Leaderless Resistance


Leaderless resistance, or phantom cell structure, is a political resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells), including individuals (solo cells), challenge an established adversary such as a government. Leaderless resistance can encompass anything from non-violent disruption and civil disobedience to bombings, assassinations and other violent agitation. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links and operate without hierarchical command. 

Given the simplicity of the strategy, as well as the fact that it is difficult to stamp out, leaderless resistance has been employed by a wide-range of movements, from terrorist and hate groups, advocating on a range of issues like animal-liberation, radical environmentalism, anti-corporatism, anti-abortion activism, and resistance to military invasion or colonialism.

A typical covert cell operates as anything from a lone individual to a small group. The basic characteristic of the structure is that there is no explicit communication between cells which are otherwise acting toward the same goals. Members of one cell usually have little or no specific information as to who else is agitating on behalf of their cause.

Leaderless movements may have symbolic figureheads. It can be a public figure or an inspirational author, who picks generic targets and objectives, but does not actually manage or execute plans. Media, in this case, often create a positive feedback loop: the publishing of declarations of a movement’s role model instills motivation, ideas and assumed sympathy in the minds of potential agitators who lend further authority to the figurehead. While this may be loosely viewed as a vertical command structure, it is notably unidirectional: a titular leader makes pronouncements, and activists may respond, but there is no established contact between the two levels of organization.

As a result, leaderless resistance cells are largely insusceptible to informants and traitors. As there is neither a center that may be destroyed, nor links between the cells that may be infiltrated, it is more difficult for established authorities to arrest the development of a leaderless resistance movement than more conventional hierarchies.

Given its asymmetrical character and the fact that it is often strategically adopted in the face of an obvious institutional power imbalance, leaderless resistance has much in common with guerrilla warfare. The latter strategy, however, usually retains some form of organized, bidirectional leadership and is often more broad-based than the individualized actions of leaderless cells. In some cases, a largely leaderless movement may evolve into a coherent insurgency or guerrilla movement, as successfully occurred with the Yugoslav partisans of World War II. In the same conflict, the British leadership had extensive plans for the use of such resistance in the event of a successful German invasion.

While the concept of leaderless resistance is often based on resistance by violent means, it is not limited to them. The same structure can be used by non-violent groups authoring, printing, and distributing samizdat (bootleg) literature, using the internet to create self-propagating boycotts against political opponents, maintaining an alternative electronic currency outside of the reach of the taxing governments and transaction-logging banks, etc. Col. Ulius Louis Amoss, a former U.S. intelligence officer, studied leaderless resistance in the early 1960s. An anti-communist, Amoss saw it as a backup for the possibility of a communist seizure of power in the United States.

The concept was revived and popularized in an essay published by the anti-government Ku Klux Klan member Louis Beam in 1983 and again in 1992. Beam advocated leaderless resistance as a technique for white nationalists to continue the struggle against the federal government, despite an overwhelming imbalance in power and resources. In the same year, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was formed as a leaderless, eco-resistance movement. Beam argued that conventional hierarchical pyramidal organizations are extremely dangerous for their participants, when employed in a resistance movement against government, because of the ease of disclosing the chain of command. A more workable approach would be to convince the like-minded individuals to form independent cells, without close communication between each other, but generally operating in the same direction.

The first recorded direct action for animal liberation which progressed into a movement of leaderless resistance was by the original ‘Band of Mercy’ in 1824 to thwart fox hunters. Inspired by this group and after seeing a pregnant deer driven into the village by fox hunters to be killed, John Prestige decided to actively oppose this sport and formed the ‘Hunt Saboteurs Association’ (HSA) in 1964. Within a year, a leaderless model of hunt-sabotage groups was formed across the country. A second ‘Band of Mercy’ was formed in 1972 using direct action to liberate animals and cause economic sabotage against those thought to be abusing animals. Ronnie Lee and others then changed the name to the ‘Animal Liberation Front’ (ALF) in 1976 and the leaderless resistance model focusing broadly on animal liberation was born.

‘Earth First!’ and the environmental movement in the 1980s adopted the leaderless resistance model, whilst those in the animal liberation movement advocating violence emerged with activists using the name ‘Animal Rights Militia'(ARM) in 1982. Letter bombs were sent to the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The ‘Earth Liberation Front’ (ELF) was then formed in 1992, which broke from ‘Earth First!’ when the organization decided to focus on advocating public direct action, instead of ‘ecotage’ that the ELF participated in, whilst a violent group was established called the ‘Justice Department’ in 1993, who in 1994, sent razor blades to hunters such as Prince Charles and animal researchers. Despite claiming successes, leaderless animal liberation and environmental movements generally lack the broad popular support that often occurs in strictly political or military conflicts.

Leaderless resistance is also often well-suited to terrorist objectives. The Islamist organization Al-Qaeda provides a prototypical figurehead/leaderless cell structure. The organization itself may be pyramidal, but sympathizers who act on its pronouncements often do so spontaneously and independently. Given the small, clandestine character of terrorist cells, it is easy to assume they necessarily constitute leaderless resistance models. Where a bidirectional affiliation occurs, however, the label is inappropriate. The men who executed the bombings of the London Underground in 2005 constituted a leaderless resistance cell in that they purportedly acted out of sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism but under their own auspices. The hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks, by contrast, allegedly received training, direction, and funding from Al-Qaeda, and are not properly designated a leaderless cell.

The concept of leaderless resistance remains important to much far right thinking in the United States, both in response to Amoss’ initial fear (foreign forces on U.S. soil) but increasingly also — in line with Beam — as a response to perceived federal government over-reach at the expense of individual rights. The actions of Timothy McVeigh are perhaps the most extreme example in the United States. McVeigh acted largely alone, but based on motivations widespread among the far-right anti-government and militia movement.

Groups relying on leaderless resistance are potentially vulnerable to social network analysis and its derivative link analysis. Link analysis of social networks is the fundamental reason for the ongoing legislative push in the U.S. and the European Union for mandatory retention of telecommunication traffic data and limiting access to anonymous prepaid cellphones, as the stored data contain important network analysis clues.

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