Radical-right organizing works in cycles: There’s an initial buildup and recruitment phase, followed by preplanned direct action in escalating levels of violence, eventually resulting in an explosion of public violence that exposes them both to public approbation and prosecution by authorities. These bursts of violence tend to scatter their forces as they dissolve into factional squabbling. At this point, they begin to reorganize under a “leaderless resistance” strategy deploying small action cells and “lone wolf” terrorists, and begin rebuilding. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The most recent far-right explosion of violence—the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—has had its predictable effect, particularly due to the stern law-enforcement response involving multiple arrests of participants as well as the subsequent bans on their presence in social media, dispersing their organizers and followers to the far dark reaches of the internet and inspiring internecine warfare. Moreover, as Ben Makuch reports for Vice, white-supremacist ideologues are now responding by preparing a fresh round of domestic terrorism deploying both paramilitary “action squads” and unaffiliated extremists capable of extreme violence.
“We want lone wolves, we want local cells without online recruitment,” a popular “accelerationist” account on Telegram recently urged its readers. “Without spending extensive resources, agencies like the DHS or FBI can’t trifle or sabotage. It doesn’t matter if you are organizing a cell via Steam, they can’t do ANYTHING if you know and trust each member personally.”
Makuch reports that many of these far-right activists are currently proclaiming that, after January 6, the era of the “anti-group” had arrived: Rather than recruiting and organizing with public-facing organizations that are too easily monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted by law enforcement, they intend to shift to local cells with only a half-dozen or so members who all know each other well and can plan their operations outside of the view of traditional intelligence-gathering authorities.
One Telegram-based organizer urged his fellow accelerationists to avoid joining even such paramilitary organizations as the Oath Keepers—who played a significant role in the Capitol siege—or “Three Percenter” militias.
“Forget about political solutions and forget about joining militias that allow themselves to be seen online,” he wrote. “I still don’t understand recruiters who promote their groups on Telegram and use email as a means for quick recruitment.”
As Makuch observes, these methods are a stark contrast to how the Capitol insurrection was essentially organized in full public view on Facebook, Parler, and other easily accessed social-media platforms. A more dispersed and deliberately discreet approach is hard for law enforcement and monitoring groups to observe their activities and prepare accordingly.
“This is a dangerous development that can increase the threat these types of groups pose. If organization and planning happens in small cells completely offline, it becomes harder for law enforcement to monitor and thwart any planned attacks,” Mollie Saltskog, an analyst for the Soufan Center, told Vice. “In addition, even if one cell is infiltrated or distrusted, this type of organizational structure still would not yield information about what another cell may be planning.”
The attacks also have the added benefit of creating a media narrative that’s helpful for disguising their movement’s involvement—namely, by creating an illusion that these events are all “isolated incidents” unconnected to each other. This narrative is further amplified by how the media reports that such events are committed by “lone wolves,” without any recognition that such a designation actually indicates the opposite of an “isolated” event.
This is a deliberate strategy of the radical right, developed over the last four decades, to foil law enforcement, protect leadership from conspiracy charges for crimes committed by followers, and to make the movement harder to track. The idea of sparking change through terrorism is often traced to the late ’70s, to the late leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, William Pierce. His book, The Turner Diaries, a fictitious account of the exploits of a band of white supremacist revolutionaries, was intended to be a blueprint for people identifying as white warriors.
In the early days, right-wing groups openly banded together to create a movement. One of the earliest of these was the Northwest neo-Nazi gang The Order, which in 1984 assassinated Jewish radio show host Alan Berg and undertook a robbery spree of banks and armored cars that netted them roughly $4 million. Robert Mathews, the leader of The Order, distributed large chunks of their ill-gotten gains to a number of other leaders of the white-supremacist movement, including Pierce and the people who ran the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord compound in rural Missouri.
The fallout from those crimes drove these extremist groups to decentralize. After the FBI broke up The Order and Mathews died in the ensuing standoff, federal authorities went after all of these organizations, charging more than a dozen white supremacists altogether with seditious conspiracy and other charges in a trial held at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The two-month trial, held in spring 1987, put tremendous stress on these organizations, but in the end, the all-white jury acquitted all 13 people on trial. But it had become clear to leaders in the white-supremacist movement that they were vulnerable to being attacked by law enforcement authorities as long as they maintained organizational ties with the people who were embarking on the “revolution” they all advocated.
This was explicitly laid out by one of these leaders, a man named Louis Beam, who was a top lieutenant in the Aryan Nations organization in northern Idaho. Writing in his magazine The Seditionist, in an essay titled, “Leaderless Resistance,” he advocated the formation of independent cells of militias that could spring into action when needed. And he encouraged “lone wolf” attacks by violent believers—attacks that would undermine public confidence in the ability of a democratic society to keep them safe and secure.
