Home » The cult of Rajavi » Radicalisation Awareness: An Opportunity to Criminalise Cultic Abuse

Radicalisation Awareness: An Opportunity to Criminalise Cultic Abuse

My background is in terrorism

Ann Singleton

Presentation at the ICSA Conference, Bordeaux, July 2017 – Theme of Conference: Cultic Dynamics and Radicalization

Introduction by ICSA:

After twenty years in the terrorist cult Mojahedin-e Khalq, Anne (with her husband Massoud Khodabandeh) established the English language www.iran-interlink.org website in 2001 to expose the group as a cult and support former members. Anne works with families of MEK campaigning to rescue their loved ones. Anne has written extensively about the MEK and wider cult issues and authored two books (Saddam’s Private Army, 2003 and The Life of Camp Ashraf, 2011). (2010-2015) Trustee of The Family Survival Trust, Anne ran the Helpline during that time, giving advice and support to families affected by cults. Since January 2016, Anne has worked freelance under the UK Prevent Duty as Open Minds. With nearly forty years’ experience of research and experience as activists, campaigners, writers and practitioners, Open Minds has been established as a leading authority on cultic abuse and terrorism. In consultation with a leading UK Safeguarding expert, Anne developed the ‘cultic abuse’ model to explain how radicalisation takes place for the public sector (education, health, local government, etc. are now legally obliged to recognise, report and prevent radicalisation at work) as well as the voluntary sector, faith groups and businesses – which do not fall under the statutory obligation. anne.khodabandeh@gmail.com)


I am not a researcher or academic or legal expert. Instead I am an expert in activism, campaigning and writing. I am a practitioner under the UK’s Prevent Duty. I want to talk today about why I believe that the current climate of seeking ways to counter radicalisation for violent extremism and terrorism is the best opportunity we have to criminalise all cultic abuse.

My background is in terrorism. I spent two decades involved in a foreign terrorist organisation called the Mojahedin Khalq (MEK). Only when I left did it become clear that I had been in a cult and that my experiences were the same as survivors of any other cult.

When I left, instead of pursuing academic research, I took up activism to directly challenge the group. Since I had worked in the ‘public relations’ department of the MEK, I had a very good education in how to counter them when I left.

In 2001 after I had my son and stayed at home, my husband and I set up a website Iran-Interlink.org and began serious campaign work and activism aimed at rescuing the other members of the cult. We later set up another site cultsandterror.com to specifically make this link in the English language. Working in Europe, Iraq and now Albania, to date we have been instrumental in helping over a thousand people to leave and to de-radicalise, even before it became fashionable. We work very closely with families.

Because of our work this FTO now recognised worldwide as a cultic group as well as terrorist entity.

Prevent and Channel are familiar territory for us.

In September 2015 in my role of Trustee for the Family Survival Trust I attended a Conference on Radicalisation. During the Conference, I managed to speak with the Senior Civil Servant who was responsible for rolling out the Prevent Duty in the public sphere. I asked why he had talked about radicalisation but hadn’t talked about HOW people are Radicalised.

His reply stunned me; ‘Oh, we know how they do it, we’ve got hold of the manuals’.

Well, my husband trained people for suicide missions and I can assure you, he never once used a manual. It was then clear that the government was receiving advice from so-called experts who had no experience or apparently real knowledge of how people are radicalised.

In October, I joined up with Abigail Clay, one of the country’s leading experts on Safeguarding in Education. We quickly understood each other’s perspective and developed educational presentations for the Prevent Duty.

I now give presentations under the title ‘From Attraction to Action: Understanding Radicalisation as Cultic Abuse to Support Prevent and Channel’.

What has become clear is that although the government might not ‘get it’, certainly front-line practitioners do. At least, they don’t run away when we mention the brainwashing word. Indeed, I believe that not only practitioners but also the public are streets ahead of politicians and civil servants in accepting this reality.

It is also clear that there are gaps in ‘where we’re coming from’ when dealing with the phenomenon of Radicalisation.

Cult experts are now moving away from defining what a cult is and are examining what they do.

Counter terrorism experts want to remain on familiar ground. Their focus is heavily research based in preference to empirical evidence – such as formers’ testimony.

A lot of research and attention is paid to the ideology of various Violent Extremist and Terrorist groups, but cult experts understand that the ideology used by recruiters is simply a recruiting script based on genuine grievances and is not an actual belief system which can be subjected to philosophical or logical examination.

The focus of counter terrorism experts on who gets radicalised draws attention away from the people who do the recruiting. Cult experts know that anyone can be susceptible to manipulation at some point in their life.

Again, the idea that someone can be radicalised ‘by the Internet’ has gained a lot of attention, but it is like saying someone was made into a gambling addict by ‘the Internet’. In both cases there is human agency behind what is being consumed online. We need to focus attention on who is behind the online messaging.

In my experience, the number of reasons why people get involved in Violent Extremism and Terrorism is exactly equal to the number of people involved. In other words, trying to find out what makes any one person vulnerable to radicalisation is like asking why people have car accidents.

