Lieberman's "Leaderless Jihad" Fetish: Bogus Theories Feed Islamophobia

The Senate committee hearing on Islamic terrorism staged today by Sen. Joseph Lieberman is an example of flawed, biased, or discredited scholarship being used in a zealous propaganda campaign that will do little to enhance public safety and much to expand bigotry against Muslims in the United States.

The U.S. should not ignore the potential of violence posed by a small number of Muslims who consider violence to be appropriate. It does mean that the government needs to get its facts straight in order to provide domestic security with the most minimal intrusion into civil liberties.

The witness from the Rand Corporation today tried to introduce some thoughtful analysis, but overall the other witnesses stuck to the Lieberman fear-mongering horror movie script. The main thesis of Lieberman's renegade Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is that there is a looming threat of "homegrown terrorism" by domestic "Jihadists." To use the tragic shootings at Fort Hood to further promote this biased propaganda as part of an ongoing political campaign is grotesque.

At issue is the validity of the concept of "Leaderless Jihad" and the idea that "extremist ideology" somehow has created squads of anti-American terrorists lurking in domestic Muslim communities where "Leaderless Resistance" cells and "lone wolfs" are even now plotting acts of "Jihadist" violence--just like the right-wing domestic terrorists in the 1980s and 1990's which culminated in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995.

Sounds scary.

The Oklahoma City bombing, however, was not the act of a "lone wolf," and while it involved a clandestine terror cell, it was not an example of "Leaderless Resistance." In fact, there is no evidence that "Leaderless Resistance" was adopted as a successful terror strategy by the ultra-right in the 1980s and 1990's, which undermines the whole concept of "Leaderless Jihad" being peddled by Lieberman.

Thus the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts by the federal government is compromised becuase it is based in large part on flawed analyses by Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman--two leading experts heavily relied on by policymakers. The resulting programs of government surveillance and computerized data-collection are unnecessarily undermining the civil liberties of millions of Muslims and Arabs living in this country, as well as the rights of all Americans.

Accurate descriptions of targeted terrorist formations and potential terrorists, especially their ideology and methods, are crucial for effective government efforts to understand, predict, and prevent acts of domestic terrorism while abiding by Constitutional safeguards. This is because police and intelligence agencies embrace different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness depending on how they perceive the configurations of potential terrorist cells and movements.

Let's start to examine the problem by looking at Bruce Hoffman, who wrote:

===The theory of leaderless resistance was developed by Louis Beam to continue the right-wing militias fight against the U.S. government despite overwhelming FBI opposition ( p. 143, cited to: Beam, 1992.)

According to Hoffman:

===The object of “leaderless resistance,” Beam has explained, is to “defeat state tyranny” (p. 115, cited to: Beam from Burghardt, 1995, on Public Good website).1

===The concept is taken from the white supremacist adventure novel Hunter, William Pierce’s sequel to The Turner Diaries (again written under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald). The impact on the militia movement has been profound (p. 115, no cite).

How can Hoffman claim that the “theory of leaderless resistance was developed by Louis Beam to continue the right-wing militias fight against the U.S. government,” when Beam wrote his essay in 1983, years before the Armed Citizens Militias galvanized as a mass movement in the 1990s?

Beam played a role in the development of the Militia movement in the early 1990s, but certainly did not develop the concept of Leaderless Resistance for the Militias. The Militias overlapped with the organized White Supremacist movement, but according to most scholars, was distinct and independent from it. This differentiation has been covered in detail by Mark S. Hamm, Joel Dyer, Martin Durham, Steven M. Chermak, Lane Crothers, Carolyn Gallaher, Lorna L. Mason, Matthew N. Lyons, and me.

Hoffman offers no credible evidence that the “impact on the militia movement has been profound.” Hoffman is wrong when he asserts Beam’s version of Leaderless Resistance (1983) was based on the novel Hunter, which was published in 1989. Furthermore, Hunter is primarily about a Lone Wolf terrorist, although small cells are also mentioned.

This is not just semantics. Are acts of violence and terrorism in the United States being carried out by right-wing insurgents engaged in "Leaderless Resistance?" There is little evidence to support this widespread fear.

According to Garfinkel, the clearest examples of Leaderless Resistance in the United States are in the ecological group Earth First! and several Animal Liberation movements--movements that generally avoid harming people with their acts of vandalism. Small splinter groups have recently engaged in intimidation against people, but while this is evidence of criminal acts, it does not fit traditional definitions of terrorism.

