalysts for the chaos and upheaval that will be necessary to bring about such change.

Ossama bin Ladin

Of all the possible security threats during the millennium one of the names most often mentioned is that of Ossama bin Ladin. The exiled Saudi dissident is accused of masterminding a host of indiscriminate attacks over the past 15 years, among them the August, 1998 bombing of the American embassies in East Africa. Security forces in several Middle Eastern countries have launched an unprecedented campaign to thwart possible attacks by bin Ladin’s widespread network.

With the latest wave of arrests of potential terrorists the level of cooperation between American and Middle Eastern security forces has reached a new high. In the majority of cases, those arrested were said to have links to Osama bin Ladin and his Al-Qaidah network.

In the U.S. and Canada authorities are attempting to unravel the chain of events that lead an Algerian to attempt to smuggle a truckfull of bomb-making materials into Washington State from Canada. Ahmed Ressam was arrested after he allegedly boarded a ferry to Port Angeles from Victoria, British Columbia. Ressan had been turned down for refugee status in Canada because he was suspected of belonging to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Algerian terrorist group held responsible for bombings in France and countless massacres in their own country.

Turkey and the Iranian connection

Turkey’s Counter-Terrorism units have been put on alert against possible terrorist attacks several times over the past few months. In October security forces captured several Islamic militants allegedly connected with al-Qaidah, who attempted to infiltrate into Turkey from Iran. According to Al-Watan el-Arabi, the interrogation of the militants revealed that a “commando unit” affiliated with Osama bin Ladin had infiltrated into Turkey across the Iranian border. The results of the interrogations prompted Turkish intelligence to inform their counterparts in Europe of the possibility of action by bin Ladin’s network in their countries.

A Turkish intelligence report called attention to the statement of one of the captured militants to the effect that the unit was trained by an Iranian official from the city of Tevriz. Most of the unit’s members infiltrated from Iran, while others entered Turkey by way of European countries, such as Italy and Bosnia. The report said that two additional infiltrators were still in Iran waiting to cross over into Turkey. According to the Turkish report, the militants were financed by bin Ladin and infiltrated into Turkey on his orders.

The Turkish authorities said that six members of an eight member team crossed into Turkey from Iran on 11 June, 1999 and are currently at large somewhere in Turkey. The unit was said to include four Iranian Kurds and two Algerians, all of whom were carrying forged passports. An Egyptian Islamist in exile confirmed that such a manhunt was underway, but insisted that the suspects were in no way affiliated with bin Ladin. He was speaking to the Arabic-language paper Al-Hayyat.

On December 6, Turkish police detained six Libyans suspected of planning an attack against American diplomatic targets. According to the Turkish media, security forces received intelligence information that a terrorist cell affiliated with Osama bin Ladin had infiltrated into Turkey. They were reportedly planning an attack on the American embassy in Ankara. The suspects, who claim to be Libyan dissidents, were charged with traveling on false passports and possession of forgery materials.

Arrests in Jordan

On December 15, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul-Raouf al-Rawabdeh announced that Jordanian security forces had arrested a group of eleven Jordanian nationals, an Iraqi and an Algerian on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks.

Jordanian officials said the group was plotting attacks on Christian pilgrimage sites in the Hashemite kingdom. Three suspects were still being sought outside of Jordan. A Jordanian official was quoted by AFP as saying, “The ring that was smashed was funded in particular by Omar Abu Omar, also known as Abu Qatadah, who is a right-hand man of Osama bin Laden.”

Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar is well known to Jordanian security forces. In 1998 he was sentenced in absentia for his part in a series of bomb blasts in Amman at the beginning of 1998, one of which targeted the former official of Jordanian military intelligence.

Abu Omar was the ideologue of a group known as “The movement of reform and challenge” (Harakat al-Islah wal-Tahaddi). He was granted political asylum in the UK. In the last few years Abu Omar served as one of the editors of “Al-Ansar,” the official publication of GIA. He published his radical Islamic ideas in a book Between two Methods (Bayn al-Minhajayn).

The leader of the Afghan-trained group was identified as Khader Abu Ghoshah. In 1993 Abu Ghoshah was sentence to a jail term in Jordan for several bombings. He was released before his sentence was served out by a royal pardon. From Jordan he traveled to Afghanistan, where, according to Jordanian security forces, he was trained in explosives and bomb-making. Abu Ghoshah formed a group called Jaish Mohammed (the army of Mohammed), comprising veterans of the Afghan conflict. Jordanian officials say the group wbehind some of the bombings last year in the Kingdom.

The unnamed Jordanian source quoted by the AFP said that the security forces had the Afghan group under surveillance shortly after they returned to Jordan, but waited to make arrests until all its members could be detained. The clampdown came on December 5, after the last members of the group, most of whom traveled on false passports, were once more back in the country.

The arrests were linked to an American travel warning to its citizens traveling abroad that terrorists could be seeking to target Americans. The travel warning cited “credible evidence that terrorists are planning attacks specifically targeting American citizens” over the New Year, which this year coincides with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

On 13 October, a man reported to be an aide to Ossama bin Ladin, Mahrez Hamduni was apprehended at Istanbul’s international airport during the course of a police action in which Interpol was also involved. He was said to be carrying a Bosnian passport. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a man called Khalil al-Deek, also known as Abu Ayed was arrested on suspicion of having close ties with bin Ladin. Al-Deek, an American-Jordanian who holds a US passport was extradited to Jordan on December 16th at the request of the Jordanian authorities.

Senior Afghani sources told Al-Hayyat that the arrest of Hamduni may be connected to the arrest of a suspected “Western spy.” A young Jordanian man, identified as Abu al-Mubtasim was arrested by the Taliban on suspicion of providing information on the movements of Osama bin Ladin’s network to “a foreign country.”

