“The End is Near.” Millenarian Terrorism

November 24, 2015
“The End is Near.” Millenarian Terrorism
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

This contribution will serve as a second part to a previous piece on how three of the most violent contemporary terrorist groups construct themselves.  The first part described how Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and Daesh have co-opted one of humanity’s great faiths for their own purposes and pretend to serve as avengers and protectors of Islam.  This installment will look at two groups representing a very different class of violent extremists: millenarian cults.  As with contemporary terrorist organizations that seize headlines today, these groups used and use violence to advance a particular political objective; they are forward-looking, seeking to correct or perfect the world in which they find themselves.  Like the Tamil Tigers or the Irish Republican Army, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and central Africa apply violence to try to remake the political orders in which they found themselves, seeking ultimately to remake the whole world.


Millenarian cults believe they are the vanguards of a new utopia on Earth, a “new millennium” (from which the name of this type of cult is derived) where the calendars of the world will be re-set to the year zero to mark the rebirth of humankind.  In some cases this rebirth of all mankind is necessarily accompanied by considerable sacrifice and even the complete destruction of present-day human societies.  Millenarianism began over a thousand years ago, as the approach of the year 1000 led some to believe Jesus Christ’s return was at hand.  Many such cults have existed since then, each with their own prediction of how, when, and in what form chiliastic peace may come, but their principal similarity is that they believe the end of this world is at hand, and that their mission is to usher it in.  Catastrophic “End of the World” cults are particularly dangerous because those who zealously adhere to their teachings are, by definition, looking to end the world as it is.  Millenarianism is messianic and rewards self-sacrifice.[1]

Supreme Truth Through Armageddon

Aum Shinrikyo, (aka Aum, Supreme Truth) is a spiritual organization founded in Japan by Shoko Asahara in 1987; it is currently known to operate in Japan, the United States and Russia.[2]  In 1989 the Japanese government gave Aum Shinrikyo legal status as a religious group, but that status was revoked after members of the group killed thirteen and sickened thousands by releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995.  Aum Shinrikyo is the first non-state organization to successfully deploy a weapon of mass destruction.[3]  Subsequent investigations determined the group was also responsible for other chemical attacks in Japan, including one that killed seven and injured over 500 in 1994.  Its founder, Asahara, was arrested in 1995, and in 2004 sentenced to death.

Though they haven’t conducted a terrorist attack since 1995, in 2012 the Russian government arrested a group of Aum Shinrikyo followers alleging they were planning to detonate explosives in Japan in a bid to free Asahara from prison.  In 2012 a Japan Airlines flight to the United States returned to Japan early in its flight having received a bomb threat with a demand for the release of Asahara.  A schism developed in the organization in 2003, when a more moderate splinter group sought to eschew violence and rehabilitate the group’s spiritual reputation.

The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo is a blend of ancient Buddhism, a derivative of Hindu yoga almost entirely invented by Asahara, and borrows some Christian messianic beliefs.[4]  According to its doctrine, the end of the world would be accomplished in 1997 when the United States was supposed to begin a Third World War with “Buddhist Asia” and totally destroy Japan, leaving only the Aum Shinrikyo followers to rebuild.[5]  When this scenario failed to materialize and its leaders were imprisoned in the wake of the subway sarin gas attack, doctrine was revised to predict that the beginning of end of the world would occur between 1999 and 2003.[6]  Aum Shinrikyo offered a spiritually focused alternative to the growing materialism of post-war Japan: one follower testified,

Exploitation is going on in the guise of ‘free trade.’  Japan, for example, is sucking out so much of the developing countries’ wealth and does not contribute anything to these nations…The reason we keep wanting these things is because we are not satisfied…In order to achieve ultimate happiness, we have to go inward.[7]

Asahara taught his followers that he was the first spiritually pure reincarnation of the Buddha and that history could be divided into three one-thousand year periods which successively deviated from the Buddha’s teaching.  Predictably, Asahara preached that the world was in its third millennium from Buddha, the most wretched existence, and he alone could usher in the perfection of the Buddha’s teaching, brought about through violence against the current order.[8]

Aum was not, however, just another doomsday cult to be ridiculed; neither was it a suicide cult like Jonestown in Guyana or Heaven’s Gate in San Diego California.  It became a billion dollar organization that acquired a sophisticated engineering capacity and was able to create its own stockpile of conventional and chemical weapons.[9] In spite of its spirituality, Aum Shinrikyo was, at is core, a criminal organization that preyed mostly upon its own members or those they believed to be apostates or traitors.

