Leaderless resistance

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Leaderless resistance, or phantom cell structure, is a social resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells), including individuals (a solo cell called a "Lone Wolf"), challenge an established institution such as a law, economic system, social order, government, et cetera. Leaderless resistance can encompass anything from non-violent protest and civil disobedience to vandalism, terrorism and other violent activity. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links and operate without hierarchal command.[1] While it lacks a central command, the concept includes a common goal between the individual actor and the group or social movement from which the ideology was learned.

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, including animal-liberation, radical environmentalist, anti-abortion activist, military invasion resistance, colonialism resistance, terrorist, and hate groups.

General characteristics

A typical covert cell can be a lone individual or 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 on who else is agitating on behalf of their cause.

Leaderless movements may have a symbolic figurehead. This 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

As a result, leaderless resistance cells are largely not susceptible 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.[citation needed]

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.[2]

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 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.[citation needed]


The concept of leaderless resistance was developed by Col. Ulius Louis Amoss, a former U.S. intelligence officer, in the early 1960s. An anti-communist, Amoss saw leaderless resistance as a way to prevent the penetration and destruction of CIA-supported resistance cells in Eastern European countries under Soviet control.[3]

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 U.S. government, despite an overwhelming imbalance in power and resources.

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.

In practice

Animal liberation

Further information: Animal liberation movement, Abolitionism (animal rights), Veganarchism, and Anarchism and animal rights

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.[4] 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.[4]

The Band of Mercy was then 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.[5]

Earth First! and the environmental movement in the 1980s adopted the leaderless resistance model,[6] 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, with two years later the name Hunt Retribution Squad (HRS) also being used.[7][8]

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,[9] 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.[10][11]

In 1999 the strategy was then actively employed by animal liberation organisations Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), formed from the Consort beagles campaign and Save the Hill Grove Cats to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). Despite claiming successes [12] leaderless animal liberation and environmental movements generally lack the broad popular support that often occurs in strictly political or military conflicts. The Revolutionary Cells--Animal Liberation Brigade (RCALB) then appeared in 2003 and sent pipe bombs to Chiron Corporation as well as using incendiary devices against similar campaign targets, whilst a year later on the south coast of Dorset in 2004, the Lobster Liberation Front (LLF) was founded.[13]

Within a few years of the victories claimed by the SHAC, other campaigns against animal testing laboratories emerged. At the same time, SPEAK Campaigns and the more radical ALF militants, Oxford Arson Squad began their campaigns for the same goal; to end Oxford University's animal research.

In April 2009, the Militant Forces Against Huntingdon Life Sciences (MFAH) became active, when along with the ALF, they began targeting HLS customer and financial Directors, as well as company property. Since then, groups have reported over a dozen actions in Europe, including painting homes, burning cars and grave desecration. Militants, however, oppose ALF ideology, instead believing in any necessary action to prevent suffering at HLS' laboratories.[14]

Broadly focused movements, campaigns and organizations

Movements/campaigns focused on animal testing

Ongoing movements/campaigns
Historical campaigns

Movements/campaigns focused on hunting

Movements/campaigns that advocate violence


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 on July 7, 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,[15] as a proposed response to perceived federal government over-reach at the expense of individual rights. Garfinkel, however, found in his research that for the most part the tactic was seldom used in the far right,[citation needed] but the actions of Timothy McVeigh are perhaps the most extreme example in the United States. McVeigh worked in a small cell which based the attack on motivations widespread among far-right anti-government groups and the militia movement.[citation needed]

Leaderless resistance has been advocated by White Supremacist groups such as White Aryan Resistance and the British neo-Nazi Combat 18. The modern Ku Klux Klan is also credited with having developed a leaderless resistance model.[16] Troy Southgate also advocated forms of leaderless resistance during his time as a leading activist in the National Revolutionary Faction and a pioneer of National-Anarchism.

Stormfront, Aryan Nations, and Hammerskin Nation link to Beam's Leaderless Resistance. These extremist groups promote a lone wolf mentality. While nominally decrying violence, the sites praise the man who "practices what he preaches, and who backs up his words with his deeds."[17] Stormfront, while regretting the loss of life, explains how Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's 1998 killing spree was compelled by circumstances. The World Church of the Creator presents a mixed message, calling Smith "a selfless man who gave his life in the resistance to Jewish/mud tyranny," but noting "the Church does not condone his acts."[17]

Radical environmentalism

Further information: Ecotage, Eco-terrorism, and Earth liberation

The first identified leaderless resistance in the environmental movement was when explosive and incendiary devices were used in 1976, by John Hanna and others as the Environmental Life Force (ELF), also now known as the original ELF. The group conducted a campaign of armed actions in northern California and Oregon, later disbanding in 1978 following Hanna's arrest for placing incendiary devices on seven crop-dusters at the Salinas, California airport on May Day, 1977.[18] It wasn't until over a decade and a half later that this form of guerrilla warfare resurfaced using the same acronym.

