Click here to read our latest report: Tackling Online Terrorist Content Together

Ideological Leaderless Resistance in the Digital Age

Ideological Leaderless Resistance in the Digital Age
26th October 2022 Jacob Ware
In Insights

“As for my ideology, it’s hard to say”

These are the words of a teenage terrorist who killed two in an attack on a gay bar in Bratislava, Slovakia on 12 October 2022. His manifesto, published on Twitter, both sheds light on the grievances of a troubled individual and represents the latest episode of violence in a pattern spanning from Christchurch, to Poway, to Buffalo. Like Brenton Tarrant, John Earnest, and Payton Gendron before him, the Bratislava terrorist acted alone, was radicalised by material on the internet and social media, published a manifesto online detailing his plans and ideology, and pointed to an urgent threat against the white race that compelled him to act. He also tellingly mentioned his predecessors by name

The Bratislava gunman described a radicalisation process that involved sampling a variety of extremist beliefs, likely out of a search for purpose and belonging. “[U]ntil 2019, I dabbled in all sorts of ideologies and movements,” he wrote. “I was a kid cruising the Internet, picking up shit along the way and throwing it away just as quickly.” His anti-Semitic ideology crystallised at age 15, after Tarrant’s and Earnest’s strikes in 2019, but nonetheless, his targeting choice reflects a big tent approach to white supremacy: his primary enemies were Jews and the “Zionist Occupied Government,” yet he attacked the gay community.

The lone-actor terrorism showcased by each of those attackers follows a decades-old blueprint. In fact, 2022 marks thirty years since white supremacist leader Louis Beam introduced readers of The Seditionist magazine to the concept of ‘leaderless resistance.’ He described the strategy as “nothing less than a fundamental departure in theories of organization,” marking a transition from the traditional hierarchical, pyramid model of organised violence to one of autonomous cells. Since 1992, extremists from across the ideological spectrum have adopted leaderless resistance as the standard operating procedure for their respective movements. As Beam notes, not only are small cells or individuals far less vulnerable to penetration by law enforcement, but they also eliminate the explicit need to issue an order, as true believers will feel compelled to act “when they feel the time is ripe.” Only three years after Beam’s notorious publication, white supremacist leader Donald Black created the Stormfront message board, thought to be the first “hate site,” giving Beam’s call for individualised terror a new platform on which to metastasize.

Today, the domestic terrorism threat in the United States and abroad has drastically transformed. The clearly delineated ideologies that once served as the bedrock of insular extremist communities—and wrought havoc on communities such as Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Charleston—are changing. Seemingly as a result of interconnectivity facilitated by the digital age, they have blurred, with extremists often adopting elements from ideologies which, at first glance, might seem antithetical to one another. ‘Ideological convergence,’ as this phenomenon has been termed, encompasses both extremists who select from a menu of radical positions (which some term salad bar ideologies), and those who radicalise from one extreme to another (fringe fluidity), and presents challenges for law enforcement and academics alike in their shared quest to understand the motivations and targets of violent extremists. 

Both strategic and ideological leaderless resistance have been catapulted by social media—as extremists have increasingly been radicalised online, they have been able to mobilise outside both formal organisations and ideological traditions. In a dangerous feedback loop, vulnerable individuals come into contact with a wide variety of extremist materials online, are radicalised themselves, and produce their own materials, which are in turn consumed by similar users who develop their own personalised form of extremism. In decades past, physical materials like The Seditionist presented a specific narrative to their readership, and for adherents to find another source of messaging, barriers were much higher. Today, those searching out new angles from which to attack an ethnic, racial, gender, or religious group need only click on a new Subreddit or channel on platforms like Telegram. Gone are the days when disillusionment with an aspect of a group’s beliefs would prove a real safeguard against – or at least a more significant impediment to – further radicalisation. 

