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The Challenge of Lone Wolf Terrorism

The horrific recent attack in San Bernardino has attracted a good deal of bafflement from media and government alike. What kind of Islamist assault was this? If Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were not acting together with a “real” terror group or network, were they really terrorists? Were they taking orders from some mysterious head or group, still unidentified? Actually, there is an easy and unsettling answer to all these questions. Yes, they certainly were terrorists, and they were following one of the most dangerous tactics known in that world, “leaderless resistance.” The fact that U.S. law enforcement is still so startled by this method, and so utterly unprepared, is deeply alarming.

Do not for a second think that by using the term “resistance,” I am justifying these disgusting crimes, or comparing them to guerrilla resistance movements. Rather, I am using a well known technical term, albeit one with a very odd history [1].

Amazingly, the story goes back to the U.S. ultra-Right in the 1980s. Far Rightists and neo-Nazis tried to organize guerrilla campaigns against the U.S. government, which caused some damage but soon collapsed ignominiously. The problem was the federal agencies had these movements thoroughly penetrated, so that every time someone planned an attack, it was immediately discovered by means of either electronic or human intelligence. The groups were thoroughly penetrated by informers.

The collapse of that endeavor led to some serious rethinking by the movement’s intellectual leaders. Extremist theorists now evolved a shrewd if desperate strategy of “leaderless resistance,” based on what they called the “Phantom Cell or individual action.” If even the tightest of cell systems could be penetrated by federal agents, why have a hierarchical structure at all? Why have a chain of command? Why not simply move to a non-structure, in which individual groups circulate propaganda, manuals and broad suggestions for activities, which can be taken up or adapted according to need by particular groups or even individuals?

To quote far Right theorist Louis Beam [2],

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 … No-one need issue an order to anyone.

The strategy is almost perfect in that attacks can neither be predicted nor prevented, and that there are no ringleaders who can be prosecuted. The Internet offered the perfect means to disseminate information. Already in the mid-1980s, the neo-Nazi networks were pioneering early adapters of the electronic bulletin boards that preceded the World Wide Web.

In 1989, Rightist intellectual William Pierce published a book that provides a prophetic description of leaderless resistance in action. Hunter, published in 1989, portrays a lone terrorist named Oscar Yeager (German, Jäger) who assassinates mixed-race couples. The book is dedicated to Joseph Paul Franklin, “the Lone Hunter, who saw his duty as a white man, and did what a responsible son of his race must do.” Franklin, for the uninitiated, was a racist assassin who launched a private three year war in the late 1970s, in which he murdered interracial couples and bombed synagogues. The fictional Yeager likewise launches armed attacks against the liberal media, and against groups attempting to foster good relations among different races and creeds.


Central to the book is the notion of revolutionary contagion. Although the hero (for hero he is meant to be) cannot by himself bring down the government or the society that he detests, his “commando raids” serve as a detonator, to inspire other individuals or small groups by his example. “Very few men were capable of operating a pirate broadcasting station or carrying out an aerial bombing raid on the Capitol, but many could shoot down a miscegenating couple on the street.” He aimed at the creation of a never-ending cycle of “lone hunters,” berserkers prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to destroy a society they believe to be wholly evil.

Politically, the U.S. ultra-Right was too weak in the 1990s to follow Pierce’s model, and the movement never fully recovered from the Oklahoma City attack. But the Hunter tactics live on, precisely, in the modern Islamist world, and specifically in the influence of Yemeni-American propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by U.S. action in 2011. Reading texts from al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, we so often hear what sound like direct echoes of Pierce, and especially of leaderless resistance.

That connection is actually not hard to explain. We know that al-Awlaki spent the 1990s in the U.S., where he would have had easy access to the rich array of paramilitary books and manuals circulated by far Right and survivalist mail order firms, which also sold anti-Semitic tracts. Both kinds of writing would have appealed to a budding jihadi. If he dabbled at all in this subculture, he would very soon have encountered the books of Pierce, who was a best-seller in these catalogues. Particularly in the early nineties, Hunter was the hottest name in this literary underworld. If not Hunter itself, al-Awlaki would certainly have heard discussions of leaderless resistance, which was all the rage on the paramilitary Right in those years.

