The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated Extremist Groups
By Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
The Dept. of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Law Enforcement Bulletin
A better understanding of isolated extremist groups can help law
enforcement prevent them from lashing out against society.
Formerly an officer with the Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff's
Department, Dr. Gilmartin currently is a police psychologist and
private consultant based in Tucson, Arizona.
Law enforcement agencies increasingly are being called upon to
deal with extremist groups. These groups can run the gamut from
religious cults to isolated communes of political extremists.
While the vast majority of these organizations do not threaten
society and merely practice their constitutional freedoms, others
pose significant risk to society and require law enforcement
Groups that express terrorist motivations, attempt to engage in
"religious acts" that violate criminal statutes, or propose
outright antigovernment insurgency exist across the nation.
Although the causes they espouse range from a desire for
religious salvation to a quest for national preservation, these
groups share many striking similarities. Collectively, they have
certain core features that law enforcement officers need to
understand in order to resolve conflicts with members of such
This article describes the nature of domestic isolationist groups
in the United States, focusing on the Lethal Triad,(1) three
social-psychological components that interact to nurture a given
group's beliefs and behaviors. It also provides advice that law
enforcement officers can use when negotiating with group members.
DYNAMICS OF DOMESTIC TERRORIST GROUPS
Unlike many international terrorist groups, the groups operating
from a domestic base in the United States function more on
emotional issues than on deeply entrenched political ideologies.
Members of radical international groups often are born and raised
in a society that supports their view of the United States, or
some other outside entity, as an evil force. By contrast, members
of domestic radical groups usually are loners whose beliefs
garner little support from mainstream American society. In these
cases, such emotional variables as fear, anger, or hatred
motivate group membership and methods of operation.
The emotional responses of domestic groups are significantly less
entrenched and thus more transient than the ideological beliefs
of their overseas counterparts. Still, their destructive nature
Understanding domestic extremist groups requires more attention
to the group process that creates and maintains their collective
behavior. This process is based on the social-psychological
dynamics of the Lethal Triad. The components of the triad--isolation, projection, and pathological anger--represent the
basic social forces common to radical groups, regardless of the
content of their rhetoric or the nature of their practices.
Isolation represents a key component in the restructuring or
indoctrination phase of most groups, even those at the
constructive end of the continuum, such as the military's
bootcamps and corporate America's executive retreats. Isolation
also appears to be the most powerful of the social dynamics
operating in radical group processes.
The isolation process begins as members become sequestered
from their previous identities or memories. Members sometimes
receive new names, and any contact with family members who do not
belong to the group is either forbidden or strictly monitored.
Ostensibly, this practice protects members from the contaminating
influences of the outside world. In reality, it preserves
isolation, which bolsters group solidarity.
Radical groups isolate their members not only physically but
psychologically as well. In short, they control what members
think. Books, television, radio, and any other form of
information challenging the tenets of the group are strictly
censored. Simultaneously, the isolated individual gets bombarded
by cause-related information in the form of "literature" or
lectures by the group's hierarchy. Although some groups appear to
be vociferous consumers of information from such sources as
public access television, shortwave radio, and even the Internet,
the group's leadership censors all of the information before
disseminating it to group members.
Communal living and daily meetings or prayer sessions strengthen
the group's ideology. Oftentimes, these groups use extreme sleep
deprivation, dietary restriction, and physical fatigue to
As isolation increases, critical thinking decreases. Without
access to alternative information sources, members encode new
belief systems. Group tenets never are challenged, only recited.
Platitude conditioning replaces reasoning processes.
Although the isolation process itself is not pathological, the
end result is. The extent of the deprivation and isolation yields
an individual who responds to the group mandate with no
individual thinking or decision making. Group leaders actively
discourage critical, self-contained thought. Members perform such
procedures as chanting and rhythmic, repetitive body movements
for long periods of time. These actions create an autistic
cognitive encapsulation, in other words, a closed belief system.
In this cognitive vacuum, conspiratorial beliefs against
mainstream society readily can develop .
Over time, the rocking, chanting, rhetoric-espousing individual
becomes unable to question either the group's tenets or its
organizational authority structure. In short, new group members
become isolated from past identities, family, other belief
systems, information, and finally, from critical thinking.
Group members who previously lived a life defined by a lack of
purpose, security, and/or direction often welcome the isolation
from outside influences and the structure, identity, and purpose
that group membership provides. In any case, at this point, the
socially, emotionally, and cognitively isolated members have
become fertile ground for the seeds of the other two components
of the Lethal Triad, projection and pathological anger, to take
Projection is a two-pronged process. First, the group projects
responsibility for its decisions and direction onto the leader.
Second, the group projects the cause for its perceived grievances
onto some outside entity. These outside sources can be specific
people or groups or merely the outside world in general.