The symbol of Earth First!: a Monkey wrench and stone hammer.

In 1980 Earth First! was then founded by Dave Foreman and others to confront environmental destruction, primarily of the American West. Inspired by the Edward Abbey novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang", Earth First! made use of such techniques as treesitting[19] and treespiking[20] to stop logging companies, as well as other activities targeted towards mining, road construction,[21] suburban development and energy companies.

The organization were committed to nonviolent ecotage techniques from the group's inception, with those that split from the movement in the 1990s including the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) in 1992, naming themselves after the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who formed in the 1970s.[22] Three years later in Canada, inspired by the ELF in Europe the first Earth Liberation direct action occurred, but this time as the Earth Liberation Army (ELA), a similar movement who use ecotage and monkeywrenching as a tool, although no guidelines had been published. The ELF gained national attention for a series of actions which earned them the label of eco-terrorists,[23][24] including the burning of a ski resort in Vail, Colorado in 1998, and the burning of an SUV dealership in Oregon in 1999. In the same year the ELA had made headlines by setting fire to the Vail Resorts in Washington, D.C., causing $12 million in damages.[25] The defendants in the case were later charged in the FBI's "Operation Backfire", along with other arsons and cases, which were later named by environmentalists as the Green Scare; alluding to the Red Scare, periods of fear over communist infiltration of U.S.[26][27]

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks several laws were passed increasing the penalty for ecoterrorism, and hearings were held in Congress discussing the activity of groups such as the ELF. To date no one has been killed as a result of an ELF or ALF action since both groups forbid harming human or non-human life.[28] It was then announced in 2003 that "eco-terrorist" attacks, known as "ecotage", had increased from the ELF, ELA and the "Environmental Rangers", another name used by activists when engaging in similar activity.[29] In 2005 the FBI announced that the ELF, is America's greatest domestic terrorist threat, responsible for over 1,200 "criminal incidents" amounting to tens of millions of dollars in damage to property,[30] with the United States Department of Homeland Security confirming this regarding the ALF and ELF.[31]

Plane Stupid then was launched in 2005, in an attempt to combat the growing airport expansions in the UK using direct action with a year later the first Camp for Climate Action being held with 600 people attending a protest called Reclaim Power converging on Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire and attempted to shut it down. There were thirty-eight arrests, with four breaching the fence and the railway line being blocked.[32][33]


Anti-abortion militancy

Anti-abortion militants The Army of God uses leaderless resistance as its organizing principle. As of 2009, The Army of God's webpage hosts a reprint of an article entitled "Leaderless Resistance" from a publication called The Seditionist.[34][35][36]


Network analysis in classical setting

The social networks based 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.

Network analysis was successfully used by French Colonel Yves Godard to break the Algerian resistance between 1955 and 1957 and force them to cease the bombing campaigns. The Algerian conflict may be better described as guerrilla in nature rather than leaderless resistance (see Modern Warfare by Col. Roger Trinquier). The mapping data was obtained by the use of informants and torture and were used to obtain the identities of important individuals in the resistance; these were then assassinated, disrupting the Algerian resistance networks. The more distinctive the individual is in the adversary's network, the more difficult it is to replace them and the greater the damage. France declared Algeria independent on July 3, 1962.

Advantages for leaderless resistance

Traditional organizations leave behind much evidence of their activities, such as money trails, and training and recruitment material. Leaderless resistances, as they are as much ideologies as organizations, generally lack such traces. The effects of their operations, globally reported by the mass media, act as a sort of messaging and recruitment advertising.

The internet provides investigators with further challenges. The individual cells (and even a single person can be a cell) can communicate over the internet, anonymously or semi-anonymously publishing and sharing information online, to be found by others through well-known websites. Even where legally and technically possible to ascertain who accessed what, it is often practically impossible to discern in reasonable timeframe who is a real threat and who is just curious, a journalist, or a web crawler.