In light of that, look at the domestic terror attacks in the U.S. in the past decade, all of “lone wolves” or of tiny hermetic cells, made up of siblings or married couples. Think of the Tsarnaevs in Boston, of Nidal Hassan in Fort Hood, of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in Chattanooga, and now of Farook and Malik in San Berndardino. Think also of the many instances—never fully catalogued and collated—of Islamist “lone wolves” driving cars into crowds. Call it “self-radicalization” if you must, but what we have in progress, in the contemporary United States, is a textbook example of a Hunter-inspired campaign of leaderless resistance.

What that means is that virtually none of the counter-terror tactics currently deployed by U.S. agencies have the slightest relevance to detecting or preventing future attacks. You can’t track leaders because there aren’t any, you can’t infiltrate the group or turn participants, and all the propaganda and terror methods needed are on the Internet. They are getting their training and propaganda online from Qaeda sites like Inspire, and more recently by the ISIS/Daesh magazine Dabiq.

For the sake of argument, let us accept the optimistic view that 99 percent of American Muslims flatly reject terrorism. Not counting any future migration, that would still leave one percent of the whole, or some 30,000 potential Islamist militants. That is enough people for 10,000 leaderless cells.

Addressing this issue would seem to be the absolute number one priority of U.S. law enforcement in the coming years. Shall we begin, at least, by naming the enemy?

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [3]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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20 Comments To "The Challenge of Lone Wolf Terrorism"

#1 Comment By Xavier Galindo On December 7, 2015 @ 4:25 am

This was an interesting article, thanks for taking the time to write it! Respectfully, I’m not convinced that this form of terrorism is particularly recent or innovative. Unorganized terrorism has always relied upon “leaderless resistance,” even if that name wasn’t used. Another phrase for “leaderless resistance” may just as well be “random guy in a house in the woods that hates the government.” Is this so very different from how anarchist terrorism operated a century ago?

Moreover, I’m not at all clear about what, precisely, can law enforcement do to adapt to this form of terrorism, which is indistinguishable in all but the perpetrator’s mind to any other form of violent crime? What is the practical, real-world difference between one of these people and some teenager planning a school shooting from his bedroom?

There is nothing for law enforcement to “adapt” to in that scenario. This form of criminal behavior and/or terrorism is undetectable unless the perpetrator blows their cover or authorities catch a lucky break. Even if we wanted to form an Orwellian state to prevent it, we don’t yet have the technology to detect bad intentions.

As far as the “30,000 potential militants,” I don’t believe that follows from the premises as given here. Surely there must be more variables to account for than the spectrum’s two extremes.


#2 Comment By mohammad On December 7, 2015 @ 4:50 am

In 80’s and 90’s, the radical right was weak, so it could not go very far in doing the damage they wanted to inflict. Most of white males in the USA wanted a better life for themselves, and not the life of a fighter and a martyr. The case is almost the same with American Muslims today. Most, nearly all of them, would prefer to live a good life, religious or not, and to pursue a career. The USA has been much better in integration of Muslims than Europe, and that is one reason there are far fewer radicals in the USA than in Europe. Now a really bad thing that can come out of this and similar situations (which most probably will happen) is that the USA, whether the government or the public, would turn against Muslims living there. The feeling of siege, rejection and oppression, the feeling that they will not be able to lead a good life no matter what, would only help to recruit more fanatics.

I am not saying that the only reason that would lead to fanaticism is the sense of rejection. The recent terrorist couple had a good life by all accounts; one could note also that, in the past and present, there have been many leftist radicals born and raised in rich families. What I am saying is that the road to fanaticism would be paved and easier to tread if a community feels rejected and oppressed. Whatever you think of Muslims in general, and of Islam in particular, you have to deal with the Muslims in your midst, and the large Islamic world outside. The policies have consequences, as we learned (at an extremely high price) after 9-11. It would be a bad folly if the Americans repeat their foreign policy mistakes, this time in a domestic setting.

The current phase of Islamist terror and radicalization will eventually exhaust itself and die. However, the domestic policies with regards to Muslims can have much more lasting consequences. Let me repeat (as it cannot be emphasized enough): whatever you think of Muslims and Islam, assigning a pariah state to a large community in the USA is not a reasonable or helpful policy in any regard. Especially, it is extremely important to avoid acting based on a desire for revenge. It was basically the desire for revenge that propelled the USA to its worst blunder, namely the Iraq War.

