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Leaderless resistance (or phantom cell structure) is a political resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells) challenge an established adversary such as a government. Leaderless resistance encompasses non-violent disruption and disobedience as well as bombings, assassinations and other violent agitation. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links—they are groups without leaders. [1]

Given the simplicity of the strategy, leaderless resistance has been employed by a wide-range of movements, from terrorist and supremacist groups through animal rights, anti-corporate, anti-abortion, and environmentalist activists.

General characteristics

Typically, cells often number less than three individuals (and rarely more than a dozen). The basic characteristic of the structure is that there is no explicit communication between cells which are otherwise acting toward the same goals. Members of one cell may have little or no specific information on who else is agitating on behalf of their cause.

Leaderless movements may have symbolic figureheads. It can be a public figure or an inspirational author, who picks generic targets and objectives, but does not actually manage or execute plans. Media, in this case, often create a positive feedback loop: the publishing of declarations of a movement’s role model instills motivation, ideas and assumed sympathy in the minds of potential agitators who lend further authority to the figurehead. While this may be loosely viewed as a vertical command structure, it is notably unidirectional: a titular leader makes pronouncements and activists may respond but there is no established contact between the two levels of organization.

As a result, leaderless resistance cells are largely insusceptible to informants and traitors. As there is neither a center that may be destroyed, nor links between the cells that may be infiltrated, it is more difficult for established authorities to arrest the development of a leaderless resistance movement than more conventional hierarchies.

Given its asymmetrical character and the fact that it is often strategically adopted in the face of an obvious institutional power imbalance, leaderless resistance has much in common with guerrilla warfare. The latter strategy, however, usually retains some form of organized, bidirectional leadership and is often more broad-based than the individualized actions of leaderless cells. In some cases, a largely leaderless movement may evolve into a coherent insurgency or guerilla movement, as successfully occurred with the Yugoslav partisans of World War II. In the same conflict, the British leadership had extensive plans for the use of such resistance in the event of a German invasion. [2]

While the concept of leaderless resistance is often based on resistance by violent means, it is not limited to them. The same structure can be used by non-violent groups authoring, printing and distributing samizdat literature, using the Internet to create self-propagating boycotts against political opponents, maintaining an alternative electronic currency outside of the reach of the taxing governments and transaction-logging banks.

History of the idea

The concept of leaderless resistance was reportedly developed by Col. Ulius Louis Amoss, an alleged U.S. intelligence officer, in the early 1960s. An anti-communist, Amoss saw leaderless resistance as a backup for the possibility of a Communist seizure of the United States.

The concept was revived and popularized in an essay published by the anti-government activist Louis Beam in 1983 and again in 1992. Beam advocated leaderless resistance as a technique for white nationalists to continue the struggle against the U.S. government despite an overwhelming imbalance in power and resources.

Beam argued that conventional hierarchical pyramidal organizations are extremely dangerous for their participants, when employed in a resistance movement against government, because of the ease of disclosing the chain of command. A more workable approach would be to convince the like-minded individuals to form independent cells, without close communication between each other, but generally operating in the same direction.

Leaderless resistance in fiction

The 1996 novel Unintended Consequences by John Ross, portrays a successful rebellion by the American heartland after decades of bullying by faraway Washington and accurately depicts a leaderless resistance.

Leaderless resistance in practice

Far right

The concept of leadership resistance remains important to much far right thinking in the United States [3], both in response to Amoss' initial fear (foreign forces on U.S. soil) but increasingly also—in line with Beam—as a response to perceived federal government over-reach at the expense of individual rights. The actions of Timothy McVeigh are perhaps the most extreme example in the United States. McVeigh acted largely alone, but based on motivations widespread amongst the anti-government and militia movement.

