How ISIS Resembles the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s

Can the lessons we learned from extremist cults decades ago be used to fight ISIS recruitment today?

Can the lessons we learned from extremist cults decades ago be used to fight ISIS recruitment today?

For teachers
  • Producer: Geoffrey O'Connor
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Sandra McDaniel

For Educators


A case study in how history can be used to confront 21st century challenges like terrorism, this 10-minute video shows students the connection between 1970s extremist cults and modern terrorist movements like ISIS. Like Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, which recruited alienated and disenfranchised people searching for a life in a just and equal society, modern terrorist groups often target marginalized and disenchanted young men living in immigrant households. Interviews with leading experts on cults and de-radicalization help students see the broad historical forces underlying an individual’s motives for joining an extremist organization, and serve as a starting point for a broader conversation about the role of history in creating solutions for the future.

Background reading

In October 2017, a rampage in lower Manhattan left eight people dead, driving home the message that groups like ISIS were successfully recruiting members online to spread its terrorism.

The suspect in those attacks, Sayfullo Saipov, 31, lived in Paterson, N.J. He said he had been inspired to carry out his attack by ISIS videos. Police found over 90 such videos on his cellphone.

The incident dramatized how terrorists can use social media to reach around the globe in search of members to carry out their goals.

Today’s terrorists may be operating in the digital age, but they are following a playbook from the doomsday cults of the 1960s and 1970s.

Those cults, like the Peoples Temple, founded by the Rev. Jim Jones, specialized in recruiting young people who felt alienated and were looking for meaning in their lives, just as ISIS does today.

The cult leaders, whether then in San Francisco or now in Syria, supply that meaning, convincing the impressionable that total devotion would make them part of a noble cause to die for, secure justice for the oppressed, and ensure some form of eternal life.

Those promises have a dark side, as Jim Jones demonstrated. He lured followers by promising that they were working to eliminate poverty, racism and war, ultimately convincing them to commit suicide in the jungles of Guyana as an act of revolution – and some 900 people died.

Lesson Plan 1: Extremism, ISIS and the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s

Students will learn how the wave of extreme cults that swept the U.S. in the 1970s holds surprising lessons for confronting 21st century international terrorism.

  • How some aspects of the 21st century challenges relating to immigration and domestic terrorism are inter-related.
  • How international terrorists recruit American immigrants.
  • What the extreme cults of the 1970s may teach us about how to prevent radicalization.
Essential questions
  • How did ISIS recruit young men from immigrant families in Minnesota?
  • Why were the young men susceptible to this recruitment campaign?
  • What are some similarities between ISIS and the Peoples Temple cult?
  • What are the principles underlying the de-radicalization plan being implemented by law enforcement in Minnesota?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.6: Challenges of the 21st Century

      Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development is situated within a broader historical context.

      Theme: Politics and Power (PCE)