Cults are composed of adherents of an exclusive system of beliefs and practices. According to the UK Cult Information Centre, every cult can be defined as a group having all of the following five characteristics:
Recruits to religious cults often find themselves in a battlefield between true believers and witch-hunters. Cultists often deceive them and frequently defraud them, sometimes coerce them and occasionally brainwash them. Anti-cultists, with equally ferocious dedication, spread hysterical propaganda, terrify distraught relatives and occasionally have their relatives kidnapped for brutal, illegal deprogramming.
In the broadest meaning, cults are composed of individuals who demonstrate "great devotion to a person, idea, object or movement." A more developed definition of cults incorporates the term "cultic relationships" to describe the interactions within a cult. A cultic relationship refers to "one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge."< Common cult distinctions include: (1) cult leaders are self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life or have special knowledge; (2) a cult's ideas and dogma claim to be innovative and exclusive; and (3) cult leaders focus their members' love, devotion and allegiance on themselves. These characteristics culminate in a group structure that is frequently highly authoritarian in structure.
The potential for violence on behalf of members of cults is determined almost exclusively by the whims of the cult leader. Cult members generally act to serve and please the cult leader rather than accomplish an ideological objective. Cult leaders are often viewed as messianic in the eyes of their followers. The cult leader's prophecies, preachings, orders, and objectives are subject to indiscriminate change. While analysis of publicly stated goals and objectives of cults may provide hints about their behavior and intentions, it is just as likely to be uninformed or, at worst, misleading.
There are certain characteristics that make some cults more prone to violence, these include control of a group by charismatic psychopaths or those with narcissistic character disorders. Cults with violent tendencies often recruit people who are either familiar with weapons or who have military backgrounds to serve as enforcers.
Sequestered groups lose access to the outside world and information, preventing critical evaluation of the ideas being espoused by the leader. Cults in which members are heavily dependent on the leader for all decision making almost always physically and psychologically isolate their members from the outside world and outsiders in general. Isolation causes a reduction of critical thinking on the part of group members who become indoctrinated in the belief system proposed by the group leadership.
For apocalyptic cults, especially biblically based ones, the millennium is viewed as the time that will signal a major transformation for the world. Many apocalyptic cults share the belief that the battle against Satan, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, will begin in the years surrounding the millennium.
Apocalyptic cults see their mission in two general ways: They either want to accelerate the end of time or take action to ensure that they survive the millennium. For Aum in Japan Shinrikyo wanted to take action to hasten the end of the world, while the militia compounds in the US in general are built to survive the endtime safely.
The cults of greatest concern to public authorities are those that: (1) believe they play a special, elite role in the endtime; (2) believe violent offensive action is needed to fulfill their endtime prophecy; (3) take steps to attain their beliefs. Those factors may culminate in plans to initiate conflict with outsiders or law enforcement agencies.
The violent tendencies of dangerous cults can be classified into two general categories - defensive violence and offensive violence. Defensive violence is utilized by cults to defend a compound or enclave: The 1993 clash in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian complex is an illustration of such defensive violence. History has shown that groups that seek to withdraw from the dominant culture seldom act on their beliefs that the endtime has come unless provoked.