The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated Extremist Groups

By Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.

Published by:
The Dept. of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Law Enforcement Bulletin
September 1996

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 attention.

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 groups.

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.

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 remains strong.

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 indoctrinate members.

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 root.

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 "religious" practices.

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 leader.

The following dialogue presents an example of how group members abandon critical thinking as they project responsibility onto the group leader.(2)

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.

Pathological Anger
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 outsiders indiscriminately.

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 position.

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 group's philosophy.

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 negotiator.

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 and principles.

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 against outsiders.

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 conflicts peacefully.


  1. The author coined the phrase "Lethal Triad," based on over 20 years of research into isolated extremist groups.
  2. This dialogue was compiled by the author following interviews with various cult members.
  3. 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.

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