Lesson Plan

Extremism, ISIS and the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s


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.

Content Advisory:

This video includes images of terrorist attacks and the mass suicideat the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.


  • 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.
  • Social Studies
  • Psychology
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Science
  • Barack Obama
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Religion
  • 21st Century
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

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.

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?

Lesson Procedure

  • What does the Jonestown massacre teach us about combating ISIS and other terrorist groups recruiting American citizens?
  • When people join movements like ISIS or the Peoples Temple, what are their psychological motives for doing so? Why would someone join a group like this? What do they expect to get out of it?
  • Are any of the psychological motives from the previous question caused by larger historical forces and social conditions?
  • In addition to what was discussed in the video, are there other lessons from history that might help us generate constructive plans for dealing with terrorism or immigration? Has the U.S. made mistakes when confronting these issues? What can we learn from those mistakes?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "How ISIS Resembles the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s"Retro Report 

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.

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.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

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

Theme: Politics and Power (PCE)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com