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Lone Wolf Attacks and Leaderless Resistance

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By Dr. William Hanson
AMU’s School of Security and Global Studies

Imagine this as a lead-in to a news article:

Today, a lone gunman walked into a shopping mall and immediately opened fire on the crowd while shouting “Allahu Akbar!”, until he was killed by police.   Authorities believe he was inspired by the Islamic State, or ISIL. A later tweet by ISIL took credit for inspiring the attack, promising “a wave of blood and martyrdom against the U.S.”

While this didn’t happen (today), this type of event is unfortunately all too plausible. Government figures, along with other commentators, have warned of the potential for “lone wolf” attacks. Indeed, we have seen examples of individuals who have been radicalized via online social media or through other avenues who then either conducted or attempted attacks on U.S. soil.

Terrorists attacking the U.S. or U.S. interests are nothing new, but what is new is the stress on leaderless, lone wolf attacks by those who are individually inspired to take action where and when they can. Clearly, such individuals can engage in terror, and because of their lack of direct connections to the main group, are very difficult for intelligence and law enforcement to detect before they take action.

Given the difficulty in halting such “plotless plots,” is this an effective tactic for groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda? Will the use of such tactics enable them to reach their strategic goals? To answer these questions, let’s look at some previous examples of these tactics in action.

It’s common to think that modern terrorism started with 9/11. However, the use of terrorism goes back to the 1880s, where anarchists and communists conducted a number of bombings, assassinations, and other attacks both in the U.S. and Europe. This included the assassinations of President McKinley, Tsar Alexander II, French President Carnot, King Carlos of Portugal, and King George I of Greece. At the time, it was believed that such “propaganda of the deed” would influence others to take action. These anarchist attacks were essentially “lone wolves” or very small groups, and were carried out without any central control or strategic direction – other than the hope that the deeds would inspire other deeds and would spread into insurrection.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the concept of “Leaderless Resistance” became popular among American white supremacists, along with environmental and animal rights groups. Originally credited to Col. Ulius Amoss as a tactic to allow citizens to resist a communist takeover, the idea was popularized by white supremacist leader Louis Beam. Beam noted that all organized forms of conspiracy, such as hierarchies, cell systems, and so-called “hub and spoke” systems were highly susceptible to penetration by security services. Given this, Beam advocated a system of “phantom cells” and individuals which were not connected to any hierarchy or command and control network. These small groups and individuals would engage in self-directed actions, in hopes of inspiring others to take similar actions and eventually create wide-spread resistance to the government.

As a tool for the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, this approach offers the advantage of greatly limiting the possibility that such individual actions or plots will be penetrated and discovered. However, the weakness of such an approach is that leaderless resistance is just that – a technique for resistance to an occupier. To be successful in creating strategic effects, such resistance needs a “cause” to which the people will either rally, or at least grant their sympathy. This was the same issue which faced the anarchists, who soon found that while people may be unhappy with their rulers, their “propaganda of the deed” did not translate into a popular cause. There would be no spontaneous uprisings.

Similarly, the lack of a popular Islamic “cause” for U.S. citizens to rally around is, therefore, a fatal flaw in the use of leaderless resistance as a means for jihadist groups to achieve strategic goals in this country.   While such tactics can produce isolated and sporadic violence, we have unfortunately become accustomed to a fairly high incidence of random shootings and other acts of violence. As long as there is no “cause” to rally people in the U.S. , it is difficult to understand how random violence will create the follow-on effects that jihadist groups are hoping for. There is a big difference between “inspiring” attacks and directing attacks to achieve tactical or strategic objectives. Until the tactic of leaderless terrorism can be harnessed to adequate command and control, or jihadist groups can leverage such random violence to achieve specific goals, lone wolves will remain alone.

About the Author

Dr. William Hanson is an Associate Professor of Security and Global Studies at American Public University. Prior to coming to APUS, Dr. Hanson had a distinguished career in the US Air Force, retiring as a Colonel. His key assignments included duty as Chief, Long Range Strategic Planning for the Air Force and Chief, Strategy and Policy Division, US Strategic Command. The views expressed are his own.

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