Leonard Weinberg at Fair Observer explained how this was intended to work:
Beam reasoned that the best way for violent “patriots” to resist oppression was on the basis of individual initiatives. Small cells of individuals — or “lone wolves” — could avoid being entrapped by law enforcement agencies in the way large groups had been repeatedly during the course of Beam’s career in right-wing extremism.
When and where to strike? Instead of waiting for some easily intercepted messages from the leaders of large right-wing paramilitary groups, Beam believed in what social psychologists have called behavior contagion, or what many people refer to as copycat actions. Small cells or single individuals could take their cues from events depicted by the mass media and react accordingly without any interpersonal coordination. Like-minded individuals witnessing these actions would then take up the sword and stage their own attacks on the same or similar targets. In this way, a substantial insurgency could be launched against a tyrannical government without any central direction.
Other white supremacist leaders had already been moving in this direction. In 1989, Pierce had published a second “blueprint” novel, Hunter, which detailed the story of a white supremacist lone-wolf assassin who begins by successfully killing a number of mixed-race couples, then moves on to leading political and cultural figures, and gradually amasses a following of like-minded “lone wolves” who begin imitating him. (It was largely inspired by the real-life serial-killing spree of white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin.)
The lone-wolf strategy made a significant mark in the 1990s with a handful of horrifying terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of the Oklahoma City federal building and the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. As analyst J.M. Berger has documented, it then took on a new life with the rise of the internet and social media in the first decade of the 21st century. A team of researchers from University College London and other institutions found that, despite the appearance of acting independently, these perpetrators were in fact highly connected ideologically and were linked to one another both online and in real life. As FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth wrote of the findings:
It’s easy to look at the stats and describe these people as loners—40 percent were unemployed at the time of their attack; 50 percent were single and had never married; 54 percent were described as angry by family members and people who knew them in real life. But the analysis also showed that these same people were often involved in ideological communities—communities built online and offline, where future terrorists sought (and often found) support and validation for their ideas. Thirty-four percent had recently joined a movement or organization centered around their extremist ideologies. Forty-eight percent were interacting in-person with extremist activists and 35 percent were doing the same online. In 68 percent of the cases, there’s evidence the “lone wolf” was consuming literature and propaganda produced by other people that helped to shore up their beliefs.
Another study from the antiterrorist START program at University of Maryland found that “lone wolf terrorists are more educated and socially isolated than group-based actors. Lone wolves also engage in less precursor activities than group actors, but are willing to travel greater distances to prepare for and execute attacks.”
All these trends began reaching a kind of critical mass during the Trump years, in which we in fact have been seeing a sequence of white supremacist domestic terrorism, one mass killer after another, each naming those before him as inspiration. Killers such as the white nationalists who murdered dozens of people in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and El Paso were all described by the press and law enforcement as “lone wolves”—and indeed they were; but they were decidedly not ”isolated incidents.”
As Stratfor’s Scott Stewart explains, the internet plays a central enabling role in all of this:
White supremacists have long used the internet. Along with jihadists, they were early adopters. The white supremacist website Stormfront and the jihadist website Azzam.com both appeared in the early days of the internet. White supremacists in fact have had a robust presence on the web since the days when Internet Relay Chat and Usenet were the primary social media outlets. Bearing in mind the lessons of the Fort Smith trial, most white supremacist websites tended to be fairly careful about calls for violence, even suspending some users for advocating violence. Instead, these websites sought to create a place to inculcate visitors with their ideology, and permit them to make connections that would facilitate subsequent terrorist operations. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in overt, over-the-top calls for violence by white supremacists on outlets such as 8chan, Gab and Discord—sites being linked to the recent high-profile attacks. Unlike older white supremacist websites such as Stormfront and even Vanguard News Network, these websites are totally unfiltered.
The strategy had its intended effect by becoming widely adopted among white nationalists and other far-right extremists. Not only did the “militia movement” of the 1990s successfully form a number of small, armed activist cells around the nation, it also had the unforeseen side effect of helping to mainstream far-right ideology much more broadly.
However, Beam’s roadmap, strategically speaking, was actually an admission of the failure of their original long-term strategy, which entailed creating an all-white ethnostate “homeland” in the Pacific Northwest and defending it with a neo-Nazi army. Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University researcher on the radical right, noted to Makuch that the return to this strategy and other indications of retrenchment illustrate how little such extremist movements are able to maintain their momentum, and reflect their underlying weakness.
“The notion of leaderless resistance is almost four decades old in the far right,” he said. “But the main weakness is that even if you are operationally anti-group, you still need to be ideologically coherent as a broader social movement, probably have some sort of charismatic leadership and so on. Otherwise, the ideological coherence could start to factionalize and go adrift along with operational cells.”
As that anonymous Telegram accelerationist noted to his readers: “Oh and don’t forget, if you never actually take meaningful action none of this matters, you will fade away just like every failed movement before you.”