#3 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On December 7, 2015 @ 9:35 am

It looks to me like what you have here with the California terror cell is the radical culmination of Fourth Generation warfare- leaderless cells, independent and autonomous, nevertheless fighting against the state for a cause, ideology or non-state actor.

There is no way to predict when the next attack will come. Intelligence is either worthless or non-existent. And so it begin in Fourth Generation fashion to begin to eat away at the fibers of America, attacking America at the moral level. Fear and panic spread, people distrust or doubt the federal government, deep divisions in America get even deeper, effective action is paralyzed. What is the government going to end up having to do? Seizing the lawfully owned firearms out of the hands of every American? Interring all Muslims into camps? Placing even more people onto huge “watch lists?” Expanding the domestic surveillance state until the last vestiges of privacy all are gone?

As Martin van Creveld writes in his classic The Rise and Decline of the State (1999), people wise and realize the state cannot fight and win this kind of war by conventional means. They take matters into their own hands: arming themselves, employing private security forces, fleeing into gated and vetted communities of alike people, some even forming their own militias. State and localities begin taking matters into their own hands, even if in contravention to the U.S. Constitution.

This weakens the state, which in turns comes to be seen as both ineffectual and heavy-handed.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On December 7, 2015 @ 10:12 am

@mohammad alludes to what I consider the biggest difference between the current wave of radical Muslims, and the fringe right wing in America. The willingness … even the embrace … of suicide as a tactic.

The Tsarnaevs clearly thought they could be smarter than law enforcement … but the others named (as well as the Paris terrorists, etc) clearly had to know they were unlikely to come out alive (it is a tribute to military discipline that Nidal Hassan did), and were simply out to kill as many people as they could until the shot came that took their life. These men and women clearly viewed themselves as warriors in some perverse way – perverse, because a warrior does not revel in killing an unarmed civilian.

To that extent, they are much more similar to any number of school shooters we’ve seen in America in recent decades. Someone estranged from society in their own way, who decides to commit suicide while taking out as many innocents as they can. Except in this case, you have the ugly mix of radical theology being tossed into the brew as a motivational tool.

We can’t harden every possible target in America … this last shooting shows how absolutely unpredictable the targets may be.

We can’t/won’t make it harder for potential killers to amass massive arsenals, or even easier for law enforcement to be alerted to those arsenals.

We certainly can’t kill off an idea with bombs and bullets.

I think an end to this has to be rooted in a championing of the idea that there is no glory, no eternal reward, nothing but shame to be found in the targeting of unarmed civilians in terrorists attacks.

#5 Comment By Philip Giraldi On December 7, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

The American media, government and chattering class all seem to need new labels to justify their inability to stop terrorist attacks. Today’s flavor is “lone wolf,” which is an insult to wolves everywhere, though we quickly discover that “lone wolf” is somewhat interchangeable with “leaderless resistance.” By alleging that there is a new type of enemy out there operating under a couple of labels requiring adjustments in counter-terrorist procedures it is possible to escape blame for failures to anticipate attacks. In reality, revolutionary groups, going back to Czarist times if not before, have long since figured out that if you have a broadly based movement the government will inevitably insert informants and you will all wind up in jail.

The first response by such groups to penetration by the authorities was the employment of unconnected cells that might individually be rolled up without revealing the identity or plans of other cells, but even cells could be penetrated. More recently, groups like al-Qaeda have gone over to the franchise arrangement whereby supporters pledge allegiance in a nominal way but raise their own funds, obtain their own weapons and select their own targets. That is the essence of “lone wolf” or “leaderless resistance.” The attack on transport systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 were franchise attacks, so the concept is not exactly new and did not originate with al-Awlaki in Yemen even if he did have a lifetime subscription to “Soldier of Fortune” magazine.

The Boston Marathon bombers were also local products, self-supporting and self-directed. Which of course leads to the other cute phrase to describe yet another grave threat to the Motherland – “home grown.” Eventually we will likely have a cornucopia of labels to describe incidents, each one fitting like a bespoke suit. But we will be no closer to ending terrorism as we know it even if we do create a data base of all American Muslims as has been suggested elsewhere on this site. Or we could convene a board of university professors to identity those “30,000 Islamic militants” that are running around loose so we can deal with them appropriately.

