Sloppy Reporting Triumphs as Civil Liberties Erode
Editor’s Note: This post is based on a series of studies by the author over a 30-year period. It is being updated regularly to reflect new development. The last update was July 2, 2015. Following many recent terrorist attacks, headlines have labelled the perpetrators as “Lone Wolves” engaged in “Leaderless Resistance.” In many cases these labels are not being used accurately. Those of us who wish to defend our Bill or Rights need to know how this improper use of language further erodes our civil liberties. The examples in this essay look at three well-publicized terrorist attacks:
- The Boston Marathon Bombing in which two people were murdered and scores seriously injured and maimed.
- The Paris attacks, including terrorist murders at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.
- The murders in Charleston, South Carolina in which nine Black people were shot dead while participating in a Bible study at a historic church.
Charleston: In Charleston it appears the alleged perpetrator is a “Lone Wolf,” engaged in “Leaderless Resistance;” at least based on all available evidence as this essay is being re-written and updated. Boston: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers implicated in the Boston bombing, were engaged in Leaderless Resistance. Tamerlan, the older one (who was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement after the bombings), appears to have started out as a Lone Wolf because he had failed to find any organized group to link up with. He had apparently looked for one in the U.S., Chechnya, and the surrounding region of Russia straddling the Caucasus Mountains—where his ancestors came from, and a hotbed of attacks by terrorists claiming allegiance to Islam. Tamerlan appears to have played the dominant role in the Boston attack, in an alliance called a “folie à deux,” a psychiatric term derived from a French phrase that means any passion shared by two people. So in this instance,a Lone Wold recruited his brother into an “Autonomous Cell.” Paris: The three perpetrators of the attacks in Paris, on the other hand, apparently had links to terrorist groups, and at least one had been trained in the Middle East. Therefore they were not “Lone Wolves” and were not engaged in “Leaderless Resistance.” Despite this, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, while in Paris for briefings on terrorism following the attacks by militant Muslims, told reporters that the U.S. was “at war” with “lone wolf” terrorists. “That is the thing that I think keeps me up most at night, this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected,” he added. A CNN reporter caught the inconsistency and asked Holder how the Paris attackers were known to authorities but still managed to stage the attacks. He replied that such people “float under the radar screens.” All three of the Paris attackers were already on intelligence-agency radar screens. They succeeded through a series of intelligence failures, caused in part by a refusal among European law enforcement agencies to share watch lists and travel information on individuals with substantial known links to terrorist groups. Speaking in Paris in December 2011, U.S. Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano highlighted the risk of attackers with no ties to known extremist networks or grand conspiracies, noting that such attacks were on the rise as the global terrorist threat has shifted. CBS News summarized her comments:
There’s been a lot of evolution over the past three years…. The thing that’s most noticeable to me is the growth of the lone wolf, the single attacker who lives in the United States or elsewhere who is not part of a larger global conspiracy or network. [This heightens] the need to keep dangerous travelers from reaching the United States, [and she urged] European partners to finalize a deal on sharing passenger data that has met resistance over privacy concerns.
Both international and domestic terrorism pose real problems for government public safety officials. Self-generated terrorist attacks are being promoted by international elements claiming allegiance to Islam. They have issued a call to Muslim men around the world to launch more lone-wolf attacks on those considered enemies of their plan to establish global Islamic rule—a violent plan that most Muslims consider to be religiously and politically abhorrent. In the United States, organized White supremacists have been issuing similar calls for decades. The current primary US government policy for detecting terrorism is broad intrusive data collection. But tracking a Lone Wolf or Autonomous Cell is very difficult, which is one reason why the Tsarnaev brothers (an autonomous cell) were not detected by intelligence-agency sweeps of data. Some anti-terrorist analysts and scholars of militant social movements suggest this approach not only undermines civil liberties, but fails to stop terrorist attacks. They are suggesting more precise targeting for data sweeps, coupled with a public discussion of why individuals–primarily young men–are embracing terrorism. This all may seem irrelevant nitpicking over terminology, but it is important in understanding how terror cells are tracked by intelligence agencies. It is also relevant to defending our civil liberties from further erosion by widespread and indiscriminate surveillance. Part of the problem in discussing these matters is that many U.S. government officials and journalists—intentionally or not—are conflating the terms used in intelligence-gathering to track and stop terrorism.
What is Leaderless Resistance?