The arrests of bin Ladin’s operatives following to the bombing in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 are indicative of the extent of his organization’s international infrastructure. At the same time, the potential threat has increased the degree of international counter-terrorist cooperation to a level unheard of in previous years. The recent arrests are an encouraging sign that the international community has so far proven equal to the challenge presented by bin Ladin’s network. 

Jerusalem and the Apocalypse

A great deal of emotional and religious ardor centers around Jerusalem, and more specifically around the Temple Mount, a piece of real estate a few square kilometers in area.

This site is sacred to three religions. For the Jews it is where the First and Second Temples stood in biblical times, for Muslims it is where Mohammed ascended to heaven. The el-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which stand where the Temple once stood mark the third holiest site in Islam. Many Christians believe that the Second Coming will take place on the Temple Mount, and possibly concomitant with the building of the Third Temple.

But of course the Temple cannot be rebuilt while the Muslim shrines still stand. So the threat is actually three-fold, as it isn’t only the Christian apocalyptic groups that attach special meaning to the Temple Mount and the millennium. Radical Jewish groups too could attempt to take some action aimed at laying the foundation for the building of the Third Temple. If such a group perpetrated a symbolic attack against the Muslim holy places, this could set in motion a chain of events leading to war. Muslim groups in turn, might take action to prevent what they perceive as a threat against the Dome of the Rock and el-Aqsa.

Yet another millennium-related complication is what is known in psychiatric circles as the “Jerusalem syndrome,” a belief that one is destined to play a key role in the apocalypse. In extreme cases, a sufferer actually comes to believe that he is the Messiah. Jerusalem mental health commissioner Yair Bar-el warned that of the four million Christians expected to visit the country in 2000 some could suffer from religious delusions and could become dangerous.

Deportations & dilemmas

In consultation with American and European security officials, Israel is seeking to stave off possible violence on the part of religious groups and right-wing extremists who place particular importance on the turn of the millennium as a sign of massive social changes.

In Israel police are on the lookout in particular for Christian “doomsday” cults, which may seek to induce mayhem in Jerusalem as a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ. Members of such cults have already entered Israel, according to American and Israeli sources. Last January Israel deported 14 members of a Denver-based culled called Concerned Christians. In 1996, the cult’s leader Monte Kim Miller told his followers that he would be a “witness,” who would announce the Second Coming. He sent a number of cult members to Israel in the next few years, saying that he would be murdered on the streets of Jerusalem in December 1999, and be resurrected three days later.

On October 25 Israeli authorities expelled 20 members of two Christian groups--called Solomon’s Temple and the House of Prayer, most of them Americans. The cultist lived in two groups on the Mount of Olives across from the Old City of Jerusalem, where, according to Christian belief, Jesus will arrive to mark the Second Coming. Israeli authorities said they suspected the groups of planning a mass suicide on the Temple Mount. They were also suspected of planning an attack on the Temple Mount, an act designed to lead to the “war of Armageddon,” which was to presage the redemption.

The last member of the group, the leader of the House of Prayer, called Brother David was deported to the United States on 5 November. For years his identity had been a mystery. Finally, with the help of the FBI, Israeli authorities identified him as David William Gardner a former trailer park manager from Syracuse, N.Y. Gardner arrived in Israel in May 1982, and apparently destroyed his passport and other documents.

Two weeks prior to this another Christian group was turned away by Israel port police following intelligence information that members of the group were planning to commit mass suicide in Jerusalem. The group eventually returned to Greece, the country from which they had sailed to Israel.

Israeli police believe that many more cult members have arrived in Israel and are hiding in areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli sources said they hope for cooperation with the Palestinian police in keeping tabs on suspected millennial groups. For the most part, intelligence on these groups comes from the authorities in their home countries working with their Israeli counterparts.

There have been fears that the crackdown on religious extremists could deter some moderate Christian groups from visiting Israel during the millennium. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron has said that Israel is making a determined effort to distinguish between the Christians who visit Israel for sincere religious reasons and those who are members of potentially violent cults. Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak admitted that police could make mistakes, but said his first priority is safety for the tourists and the holy sites. For Israeli law enforcement officials the operative phrase seems to be “better safe than sorry.”


The millennium is a historic milestone for people from a broad spectrum of belief. Its significance lies in its symbolic nature, and in the fact that followers of apocalyptic worldviews may interpret the mundane events associated with the turn of the millennium as portents of the fulfillment of their own particular prophecies. Thus, a religious system that predicts chaos and upheaval at the onset of the End Times may interpret minor computer glitches associated with the Y2K bug as a sign that the end of the world is at hand. It is this perception that could conceivably cause some group’s to cross the line from the harmlessly eccentric to the actively violent.

Not all apocalyptic groups are motivated by religious extremism. Some are founded on right-wing or racial ideologies. The FBI’s “Project Megiddo” outlined some of the chief dangers from fringe groups on or around the change of the millennium. Among these are groups that believe in the “New World Order” conspiracy—the idea that the UN will attempt to take over the world at the turn of the millennium and set up a “One World Government.” This belief is sometimes combined with apocalyptic Christian belief that such a united world government will be established by the Antichrist, and will be overthrown at the Second Coming of Christ.

An added danger may come from groups fervently awaiting the fulfillment of their prophecies, when the date for fulfillment passes by with no results. Dissapointment could spur believers to seek out scapegoats to explain the failure of the prophecies to come true.

Regardless of ideological motivation, the coming millennium presents unprecedented challenges to counter-terrorism worldwide. These challenges are not confined to the period surrounding January 1, but can be expected to continue for some time into the coming year.