In the end, neither a ‘what is a cult’ nor logic based research programmes really get to the difficult heart of the problem. Both are peering down the telescope from the wrong end.

They almost get it. There is recognition that there is a relationship – the recruit and the recruiter and that a process takes place – that is, what happens in this relationship to change a normal person into a monster. There is also not enough focus on the idea that radicalisation is a process not an event. It took me ten years of involvement before I packed up everything and went full time with the Mojahedin. It didn’t happen overnight, but from almost the very beginning I was on a pathway that I didn’t recognise and couldn’t leave.

Even so, after years of writing about this subject, radicalisation has undergone an evolution. It is no longer the same as when I was recruited and brainwashed by a cult leader. Now, we cannot say that ISIS is a cult per se. There are many people involved who simply have a gun, have come from another arena of war, Iraq, Libya, and who have nothing to lose because their homes, families and lives have been bombed out of existence. They are mercenaries.

However, that is not the same as what is happening in the west where people are being radicalised through cultic abuse.

Because there is a reluctance to acknowledge brainwashing, this concept gets no further. It’s easier and ‘cleaner’ to focus on the ideology and think of counter arguments, rather than understand the murky world of mind control.

Safeguarding experts however have to get to grips with some of the most harrowing issues in society today. They START with the idea that where abuse takes place there will be a victim and a perpetrator.

Because they already deal with these issues, it is not a giant leap to understand that the same elements of coercion and psychological manipulation take place in the Radicalisation process. The added element is the use of an ideology or belief system to attract and indoctrinate recruits.

A further complication is that in Safeguarding it is usually fairly straightforward to identify victims. But in the case of Radicalisation, the victim believes they are a victor. Anybody who has been in a cult knows that feeling of superiority which is instilled into us, that made us feel we were on a higher plane than ordinary people.

And because their deceptive recruitment relies on the victim becoming infatuated with the ideology, the actual perpetrator is not always easy to identify. This is why the internet poses such a barrier to finding perpetrators.

I will move sideways now and talk about efforts that have already been made to criminalise cultic abuse.

The UK has made huge progress in how it deals with abusive behaviour involving elements of deception, coercion and psychological manipulation. In the areas of modern slavery, coercive control in domestic violence, grooming for child sexual exploitation and more recently cases of stalking. These are all now included in legislation as criminal behaviours. What is missing is cultic abuse. It is very similar to and employs the same methods as these cases. But it also uses an ideology or belief system to attract and indoctrinate recruits.

For many, many years, The Family Survival Trust has tried to get legislation passed to outlaw the abusive practices of cults. In the Autumn of 2015 we made efforts to have amendments made to existing and proposed laws in the UK. Tom Sackville, our Chair, who had served as a Conservative Home Minister under John Major, was successful in getting Sir Edward Garnier, Michael Gove and Dominic Grieves to look at our proposals. These are the people involved in writing legislative papers. So this was an important achievement.

We were very encouraged by a statement made by David Cameron who was Prime Minister at the time. It appeared that the government finally understood the problem in a way that had previously not been apparent. Cameron even used the words ‘cult leader’.

But nothing happened after this. We are still waiting for the dangerous persuaders to become the target of legislation. Still waiting behind ‘what makes people vulnerable to radicalisation?’

I will explain now, using the presentation I use in my Prevent work, why I believe this additional legislation is not happening.

This slide usually raises a laugh. But there is a serious point behind this. Onions come in different sizes, colours and shapes. We can label them – ISIS, AQ, KKK, EDL, Moonies, Scientology, JWs, the list goes on. These ‘onions’ are the organisational structures which we call cults and which allow for the brainwashing of recruits.

Although they appear different on the outside because of their vastly different ideologies or belief systems, if we cross section any onion, it looks the same as the others. Anyone who has been in a cult will recognise this hierarchical structure and the secrecy which surrounds it. Each level has its own role. People are promoted or demoted from one layer to another. But the inner workings of the group are kept secret and impenetrable to the outside world.

Outside this sphere of influence is what I call the cocoon of collusion. This means that because the group is not subjected to external control, regulation or other interference, it can grow at will. In some cases, it is even fed by the current circumstance in which it finds itself.

In the current climate of radicalisation, do we really understand for instance why a young maths student would suddenly take up arms in Kurdistan and join counter-ISIS fighters. What was disturbing for me was that the newspapers, even her own family, heralded her as a hero. But when I read that she had ‘fallen in love with the ideology’ alarm bells went off in my head. This was the same story as mine. I joined a western backed terrorist group, so nobody thought to warn me against them.

Getting back to our efforts to have cultic abuse criminalised by making amendments to existing and proposed legislation, two cases erupted at the same time. Both involving cults and both leading to failures because they relied on existing laws and practices.

In the Anne Craig case, a self-styled therapist targeted young women from very wealthy backgrounds. You see here the plaintiff is a Countess. The girls mostly attended a prestigious private educational institute. Unfortunately, the lawyer hired by some of the families tried to use the civil law of undue influence to prosecute Craig. I perhaps shouldn’t use the word charlatan, but that’s what springs to mind. The lawyer gets paid for pursuing a hopeless case.