Of course once we have the Muslim data base comprising innocent and guilty alike we could either lock them all up, which would be a great boon to the economy through building hundreds of new prisons, or we could just ship them all off to Mauritius.

#6 Comment By Paddywagon On December 7, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

Reader ‘mohammad’ is 100% right here.

I am fully convinced that it is ISIS’s desire for attacks like the one in Paris and San Bernardino to turn Western powers/societies against the existing Muslim populations in their midst. Daesh is trying to galvanize Muslim communities who, in their minds, are sitting on the fence, have cozied up to western secularism, apostatized, etc.

We are, basically, playing right into ISIS’ wishes if we as a nation take on policies and attitudes that make all U.S. Muslims and their communities feel like an unwanted minority that is discriminated against and always suspect.

How do we as a society win against this radicalism?

First off, we recognize that we need to come together as local communities more than ever; the sense of isolation that so many Americans feel only serves to exacerbate the problem of some folks slipping through the cracks and seeking purpose and identity through radicalism.

Second, keep throwing your Muslim coworkers baby showers. I.e., be kind and neighborly to your neighbor. Period. We are all disgusted that Syed and Tashfeen slaughtered the very people who seemingly treated them with kindness, but we will never know how such similar kindness elsewhere has kept others grounded in reality who may have otherwise been tempted to drink the ISIS Kool-aid.

Sadly, though, we’re not going to do either of those things.

#7 Comment By MadScientist1023 On December 7, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

I fail to see what is so “shrewd” about the concept of “leaderless resistance”. The entire idea seems fundamentally flawed. It takes methods of a disgruntled employee who shoots his boss and coworkers before killing himself, combines it with the mentality of an angry mob, and then wraps the whole thing up in a pyramid scheme where each person is supposed to recruit more for it to work. No wonder this has never worked before.

#8 Comment By Xavier Galindo On December 7, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

I concur with Mohammed’s post. It’s interesting, and perplexing, that natural inclinations for suspicion, exclusion, and vengeance often lead to the very outcome they’re supposedly intended to avoid.

It’s almost like… dare I say it… we need a political leadership and media institution that’s educated enough to… somehow “guide” the public from the lesser angels of its nature… rather than revel in their hysterics…

That’s crazy talk right?

#9 Comment By Jonathan Marcus On December 7, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

Why do Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik represent leaderless cells of an enemy who must be named, but Richard Dear is just a lone wacko who can be safely ignored?

#10 Comment By LauraNo On December 7, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

This was really interesting to me, but then the author just picks a number seemingly out of thin air as being the number of radicalized Muslims in the US. This seems irresponsible, I imagine someone will read “30,000 terrorists” and believe that is a fact. If there were that number of terrorists living here, I would expect slightly more terrorist attacks than we have had.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 7, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

@ Philip Jenkins:

Your analysis has two main problems:

(1) You worry about “Moslems” when you should be worried about the group of all “those pissed off enough at US wars in the Middle East to consider violent anti-US action” – some of whom may be practicing Moslems, some not.

(2) You try to introduce a new label — “leaderless resistance” — for a phenomenon that already has a long modern history and a widely-accepted historical label — “propaganda of the deed.”

Four days ago in TAC you made a “case for mosque surveillance.” Today you say that the “absolute number one priority of U.S. law enforcement in the coming years” should be surveillance of “some 30,000 potential Islamist militants.”

What you propose, Philip Jenkins, is exactly what Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other such groups want you to propose. They welcome it because it will polarize and radicalize millions more. It will increase the pool of those pissed off enough at the US to consider violent anti-US action.

A more successful approach would be for the US to cease its unnecessary Middle East wars and thus reduce the pool of “those pissed off enough at US wars in the Middle East to consider violent anti-US action.”

No US Middle East wars — no terrorist blowback.

#12 Comment By Xavier Galindo On December 7, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

Can I just say, reading all these comments, I am constantly amazed at the intelligence, reasoning ability, and insight of the commentators who come here? Where are all you people everywhere else in the country, that’s currently mired in hysteria and irrational fears?