The Lone Wolf uses a form of terrorism called “Leaderless Resistance.” Organized groups or cells can use Leaderless Resistance, but it is accurate to use the term Lone Wolf only for a single perpetrator. Terms such as “Autonomous Cell” should be used only if no member of the cell has ever participated in a previous organized group with a similar ideological framework of militant resistance. As scholar Simson L. Garfinkel points out, the term is sometimes used too loosely “to refer to networked organizations with hub-and-spoke architecture. Such terminology is incorrect.” Garfinkel, author of Database Nation, wrote one of the first major studies on unconnected terror cells, “Leaderless Resistance Today,” in 2003. He explains that leaderless resistance “applies specifically to groups that employ cells and that lack bidirectional vertical command links—that is, groups without leaders.” Scott Stewart, an analyst with STRATFOR, an intelligence-services company in Austin, Texas, explained to the Christian Science Monitor: “If you go back to the original leaderless-resistance ideology … the idea is you have two separate worlds, where above ground you have the organs of information that provide motivation and radicalization, but it has no direct contact at all with the guys doing illegal activity….The idea is to operate within the confines of the First Amendment and use those freedoms to radicalize and point the illegal actors in the second camp.” Terrorism and violence by “Leaderless Resistance” cells or “Lone Wolves” on the political right did not take root in the first decades after Beam’s newsletters were published. Many early incidents appear to have involved perpetrators with previous ties to organized white-supremacist groups, and thus were not “Leaderless Resistance. According to Garfinkel, the clearest examples of leaderless resistance in the U.S. in those years were carried out by people tied to the environmentalist group Earth First! and several animal-liberation movements—which generally avoid harming people with their acts of vandalism against property. However it now seems small cells and individuals are now the primary form of right-wing terrorism, based on a recent detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
“[the SPLC] study of domestic terrorism over the last six years confirms this trend in dramatic fashion. Surveying 63 incidents culled from academic databases and the SPLC’s own files, 46 of them — fully 74% — were carried out by lone wolves, unassisted by others. And only one of the remaining 16 (in one case, the number of attackers is not known) was planned by a named organization. In most of those 16 cases, terrorists worked in pairs — a couple, a pair of friends, two brothers and a father and son, among them — with only six involving three or more. That means that 90% percent of the 62 cases where the number of perpetrators is known were the work of one or two people.”
The US Spycraft Roots of Leaderless Resistance
The concept of “leaderless resistance” is usually, though erroneously, credited to racist organizer Louis Beam, who popularized it in 1983. The actual originator of leaderless resistance was Col. Ulius Louis “Pete” Amoss, a retired US intelligence operative who wanted a more effective way to fight Communism in Europe. He wrote an essay on the concept in 1953, warning that traditional hierarchical underground cells organized by the CIA in Eastern Europe were being penetrated and liquidated by Soviet and Eastern Bloc counterintelligence operations. Independent cells would be harder to catch, Amoss said. In 1961, during the failed CIA-orchestrated Bay of Pigs invasion during which anti-Castro Cuban exiles and their allies airdropped leaflets on Cuba that called for the creation of “Phantom Cells” (Celulas Fantasmas). There was no apparent connection with Amoss, according to Michael Paulding, who is writing a book on a figure important in U.S intelligence during World War II and has studied Amoss and his work. Amoss died about six months later, but his leaderless-resistance essay was republished posthumously in 1962 in the newsletter of INFORM, a private group he’d established called International Services of Information. The idea inspired White Supremacist leader Louis Beam, who thought it would be an effective way for white supremacists to build underground cells in the U.S. While he is often credited with developing the concept, Beam writes in his essays that Amoss had the original idea. Persons who study terrorism make distinctions among various forms of cells to ascertain what type and level of surveillance is appropriate. Here are some examples of cell organization in graphic form: Persons who study terrorism make distinctions among various forms of cells to ascertain what type and level of surveillance is appropriate.
What is a Lone Wolf?
The idea of encouraging “Lone Wolf” terrorism appears to have been popularized within White Supremacist circles by Tom Metzger, suggests analyst Spencer Sunshine of Political Research Associates (PRA). According to Mark Hamm, an expert on terrorism at Indiana State University:
“Lone-wolf terrorism is someone who acts alone without the help or encouragement of a government or a terrorist organization, who acts without the direction or leadership of a hierarchy, someone who designs the plan and the methods by themselves without any sort of outside support, and who acts totally alone without the support of any second individual or third individual.”
What are Autonomous Cells?
The original definition of a lone wolf has now been expanded by some writers to include groups of two or three people who plot terrorist attacks in secret. I understand this makes it easier for headline writers, but it adds confusion to an already complicated and messy set of definitions. Jeffrey Kaplan and other experts on terrorism call such groups an “Autonomous Cell” to indicate they are more than one person. These Autonomous Cells can either have no current or no past direct contact to an existing organization. Thus they can be disconnected in the sense of spinning off and going silent from an existing group; or have no direct previous link to an organization.