Despite these advantages, leaderless resistance is often unstable. If the actions are not frequent enough or not successful, the stream of public messages, serving as the recruiting, motivation and coordination drives for other cells, diminishes. If the actions are too successful, the result will be formation of support groups and other social structures—structures vulnerable to network analysis.

In fiction

  • The 1970 novel A Piece of Resistance, re-published in the US in 2004 under the title Never Surrender by Clive Egleton depicts resistance to a Soviet occupation of England.
  • The 1996 novel Unintended Consequences by John Ross portrays a successful rebellion by the American heartland after decades of bullying by faraway Washington.

See also


  1. Simson Garfinkel (3 March 2003). "Leaderless resistance today". First Monday. doi:10.5210/fm.v8i3.1040. Retrieved May 7, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. British Resistance Organisation. "History". parhamairfieldmuseum.co.uk. Archived from the original on March 15, 2005. Retrieved May 7, 2006. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. [1] Amoss as cited in Defending Dissent Foundation Study Guide]
  4. 4.0 4.1 Best & Nocella (eds), Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, Lantern Books, 2004.
  5. Webb, Robin. "Animal Liberation — By 'Whatever Means Necessary'," in Best & Nocella (eds), Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, Lantern Books, 2004, p. 77.
  6. Southern Poverty Law Center. "From Push to Shove". Retrieved May 7, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Singer, Peter. The Animal Liberation Movement: Its philosophy, its achievements and its future. Retrieved on 2007-11-09.
  8. "Focus: Desecrated", Times Online.
  9. Alleyne, Richard. "Terror tactics that brought a company to its knees", The Daily Telegraph, January 19, 2001
  10. "Animal rights, terror tactics", BBC News, 30 August 2000.
  11. "From push to shove", Southern Poverty Law Group Intelligence Report, Fall 2002, p. 3
  12. Quantum Analytics: Drop HLS, SHAC.
  13. "Activists' 'war' to save lobsters", BBC News, July 30, 2004.
  14. MFAH Communique: April 7th 2009, Bite Back Magazine, 7th April 2009
  15. Paul de Armond. "Putting the Far Right into Perspective". Retrieved May 7, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. University of Michigan. "Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism" (PDF). Retrieved May 7, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 Ray, Beverly; George E. Marsh II (February 2001). "Recruitment by Extremist Groups on the Internet". First Monday. 6 (2). Retrieved January 18, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Original ELF
  19. Earth First's first treesitting civil disobedience action, Earth First! 1985, Oregon, June 1985.
  20. Tree Spiking Memo, Earth First!, April 1990.
  21. Wall, Derek (1999). Earth First! and the Anti-Roads Movement: Radical Environmentalism and Comparative Social Movements. Routledge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. ELF Burns Down Vail, FIRE, December 1999.
  23. Earth Liberation Front is now FBI's No. 1 Domestic Terrorist Threat, Property Rights of America Foundation Inc, March 2001.
  24. ELF News, Earth Liberation Front
  25. waste & abuse - controversy over a temporary dirt road built by Vail Resortsand its effect on wetlands, BNet, September 27th 1999.
  26. Eco-Terror Indictments: "Operation Backfire" Nets 11, FBI, January 20th 2006.
  27. Resentencing date set for Jeff Luers, Freedom4um, 29 December 2007.
  28. Bron Taylor, 1998. Religion, Violence and Radical Environmentalism: From Earth First! to the Unabomber to the Earth Liberation Front, Terrorism and Political Violence 10(4):1-42
  29. The eco-terrorist anthrax connection, ESR, October 21st 2001.
  30. Best, Steven and Best & Nocella. Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, Lantern Books, 2006, p. 47.
  31. FBI, ATF address domestic terrorism, CNN, May 19th 2005.
  32. Brown, Jonathan (2006-09-01). "The Battle of Drax: 38 held as protest fails to close plant". The Independent. London. Retrieved April 4, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Wainwright, Martin (2006-09-01). "In the shadow of Drax, not so much a fight as a festival". The Guardian. London. Retrieved April 4, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Louis Beam (1962-04-17). "Leaderless Resistance". Armyofgod.com. Retrieved 2012-11-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "A Most Dangerous Profile: The Loner". The Washington Post. August 18, 1998. Retrieved April 4, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Jennifer Gonnerman (1998-11-10). "The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion - Page 3 - News - New York". Village Voice. Retrieved 2012-11-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links