Almost all incidents reported as examples of Leaderless Resistance by White Supremacists in the United States actually appear to have involved small groups of persons with previous ties to other groups promoting armed resistance or violent methodology. This is not Leaderless Resistance.

There have been examples of "Lone Wolf" terrorism, where individuals act on their own, but these incidents mostly appear to involve persons who were at least briefly involved with existing groups advocating armed resistance or violence. This is not Leaderless Resistance.

There are a handful of incidents where a debatable argument can be made for Leaderless Resistance cell structure being used by the White Supremacist movement, but even these offer dubious lessons for U.S. counterterrorism policy relating to isolated Muslims and Arabs living in the United States.

For example, Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, was thoroughly embedded in the Armed Citizens Militia movement for years, but had adopted a neonazi ideology before turning to the methodology of terrorism assisted by a small group of cohorts. The most plausible explanation for motive was McVeigh's anger at the federal government for domestic policies involving what he saw as tyranny and government political repression. Anti-terrorism "experts" originally wrongly blamed the blast on Middle Eastern terrorists angry at U.S.foreign policies.

For counter-terrorism, the distinction between connected cells, unconnected cells, and a lone wolf activist unconnected to previous group participation is important because different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are required depending on the type of target. Therefore accurate descriptions of target terrorist formations and potential terrorist cells are crucial for the effectiveness of stopping actual acts of terrorism.

Sageman writes that:

===The leaderless social movement has other limitations. To survive, it requires a constant stream of new violent actions to hold the interest of potential newcomers to the movement, create the impression of visible progress toward a goal, and give potential recruits a vicarious experience before they take the initiative to engage in their own terrorist activities.

If this is true, I should be able to locate a list of terrorist bombings of U.S. steakhouses by vegetarians. The Internet has helped create and extend numerous leaderless social movements, the vast majority of which have not engaged in violence of any kind, much less terrorism.

Actually, Sageman has borrowed this idea and plagiarized some specific wording from Garfinkel, who wrote in 2003:

===Causes that employ Leaderless Resistance do not have these links because they are not organizations: They are ideologies. To survive, these ideologies require a constant stream of new violent actions to hold the interest of the adherents, create the impression of visible progress towards a goal, and allow individuals to take part in actions vicariously before they have the initiative to engage in their own direct actions.

Garfinkel, however, is defining Leaderless Resistance as specifically referring to "a strategy in which small groups (cells) and individuals fight an entrenched power through independent acts of violence and mayhem." This accurately refers to Beam's thesis, not generally to all social movements that are "leaderless" but not engaged in acts of "resistance" in Sageman's overbroad derivation.

Garfinkel in 2003 observed that:

===the U.S. appears to be fighting Leaderless Resistance networks... with an eradication strategy based on crime-fighting: the goal is to create very high penalties for individuals who participate in direct action. The danger of this approach is that the eradication effort itself may inadvertently serve to attract new recruits to a violent ideology, by making the cause appear a just response to an unjust enemy.

Garfinkel, however, is defining Leaderless Resistance as specifically referring to "a strategy in which small groups (cells) and individuals fight an entrenched power through independent acts of violence and mayhem." This accurately refers to Beam's thesis, not generally to all social movements that are "leaderless" but not engaged in acts of "resistance" in Sageman's overbroad derivation.

Both Leaderless Jihad and Sageman's previous book Understanding Terror Networks are published by the University of Pennsylvania.

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Selected References

Hoffman, Bruce. (1998) 2006. Inside Terrorism New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Sageman, Marc. 2008. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Garfinkel, Simson L. 2003. "Leaderless Resistance Today", First Monday, online journal.

Berlet, Chip. 2009. "Violence and Public Policy," Criminology and Public Policy, special issue on terrorism, Volume 8 Issue 3, October, pp. 623-631.

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1 The work of Tom Burghardt who wrote the article "Leaderless Resistance And The Oklahoma City Bombing," and Paul de Armond, webmaster of the Common Good website, is reliable and not being questioned here.

2 Louis Beam, "Leaderless Resistance," Inter-Klan Newsletter & Survival Alert, undated, circa May 1983, pages not numbered. On file at Political Research Associates; Louis Beam, "Leaderless Resistance," The Seditionist, 12 (February 1992); at http://www.louisbeam.com/leaderless.htm, pp. 12-13.

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Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates, is a Vice President of the Defending Dissent Foundation. His most recent scholarly publication is "Violence and Public Policy," in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, special issue on terrorism.

Portions of this post have appeared previously on HuffPost.