Each group requires a single authoritarian leader, who assumes
absolute control of all group functions and decision-making
processes. As members surrender critical thinking, they elevate
the group leader to the status of absolute authority. Thus, a
group leader may assume a title such as Supreme Commander or may
claim to be the group's deity incarnate. Group members may pay
homage to the leader in a number of ways, including shouting
"Heil Hitler," bowing, or chanting the leader's name during
To remain in control of the group, the leader engages members in
collectively orchestrated behavior, such as group prayer,
meditation, or training sessions. Members abdicate all decision
making and critical thinking to the group leader. Reality testing
does not occur. Individual members who find themselves thinking
critically of the group leader many times will revert to some
form of isolation-producing cognitive exercise, such as chanting,
exercising, or reciting organizational platitudes, to reduce the
anxiety created by the mere thought of challenging the group
The following dialogue presents an example of how group members
abandon critical thinking as they project responsibility onto the
Question: "If the leader asked you to shoot your mother, would
you shoot her?"
Answer: "He would never ask me to do that."
Question: "What if he did ask you to shoot her?"
Answer: "She is not my 'spiritual mother,' she is only my 'flesh
mother,' but he would not ask me to do it."
Question: "What if he did ask you?"
Answer: "It would have to be for a larger good than I could
understand. He is my leader; it would be a bigger wrong to
violate his order than it would be to shoot my mother."
This exchange represents the typical answer provided by members
of various isolationist cults when pushed to respond to the
question of leader-initiated homicide. Members abdicate
responsibility and accountability for their actions, which allows
them to commit any act the leader requests.
The final component of the Lethal Triad, pathological anger,
grows from the combination of isolation and projection.
Collectively, group members see themselves as victims of an
outside force. As they project blame onto this entity, they grow
emotionally volatile. Their explosive anger can fuel actions that
range from scapegoating ethnic minorities to bombing and gassing
As their anger grows, group members believe they are in a
position of "righteousness" or "justification." Because of their
isolation, group members come into significant contact only with
others who share their world view and emotional reaction to it.
They neither test nor challenge the group hypothesis and feel no
sense of individual accountability. As a result, they can commit
heinous acts without experiencing significant emotional turmoil
or guilt. In essence, the group process has created situational
sociopaths who suffer no remorse no matter what they do.(3)
During the typical barricade or hostage incident, law enforcement
agencies most likely would attempt to resolve the situation by
using the "rule of the 'ates"--locate, isolate, evacuate, and
negotiate. Yet, situations involving isolated radical groups are
anything but typical.
Indeed, the uniqueness of the group's dynamics creates a
different social context, rendering some hostage negotiation
procedures ineffective. Law enforcement negotiators attempting to
resolve a critical situation involving an isolated radical group
should consider alternative approaches.
Negotiators need to appreciate that they are interacting with
individuals with a pre created cognitive/psychological group
framework. The indoctrinated belief system and social
reinforcement by other group members override the influences
generated by traditional negotiation methods. For this reason,
negotiators should not attempt to address issues central to the
group's belief system.
Challenges to the core philosophy of the group only serve to
strengthen the beliefs of members. The Lethal Triad produces a
belief system that hardens to perceived persecution by law
enforcement. Group members most likely would interpret such
challenges as enhancing their victim or martyr-for-the-cause
Thus, negotiators should focus on providing specific, concrete
resolutions that permit group members' belief systems to remain
intact. The rapport that develops between the negotiator and the
group by using this approach would allow group members to focus
on finding a solution to the situation rather than defending the
Additionally, negotiators need to consider the significant social
influence the group leader possesses. Questioning or attacking
the leader's authoritarian role in all likelihood will
precipitate greater group solidarity, not fragmentation,
especially if the leader is the one being negotiated with or if
the interacting group member remains in communication with the
leader. Group members should view decisions to resolve the
tactical situation as decisions made by the group leader, not the
A totalitarian group leader backed into a philosophical corner
without maneuvering room can readily interpret the tactical
situation for the group in apocalyptic terms. This can create a
situation where group self-destruction becomes a more acceptable
decision to the group than the total capitulation of its beliefs
From religious cults stockpiling weapons to militia groups
advocating government overthrow, isolated extremist groups are
taking root across the country. Although their motives and
methods vary, they share the forces that drive their actions. The
components of the Lethal Triad--isolation, projection, and
pathological anger--combine to turn members of these groups
Law enforcement agencies may be called upon to resolve
confrontations with groups typified by the Lethal Triad.
Gathering intelligence on individual groups remains invaluable,
but understanding the group dynamics may be the key to resolving
- The author coined the phrase "Lethal Triad," based on over 20
years of research into isolated extremist groups.
- This dialogue was compiled by the author following interviews
with various cult members.
- The formal clinical diagnosis of this process is Atypical
Dissociative Disorder. See American Psychiatric Association,
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed.
rev, 1994, p. 490.