Leaderless resistance is not only used toward anti-government ends on the far right. Xenophobic organizations such as White Aryan Resistance and the British neo-Nazi Combat 18 have adopted and advocate the tactic. The modern Ku Klux Klan is also credited with having developed a leaderless resistance model. [4] Troy Southgate also advocated forms of leaderless resistance during his time as a leading activist in the National Revolutionary Faction and a pioneer of National-Anarchism.

Islamic terrorists

Leaderless resistance is also often well-suited to terrorist objectives. The Islamic terrorist organization Al-Qaeda provides a prototypical figurehead/leaderless cell structure. The organization may be pyramidal but sympathizers who act on its pronouncements often do so spontaneously and independently.

Given the small, clandestine character of terrorist cells it is easy to assume they necessarily constitute leaderless resistance models. Where a bidirectional affiliation occurs, however, the label is inappropriate. The men who executed the bombings of the London Underground on July 7 2005 constituted a leaderless resistance cell in that they purportedly acted out of sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism but under their own auspices. The bombers involved in the September 11 attacks, by contrast, received training, direction and funding from Al-Qaeda and are not properly designated a leaderless cell.

Animal rights movements

In the 1980s, the radical Earth First! environmental movement adopted the leaderless resistance model [5]. The strategy is now actively employed by animal rights and environmental interest groups, including Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and the Earth Liberation Front (which broke from Earth First! when the older organization turned toward more moderate tactics), as well as the Animal Liberation Front.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, provides a case study in how recruitment and mobilization can occur in a leaderless model. Comprehensive internet sites provide potential sympathizers lists, for instance, of senior Huntingdon personnel (including addresses) and businesses associated with the Huntingdon animal testing.

Despite some successes, leaderless animal rights and environmental movements generally lack the broad popular support that often occurs in strictly political or military conflicts.


Network analysis in classical setting

The social networks based on leaderless resistance are potentially vulnerable to network analysis and its derivative link analysis. Link analysis of social networks is the fundamental reason for the ongoing legislative push in the U.S. and the European Union for mandatory retention of telecommunication traffic data and limiting access to anonymous prepaid cellphones, as the stored data contain important network analysis clues. These practices are highly unfriendly to individual privacy but are often the only way to crack leaderless cells.

Network analysis was successfully used by French Colonel Yves Godard to break the Algerian resistance between 1955 and 1957 and force them to cease the bombing campaigns. The Algerian conflict maybe better described as guerrilla in nature rather than leaderless resistance (see Modern Warfare by Col. Roger Trinquier). The mapping data was obtained by the use of informants and torture and were used to obtain the identities of important individuals in the resistance; these were then assassinated, disrupting the Algerian resistance networks. The more unique the individual is in the adversary's network, the more difficult is the replacement and the greater is the damage.

Leaderless challenges

Traditional organizations leave behind much evidence of their activities, such as money trails, and training and recruitment material. Leaderless resistances, as they are as much ideologies as organizations, generally lack such traces. The effects of their operations, globally reported by the mass media, act as a sort of messaging and recruitment advertising.

The internet provides investigators with further challenges. The individual cells (and even a single person can be a cell) can communicate over the internet, anonymously or semi-anonymously publishing and sharing information online, to be found by others through well-known websites. Even where legally and technically possible to ascertain who accessed what, it is often practically impossible to discern in reasonable timeframe who is a real threat and who is just curious, a journalist, or a web crawler.

Despite these advantages, leaderless resistance is often unstable. If the actions are not frequent enough or not successful, the stream of public messages, serving as the recruiting, motivation and coordination drives for other cells, diminishes. If the actions are too successful, the result will be formation of support groups and other social structures—structures vulnerable to network analysis.


  1. Simson L. Garfinkel. "Leaderless resistance today". Retrieved May 7.
  2. British Resistance Organisation. "History". Retrieved May 7.
  3. Paul de Armond. "Putting the Far Right into Perspective". Retrieved May 7.
  4. University of Michigan. "Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism". Retrieved May 7.
  5. Southern Poverty Law Center. "From Push to Shove". Retrieved May 7.

See also

External links