Asahara’s followers were thoroughly fleeced.  Many gave $250 for the privilege of drinking the Master’s bath water.  Others coughed up as much as $11,000 to drink a potion made with his blood.  Helmets used to hook up to the Master’s brain waves went for $100,000; they could be rented for a mere $10,000 per month.  Some gave Asahara their life’s savings.[10]

Aum Shinrikyo members allegedly extorted, kidnapped, tortured and killed members whom they believed were disloyal, and the families of members when they threatened to contact law-enforcement.   Through its combination of criminal enterprise and spiritual trickery, Aum Shinrikyo acquired a considerable potential for violence, which according to its core doctrine, is required to purify the world and re-create it according to the founding principles of the Buddha.

The Holy Spirit Movement

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony was born of a group opposed to the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni, who with his National Resistance Movement, wrested control of government from the immediate successors to the infamously brutal dictator Idi Amin.  Though drought sparked the crisis, the disruption of traditional power structures among the Acholi people, who found themselves the target of Museveni and his militias, plunged northern Uganda into chaos and violence.[11]  In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Kony and four other LRA commanders; in November of 2011 the Africa Union designated the LRA as a terrorist group and authorized regional military operations to destroy it.  The United States Department of State has included the LRA on its “Terrorist Exclusion List,” one tier below the designation as a foreign terrorist organization and in 2008 Kony was named a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by Executive Order 13324.

First known as the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), the LRA began as a secondary resistance movement founded in 1985 by Alice Auma (later Lakwena).  Alice claimed to be possessed by a first world-war era Italian army officer, and changed her surname to Lakwena, which means “messenger” in the Acholi language.[12]  According to HSM legend, Lakwena, carried by his medium Alice, held court over the animals and waters of Paraa National Park for forty days, questioning them about the violence in Uganda.  At the conclusion of this forty-day period, Lakwena was given a divine mission to heal the Acholi people from their sinful ways.[13]  The HSM liberally combined Christianity and Acholi traditional magic to create elaborate cleansing rituals.

In 1986, Lakwena re-cast the traditional healing ministry of the HSM as a militia, renaming it the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF).  The objective of HSMF was the overthrow of the Museveni government and the establishment of a new order that perfectly applied the Biblical Ten Commandments as its sole law.  Lakewana’s militia was governed by twenty “Holy Spirit Safety Precautions” that were supposedly based on a literal reading of the Christian Bible and traditional Acholi beliefs.  For example, soldiers of the HSMF were to neither aim their weapons, lest they violate rule eight, “thou shalt not kill,” nor were they to seek cover, which would violate rule eleven.  The HSMF enjoyed early battlefield successes, but eventually over-extended itself and was handed a significant defeat in 1987.  Disgraced, Lakwena went into exile in Kenya where she died in 2007.[14]

In 1987, a former altar boy named Joseph Kony, a relative of Alice Lakwena, tried to join the HSMF, but was rejected, and so organized a small rival group, borrowing heavily from HSM theology.  Not long after his arrival, Alice Lakwena went into exile, and following a year-long muddled attempt by Alice’s father to reconstitute the HSMF, Joseph Kony established himself as the leader of what he eventually named the LRA.  Kony then further blended Christianity (praying the Rosary, invoking the Ten Commandments), Islam (by praying towards Mecca), and indigenous witchcraft (ritual burning to plague enemies).  This syncretic theology is evident in LRA battle rituals, as told by a seventeen year old escaped abductee,

Also you take a small stone and sew it on a cloth and wear it around your wrist like a watch.  That is to prevent the bullet that might come, because in battle it is acting as a mountain.  So those people on the other side will look at you but they will see only a mountain and the bullets will hit the mountain and not hurt you…Finally you wear a cross on a chain.  But in fighting you wrap it around your wrist and hold it in your hand.  Should you make a mistake and not wear it on your hand, you will be killed.[15]