Kudos to all.

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On December 7, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

And how is this any different from the anarchists in the late 1800s who went around blowing up things and assassinating the leaders of state?

#14 Comment By Boris On December 7, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

Sounds like the perfect description of the Planned Parenthood attack. Or does this theory only apply to Muslims?

#15 Comment By Lee On December 7, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

Since 2001, NATO and it’s allies have killed 1.3 million Muslims as a conservative estimate. Add in the 500,000 dead in Iraq by sanctions and one is getting closer to the 2 to 4 million number human rights groups like to toss around.

Next we have the Obama administration pouring gasoline on an already bad situation. Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. Not only that but using Drones to strike targets without respect for sovereign borders. Drones have taken out hundreds of civilians, and in most instances it cannot be shown that an intended target was taken out.

Blood revenge is as old as humanity itself, and eventually even the Vikings noticed it was a bad idea, and set up a system of judicial compensation instead.

It’s not rocket science comprehending why these things are starting to happen more frequently. Indeed it surprises me there haven’t been many many more… As they say in the Middle East, “unleash the whirlwind…” Exactly what the heck, should any of us expect of a US government that’s psychotically out of control.

#16 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 7, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

It’s a no brainer that if you’re bombing and killing folks in faraway lands mostly for profit and geopolitical chess games, that you’re going to make their relatives here unhappy. Some unknown but troubling number of them might do in revenge what even some few of us non-Muslims would do if the same were done to our families. Since it’s too late to send everyone back, since most are citizens, it might be wise not to be bombing or warring for ill defined or stupid reasons, the relatives of Americans. As Jesus put it, if we really are his “Crusaders,” “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Our war making is defeating nothing except our own liberties and safety both.

The sadder fact is, there’s no protection possible by our government of us, except to stop its foreign war making, and the only defense in the short term is an armed citizenry that can stop the attacks as soon as they start.

#17 Comment By Bazaka On December 8, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

Modern jihadism is, in many ways, an Islamized repackaging of far-right neo-Nazi ideas from decades ago. You mention Awlaki as a possible connection between the two, but he isn’t the only one. Look up David Myatt, a former neo-Nazi and “Order of Nine Angles” member who later became an influential jihadist (and even more recently has renounced violent extremism altogether).

#18 Comment By Myron Hudson On December 8, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

Are they leaderless resistance tactics or is this stochastic terrorism? Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications/media to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. That is, remote-control murder by lone wolf. This is by no means the sole province of one group.

#19 Comment By RM On December 9, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

If we look at this form a statistical point of view, we can mitigate, but never eliminate the risk of terror. As in Europe in the 1970s, there will always be some terrorism that waxes and wanes according to the zeitgeist. In the 70s it was Baader-Meinhof, the PFLP and the IRA. In the 80S it was Skinheads, the Order and the National Front. If we define terrorism as the achievement of political ends through criminal means, then the political reasoning becomes simply a commodity. Look at the Shining Path or the FARC. They started as Marxists, yet they’re simply good old capitalists, protecting the Narcos and fighting the government. After all, an army needs gold to buy weapons, amirite?
I actually think that the DIY Lone wolf structure actually regulates the scope and size of the attacks.For a large attack, one needs capital. To secure the capital, you need to present the plan to the capitalists. If you think of the body count as ROI, you need a much larger structure and better funding to achieve a mass killing. Because of this, the Lone-wolf types will likely be limited in their scope. I don’t count Timothy McVeigh in this.

Also, there is still a level of narcissism in terrorism. The terrorists thinks they are furthering a noble agenda and want to be remembered. They want the minstrels to sing songs about them. If people stop caring, they get no satisfaction from it.

#20 Comment By Jacobus Wermuth On December 13, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

Clearly, lone wolf terrorism is presently a blatant reality in our culture, regardless of religion, IQ…. Unfortunately, anticipating flack from this response, the NRA has made it far too easy for these individuals to purchase and carry weapons of destruction. Yes, smart zealots will figure out ways; my point is why make it easier for them whilst hiding behind the misreading of a Constitutional Amendment? NRA is simply an industrial lobby, no different than the ISIS lobby. Think about it.