Doomsday Cults: 'Only The Beginning'

Imagine the devastation in Waco if David Koresh had stockpiled a nerve agent like sarin. Suppose the Swiss Order of the Solar Temple had used anthrax instead of bullets to commit mass suicide last fall. Unthinkable? Some cult experts believe such scenarios are a terrifying possibility. "This is only the beginning as the year 2000 approaches." says Hal Mansfield, a Colorado expert on alternative religions. "We're in for a helluva ride with these millennial groups. Whatever technology is out there, they're going to use it."

The number of terrorist groups driven by religious rather than political zealotry is on the rise. Virtually unknown before the 1970s, such groups now number at least a dozen-from Christian white supremacists and messianic Jews to Islamic fundamentalists and radical Sikhs -says Bruce Hoffman, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and political Violence at the University of St. Andrews. Religious zealots, he adds, are not out to score political blows but to wipe out entire classes of enemies.

Millennial cults may be particularly prone to violence because of their belief that a catastrophic war or natural disaster will land them in paradise. "Every cult has this sense of urgency." says Marcia Rudin of the International Cult Education Program in New York. "But when you add in millennialism, it really increases the danger that something drastic can happen." Some groups have already flirted with the use of chemical and biological weapons. "Religion provides justification and context," says Hoffman. "If God's telling you to do it, anything goes." In 1986, two members of an Oregon Commune headed by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were convicted of deliberately causing a salmonella epidemic. Perhaps the closest call came in 1993 during the attack on Manhattan's World Trade Center. According to the judge who sentenced the defendants, the Muslim plotters allegedly packed their bomb with cyanide in order to poison the area. The plan failed, according to the judge, only because the cyanide burned in the explosion.

The United States has been especially fertile ground for millennial ideas-and mad prophets like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. American cult experts see parallels between David Koresh and Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara, who has about 100 followers in New York. Both leaders shared an authoritarian style and a tendency to isolate disciples and subject them to ever greater tests of their devotion and endurance. "It's a very effective tool for manipulating minds," says Rick Ross, who works as a "deprogrammer" for parents who lose children to cults. "Both Koresh and Asahara began creating the dark environment that they foretold; they fulfilled their own prophecies." They won't be the last prophets to see doom approaching--or to take others with them.