Ideological convergence, then, can be understood as a novel manifestation of Beam’s leaderless resistance strategy, applying the theory of organised devolution to the ideological level. In the original understanding of the strategy, fomenting chaos was achieved by individualised means of terrorising the population. The threat of individuals, united by a common brand of hate, infiltrating general society and utilising their own personal skill sets to do so created a vastly different fear than that of an organisation working collaboratively. The modern phenomenon of ideological convergence, however, has harnessed the power of a broader swath of the population’s grievances and biases, transcending the importance of any particular ‘brand’ of hate—and thus inspiring more widespread violence under a broader umbrella. 

The Bratislava gunman was, in the words of Hannah Rose for GNET, inspired to action by “the fusion of hatreds under an antisemitic ‘big tent’ conspiracy theory.” But other examples of convergence are, sadly, plentiful. Perhaps most notoriously, a range of ‘eco-fascist’ terrorists including Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, and Patrick Crusius, who later that year opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, have blended age-old white supremacist claims of territorial birthright with newer ecological concerns over the wellbeing of the environment. The net result is a poisonous ideology that demonises and targets immigrants, proposing population limits as a Malthusian solution to environmental challenges. Despite drawing direct inspiration from Tarrant, the Bratislava attacker did not explicitly mention Tarrant’s eco-fascist ideology in his manifesto, demonstrating that even individual terrorists pick and choose elements of their idols’ rationales.

Extremists of various ideologies have long found common ground in the targets of their ire, forming alliances of distinct but cooperative organisations to attack an ethnic, class, religious, or authority group. Today’s ideological convergence is a product of those alliances – a natural outgrowth of previously organisational-level ideological ‘blurring.’ Just as formal organisations dominated our conception of terrorism historically but have now faded with the rise of ‘lone actor’ terrorism and emphasis on diffuse sources of chaos and violence, so too has the ideological aspect of terrorism been reoriented to centre on the individual. 

The foremost advantages of ideological leaderless resistance for radicals are twofold. Firstly, convergence lowers the barriers to entry to radicalisation. Extremist ideology no longer provides a one-size-fits-all answer to a disillusioned adolescent’s personal and ideological grievances. Instead, with a mélange of extremist traditions all floating through the online world where budding radicals congregate at different times and spaces, an individual vulnerable to radicalisation has more options for developing their own radical profile, literally plucking the bits and pieces of ideology that justify their own angers. So-called radicalising ‘push factors’ have thus grown more important—including mental illness and histories of bullying and domestic abuse, several of which were on display in the case of the Bratislava shooter.

Secondly, and accordingly, ideological convergence confuses counterterrorism defences, undermining the ideological approach many counterterrorism agencies use to define threats and organise their responses. Neat conceptualisations of terrorist threats fail to account for ideologies that promote unconventional targeting—particularly when personalised grievances driven by those push factors play a significant role in the radicalisation process. Although published manifestos and online communities give counterterrorism officials and scholars alike insights into rhetoric, connections, and sometimes plots, the sheer scope of threats and material makes separating the signals from the noise an incredibly difficult task.

In the past, ideological ambiguity has worked against the success of organisations, making such groups vulnerable to the criticism of more ideologically-focused rivals and even depriving them of credibility, thanks to a willingness to sacrifice ideals of the long game in favour of more narrow, short-term victories. However, the autonomy integral to leaderless resistance’s strategic logic today represents not a new development, but a dangerous maturation of a decades-long effort that pointedly weaned itself off a reliance on leadership and formal association, from the tactical to the ideological levels. 

This less cohesive approach is still unlikely to lead to long-term strategic success, any more than any other plan adopted by the violent far-right over the past several decades has. But, this emerging development may nevertheless lead to more violence and a more chaotic extremist space, defined less by the cat-and-mouse game that has usually characterised the relationship between government and extremist groups and networks, and more by individuals with little ideological link to one another, attacking an array of different targets with little sustained strategy. 

The end result of ideological convergence, then, may just be chaos. Blurring ideologies might indeed be less constructive for Beam’s initial aim, not pushing the far-right in any strategically advantageous direction, except more violence. 

Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Cleary Waldo is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.