For all their differences, the two most serious instances of domestic terrorism in modern American history — the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the shooting massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning — have one significant thing in common.
Both attacks were carried out by lone-wolf terrorists engaged in acts of “leaderless resistance” on behalf of but not directed by larger political movements.
While today we associate lone wolf attacks with homegrown Islamist terrorism, like the Ft. Hood, Boston Marathon, San Berndardino, and now Orlando killings, the strategy of leaderless resistance has its origins in the American white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and paramilitary far right groups of the 1980s.
While Tom Metzger, of White Aryan Resistance, is credited with coining the term “Lone Wolf,” it was a fellow white supremacist, Louis Beam, an Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan activist who in 1983 wrote an essay titled, “Leaderless Resistance,” describing the strategy.
Beam republished his essay in 1992 in the wake of seditious conspiracy cases brought by the federal government against himself and other leaders of the American far right. Recognizing the vulnerability of organizations with traditional pyramid structures, Beam instead urged his compatriots to act independently, either alone or within self-contained cells, in accord with their shared ideology and in pursuit of their common goals. Here are some selected excerpts:
The concept of Leaderless Resistance is nothing less than a fundamental departure in theories of organization. The orthodox scheme of organization … the pyramid, is however not only useless, but extremely dangerous for the participants when it is utilized in a resistance movement against state tyranny. … Experience has revealed over and over again that anti-state, political organizations utilizing this method of command and control are easy prey for government infiltration, entrapment, and destruction of the personnel involved.
An alternative to the pyramid type of organization is the cell system. … The value of this is that while any one cell can be infiltrated, exposed or destroyed, such action will have no effect on the other cells.
Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization. … No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.
Ironically, while this approach to political violence emerged out of the anti-government and white supremacist right, it was also embraced by the eco-terrorists of the far left, in particular Earth Liberation Front. Sociologist Paul Joosse explored this in an article he published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence where he quotes from the ELF website:
Because the ELF is non-hierarchical, there is no centralized organization or leadership. There is also no “membership” in the Earth Liberation Front. In the past … individuals have committed arson and other illegal acts under the ELF name. Individuals who choose to do actions under the banner of ELF do so only driven by their personal conscience. These have been individual choices …
From an operational standpoint, leaderless resistance can be particularly effective and even harder for authorities to prevent compared to conventional terrorism. Contrast what happened in Orlando, or San Bernardino, to the attacks last November in Paris. In the later case French authorities were already on highest alert due to earlier attacks as well as two years’ worth of mounting intelligence pointing to significant, imminent attack. Lone wolf terrorists typically leave far fewer, if any, tracks prior to striking.
To bring us back to where we started, the direct line connecting our deadliest cases of domestic terrorism is leaderless resistance, the brainchild and still the favored strategy of the violent American far right. And so Nidal Hassan, (Ft. Hood), the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon), Farook and Malik (San Berndardino), and now Omar Mateen (Orlando) have followed in the well-worn footsteps of Timoth McVeigh (Oklahoma City), Eric Rudolph (Atlanta Olympic Park), Wade Michael Page (Sikh temple, Oak Creek, WI) and Dylann Roof (Emanuel AME Church, Charleston).
In February 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a comprehensive report on the phenomenon of contemporary lone wolf terrorism. It is sobering reading. They also produced the video below as a training tool to help law enforcement combat lone wolf domestic terrorism. It is well worth watching.