Leaderless Resistance


Simson Garfinkel has published an interesting paper on "leaderless resistance," a form of terrorism (among other activities) that dispenses not merely with hierarchical organization but with virtually all organization altogether. I can't endorse everything in Garfinkel's analysis—I have hard time imagining, for example, how the government could treat political violence "as a public health problem." But it's a thoughtful treatment of a complicated subject, and it brings a refreshing skepticism to such topics as the Earth Liberation Front.

[Via Smart Mobs.]


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  1. I think he’s talking about “Fight Club”

  2. Organizations like the ELF or ALF do not have a formal organizational structure and they are more akin to ideologies as Garfinkel notes, but they are are from leaderless. I was a bit surprised he included SHAC there, because SHAC has very clear leaders on both sides of the Atlantic though they wisely play a cat and mouse game of coming right up to the point where they’re crossing the line into outright criminal behavior.

    Similarly, Garfinkel writes, “Finally, activists for SHAC and ELF appear to pride themselves in executing targeted violence. A public relations campaign emphasizing collateral damage of these events might have a strong deterrent effect.”

    But SHAC openly targets secondary and tertiary targets (the company that sells insurance to the company being targeted — or in one case, the temp agency that was supplying SHAC with janitors).

    BTW, Garfinkel misses the obvious point which is that it is not necessarily in the best interest of targeted groups for the leaderless resistance to go away. The shrillness and objectionable methods of some pro-life members certainly turned many Americans against their movement. Similarly, the main effect of animal rights terrorism is to generate sympathy for the target as well as make it easier for the targeted company to portray the opposition as nutball extremists.

    So long as it remains largely nonviolent, the Animal Liberation Front acts as a sort of public relations boost to the companies it targets (even people who might not particularly like McDonald’s for example, are not going to approve of torching a McDonald’s).

  3. Ken: Technically, I think Fight Club would be a cell-based hierarchy … with divided leadership.

    Brian: I agree that the decision to include SHAC was unusual. Garfinkel did make it clear that the group wasn’t a pure example of leaderless resitance, and that it’s there as an example of a hybrid approach. But the paper also describes it as “employing Leaderless Resistance against U.S. targets,” and that isn’t really accurate.

  4. So how does Paul Simon feel about this?

  5. Simson Garfinkel? I love those guys! Tell me they played “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

  6. Wouldn’t a better title for this blog be “Feelin’ Groovy?”

  7. I’m not sure I get you, Jesse. Are you saying that because setting fires can kill people, it counts as terrorism, even if it’s done in a manner that makes sure no one is killed? People can drown as well as burn; would they be terrorists if they washed the SUVs?

    Are you just saying that arson is scarier (more terrifying) than throwing rocks or pouring sugar in gas tanks? Making sure no one will be hurt, and announcing loudly that you make sure no one will get hurt, sort of undermines an assertion that these people are setting out to imtimidate anyone.

    Is your argument based on the fact that fires can get out of control? I’d certainly agree that this may be reckless, but not terrorist.

    Please expand on your thoughts.

  8. I realize that the borders of “terrorism” are fuzzy; in addition to including clearly lethal activities such as bombings, it includes activities that simply carry a strong possibility that innocent people will die, such as kidnappings and hijackings.

    Vandalizing a laboratory does not fall into that category. Burning down houses does, whatever precautions the arsonists claim to be taking.

  9. Fuzzy? FUZZY?! They’re locking people up without trials, these people have injured no one (outside of Law & Order – gun-DUN) and you give me fuzzy?

    Accusing someone of being a terrorist is some serious shit. We’re talking about people who have publically renounced violence, urge their followers not to engage in violence, and have not been involved in any actions in which violence has been done (to my knowledge, anyway. I haven’t been following these people that closely). I think we need to be damn sure before we start lumping them in with Osama.

    Think of the drug war. Walters and Hutchinson talk about “the drug problem” and they mean Pablo Escobar, gun toting meth dealers, and crack heads sticking up old ladies – real problems. But because the term has been so wrongly spread around, people think of college students smoking a joint, and say “What problem?” Meanwhile, people who want to solve the real problem end up getting distracted, and promoting solutions that don’t solve the actual problem.

    There are real, mommy-killing terrorists out there, and I don’t want to see the word applied where it doesn’t belong – because it’s unfair to its slandered target, and because it reducing the term’s power to accurately describe the real thing.

  10. By the Osama standard, a lot of what was happily described as “terrorism” in the 1970s — casualty-free hijackings and kidnappings — would not be terrorism at all. The World Trade Center attacks brought an entirely new level of lethality to the word. You can’t use bin Laden as your only guide.

    Ordinarily, like I said, I’m very wary about casual talk of “eco-terrorism.” I don’t think Earth First! is a terrorist group, and I don’t think people who destroy GM crops are terrorists either. But arson is especially reckless. It can kill. If they burned down those houses using explosives, you wouldn’t have any trouble describing the people responsible as terrorists. I don’t think it makes a lot of difference if they set the fire some other way.

  11. I should add that eco-vandalism, terroristic or not, is a really tiny problem in the U.S.; it’s the Brits who’ve had to deal with a lot of it. One reason why the significance of the ELF (for example) has been overestimated in some quarters is because people assume it’s a well-organized group, as opposed to a convenient label any individual or cell can use when it makes an attack.

    One strength of the Garfinkel paper is that it explains how such an “organization” works, and in so doing casts a skeptical eye on claims made by both ELF and its sometimes hysterical critics.

  12. Are there are any examples of, hmm, “white hate” groups that are de-centralized? The couple of gangs of skinheads that I have run into (and I mean that literally) seemed pretty leaderless (and clueless).

  13. Garfinkel doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between damaging an object and harming a person. Now vandalism is terrorism?

  14. That would be a fair argument, Joe, if Garfinkel were simply talking about destroying crops or SUVs. (Indeed, I’ve used that very argument myself, when debating people who refer to virtually any lawbreaking by environmentalists as “eco-terrorism.”) But the ELF’s arsons cross the line that separates vandalism from terrorism. People can get killed that way.

  15. Jesse,

    I can see your point about arson, if they were burning down buildings that were occupied. By occupied, I don’t mean having people in them at the time, but that the building is in use, even if everyone is out of it at the moment. I could be wrong, but to the best of my knowlege, this has not been done.

    The Long Island houses and the Vail hotel were still being constructed at the time of their arson, meaning no one could have been in them, not just that no one actually was. I think this is an important distinction.

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