Joseph Kony grafted his own obsession with the apocalypse to Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement theology.  According to Kony, spiritual cleansing must be accompanied by physical violence.  Like Aum Shinrikyo, cataclysmic confrontation is required to usher in the new order, one that is spiritually clean and divinely blessed.  To that end, the LRA’s brutality is now infamous.  According to the testimony of a fifteen year old girl,

This is what the rebels have done:

- they burnt houses or whole villages

- abduct young children from 8 years onwards

- they killed people using the panga [machete]

- they cut your mouth with a knife or lock it with a padlock

- they destroyed people’s crops and burnt them

- they cut people’s ears

- they cut off your legs when they find you walking

- they killed the headmaster of a school and cooked him and made the pupils eat him

- they can pluck out your eyes

- they cut people’s hands off. My uncle was found hiding, and he was cut to pieces so much that you cannot think he is a person anymore.[16]

Abduction by the LRA is so pervasive that the UN estimates a sixth of all female youth and a third of all male youth between the ages of fourteen and thirty in Uganda have been abducted at one point in their lives by the LRA.

Some have suggested that its end-of-the-world doctrine is a cover for more mundane existential motives, the simple desire to continue to exist as an organization.

“Certainly one typical reading of the LRA is that it is a millenarian organization.  Kony’s rhetoric and the specifics of its religion are clearly millenarian in nature, with allusions to the end of the world and the need for cleansing.”

However, their own tactics have made them an entirely separate, shunned society,

“There are very real motivations for the LRA’s members to continue fighting indefinitely and to go on living within a permanent insurgency.  From this perspective, the religious ideology of millenarianism is a means toward continuing the organization, rather than the cause for perpetuating the LRA.”[17]

In this view, the LRA has become a vocation for some, even though many of its commanders were themselves kidnapped as boys more than a decade ago.  They have become inured to the gruesome brutality of their lives, and it is the only world they now know.  The LRA came to be defined by its vivid cruelty, “terrorist violence so extreme that it has ceased to have any discernable message content beyond a mere affirmation of being, and assert that “I kill and rape, and therefore I am.”[18]


Aum Shinrikyo amassed a great fortune and the potential to inflict mass casualties in Japan; the Lord’s Resistance Army has shocked the senses of humanity with its brutality in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  While their methods were very different, these two groups, operating on two different continents, in entirely different cultures, held several critically important beliefs in common: that the end of the world as it is presently known is at hand, and that they were the vanguards of the new millennium and utopia.  Both groups fed on real and imagined crises, blended foreign and indigenous beliefs into a syncretic theology, and both promised spiritual cleansing and correction of corruption.  Most millenarian groups are harmful only to their own members, as in the cases of Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, or Heaven’s Gate.  In the two cases considered here, they assumed a much broader commission: to purify the world around them with cataclysmic violence.  These terrorist groups remind us that spiritual reckoning—by whatever divine authority invoked—is highly effective at motivating people to violence.

[1]. Whitsel, Bradley.  (2000) “Catastrophic New Age Groups and Pubic Order,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 23:21-36.

[2]. United States State Department  Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, 339-340, available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/239631.pdf.

[3]. Muir, Angus.  (1999) “Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 22:79-91.

[4]. Metraux, Daniel A. (1996).  “Religious Terrorism in Japan: The Fatal Appeal of Aum Shinrikyo,” Asian Survey 35(12):1140-1154.

[5]. Metraux, 1996

[6]. Fletcher, 2012.

[7]. Metraux, 1996, p. 1145

[8]. Whitsel, 2000

[9]. Metraux, 1996; Muir, 1999

[10]. Winston Davis, quoted in Metraux, 1996, p. 1142

[11]. Kaplan, Jeffrey.  (2010) Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave.  New York: Routledge.

[12]. Vinci, Anthony.  (2007) “Existential Motivations in the Lord’s Resistance Army Continuing Conflict,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30:337-352; Kaplan, 2010.

[13]. Kaplan, 2010.

[14]. Kaplan, 2010.

[15]. Kaplan, 2010, p. 93.

[16]. Kaplan, 2010, p. 96-98

[17]. Vinci, 2007, p. 345.

[18]. Kaplan, 2010, p. 86.