The law of undue influence has existed in UK civil law for over 400 years. The problem for us is that the victim themselves must bring the case against the perpetrator. This means that anyone still in a cult won’t do so and their families can’t do so on their behalf. It also depends on proving that the victim was ‘vulnerable’. Under this law this has very specific definition and usually means somebody who doesn’t have mental capacity due to their young age because they are children or because they are elderly and may not be as alert as before or because they have mental health or disability problems. This is clearly not the case with many victims of cultic abuse.

I had the opportunity to consult with Sir John Nutting QC, one of the country’s top criminal barristers. He explained why using civil law to pursue cases involving cultic abuse was inappropriate and ineffective. Instead, criminal law needed to be created to allow police to pursue perpetrators and for the prosecution service to bring cases to court independently of the victims.

Around this time,  Aravindan Balakrishnan was convicted of rape and false imprisonment under the new Modern Slavery Act of 2015. The unusual nature of the case meant it attracted huge media interest but in spite of big headlines describing it as a Maoist Cult, there was no sense that anyone actually understood what the three women victims had been through.

On investigation, I discovered that the anti-slavery organisation which rescued the women – and I must say do some truly excellent work with victims of slavery – was located only a mile from where I live. I visited them and asked about how the women had been de-programmed. The charity had never heard of cultic abuse and a psychologist had treated them for ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. But nobody could understand why they wouldn’t hate their persecutor and in fact one of the women returned to the cult determined to clear his name of all wrongdoing.

I said there were two cases, but I have added a third. This was a five-minute conversation on the Helpline but had a profound effect on me because I felt so helpless. It was late Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. It was a vicar. He explained he had a young couple with him who had just left a cult and he had no resources to help them. When I spoke to the couple they said they had made the momentous decision to leave without any preparation but knew that if they didn’t leave then they never would. They had only a beaten up old car and three hundred pounds. They had no family and nowhere to go. When they asked where they should go, what should they do to get help, I had no answer. The council has no obligation to house adult homeless people. Places like women’s refuges have no provision for ex cult members. In fact, because this is not a legally or even socially recognised problem, there is no help or provision for such people. As I discovered, Helplines can’t house people.

Now, for full disclosure, I will state that I have no legal training, but work I did in my cult had equipped me in ‘political speak’ – we wrote White Papers, Early Day Motions, Constituency Composites on behalf of parliamentarians. Using these skills, I came up with a quasi-legal definition of what cultic abuse is which seems to cover the whole thing.

So, I would like to encourage everyone to try to push this issue and see if we cannot emulate the campaigns of the coercive control and modern slavery lobbies.

We are today where the campaigners against coercive control were twenty years ago. There is still an uphill struggle before we can educate and inform sufficiently for legislators and prosecutors to take this seriously.

What we can do.

Call it cultic abuse – apologies to those who like the phrase ‘undue influence’ but if we are to push for legislation we cannot be slack in our use of terms. The law of undue influence is no help to victims or their families. We need to criminalise on the basis of abuse.

There is an over-abundance of evidence to back a campaign. Do not doubt that the experiences of formers will be taken seriously. We got a report made by Human Rights Watch called ‘No Exit’, based on victim testimony. Even when the MEK objected and denied everything in the report saying the witnesses were ‘agents of the Iranian regime’ and therefore would say anything to discredit the organisation, Human Rights Watch stuck by its original report. It’s usually about finding the right people to listen, and persistence.

Cult experts can be confident that the process of cultic abuse shares the same mechanisms with radicalisation. Perhaps it is up to us to be more assertive in contacting counter terrorism personnel and offering our insights.

It is also helpful to tread in others’ footsteps. Contact other organisations which have lobbied for other kinds of abuse to gain legal traction. For example, the Salvation Army led the campaign for the Modern Slavery Act.

Campaigners can also press for better training among lawyers and the police. Even existing laws can be used by former cult members to bring prosecutions. However, it is clearer than ever that as successful prosecutions are brought under the coercive control element of the Serious Crime Act 2015, we should be more insistent that cultic abuse be equally recognised in law.

Another big issue for many counter cult people is the portrayal of cult issues in the media. We must complain. This also applies to cases of radicalisation which are misrepresented, like the case of Kimberly I spoke of earlier.

Many people don’t want to talk to their MP about this. MPs are largely ignorant on this issue and worried about matters of ‘freedom of belief’. It is up to us to educate them. If we describe what happens as a form of abuse, there may not be any votes in it, but our political representatives have a moral and social duty to act.

As an activist and campaigner, I will end by encouraging more people to get involved in lobbying for change. The Prevent Duty is an opportunity to bring to young people’s attention the devious, deceptive ways they can be subjected to malign persuasion – whether from radicalisers or cult recruiters.

And finally – let’s lobby to change the law.

You may also like

Leave a Comment