What is a Sleeper Cell?
A Sleeper Cell is a small cell or cluster of cells that is put in place but not operational in any way until a decision is made to take action in some way. A Sleeper Cell can be in direct continuous contact with a hierarchical command structure of be spun off as an “Autonomous Cell” in which case it decides internally when to become operational.
The Civil Liberties Nexus
Accurate descriptions of targeted terrorist formations and potential terrorists, especially their ideology and methodology, are crucial for the effectiveness of government efforts to understand, predict, and prevent acts of domestic terrorism while abiding by Constitutional safeguards. Different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are justified as appropriate by police and intelligence agencies, depending on the specific social-movement configurations of potential terrorist cells. The resulting programs of government surveillance and computerized data-collection are unnecessarily undermining the rights of all Americans, especially the millions of Muslims and Arabs. Political Research Associates is a think tank based in Somerville, Massachusetts that has produced two reports on this issue: Manufacturing the Muslim Menace and Platform for Prejudice.
Leaderless Resistance Cells and Social or Political Movements
Leaderless Resistance Cells can still see themselves as involved in a larger political or social movement–often seeking to make members of the broader movement more militant ideologically or methodologically. This attachment is referred to as having an “Ideological Hierarchy.” Even if the existing movement denounces terrorism and other forms of violence, what matters for analytical purposes is that the Lone Wolf or Autonomous Cell participants sees themselves as in a dynamic relationship with the existing movement. The current US government model of terrorism is using outdated social science models of how social movements and their outliers function to justify widespread blanket surveillance, drawing on discredited theories that suggest subversion and militant action is actually directed from deep inside a secret leadership cell at the core of the movement (The “Onion Ring” theory); or that joining a social movement that works outside the typical methods of politics puts a member on a path that ultimately leads to violence (The “Slippery Slope” theory). Neither of these theories have any weight in contemporary social science. The effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts is also compromised by policymakers relying on flawed analyses based on sloppy scholarship by two leading experts, Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman. Both have made errors in analyzing leaderless resistance and right-wing insurgency, and how domestic terror cells are organized. Their misinformation about “leaderless” cells threatening America apparently is still being used to justify intrusive and sweeping government investigative techniques. This was first made clear, for example, in the police planning for the 2008 political conventions in Denver and Minneapolis.
The US Government’s 2009 DHS Report
The 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security on right-wing violence and potential violence did not mark the government’s first awareness of the problem. Even before the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in April 1995, the Justice Department was made aware that a terrorist attack from right-wing insurgents was most likely imminent. This warning came after an unprecedented meeting in late 1994 of experts and analysts from US non-governmental organizations tracking the increasing potential of violence from several right-wing movements including White Supremacists, neonazis, Christian anti-abortion activists, and anti-immigrant activists. The 2009 DHS report, titled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment was created and distributed by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security. A crescendo of complaints from Michelle Malkin and other right-wing media pundits and some Republican elected officials forced the shelving of the report. Malkin labelled the Report a political “hit job” on conservatives in her characteristic bombastic language. One section of the DHS Report noted that “Rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” Right-wing partisans called the Report an attack on the honor of veterans, even though the Department of Defense was well aware of the issue and had taken steps to address it. Similar to the orchestrated chorus of attacks on President Clinton in 1995 after he suggested after the Oklahoma City bombing that scaling down the level of divisive partisan rhetoric would be a good idea. Clinton later explained in a Rolling Stone interview that his goal was “turning of the tide against the venom of anti-government feeling” and that through his comments “I thought that this might break a fever, really, that had been gripping us for too long.” At the same time, some civil liberties activists expressed concern that the DHS Report failed to make sufficient distinction between radical ideas and real or potential criminal activity. Supporting the use of government repression against any political sector in the United States no matter how much we as individuals loathe their political views and the objectionable—even grotesque and murderous—actions of some who place themselves among their ranks.
Scaremongering and the Erosion of Civil Liberties
Terrorism is a real threat to democracy and civil society. To ignore this fact is dangerous. Equally dangerous in the long term is the current penchant among some U.S. government officials, elected leaders, and their cheerleaders in the public square to exploit the fear of terrorism for political gain and to justify the dramatic erosion of civil liberties. This attack on our collective civil liberties is championed by elected officials and political leaders in the Republican and Democratic Parties. The undermining of civil liberties occurs periodically throughout U.S. history, starting with the panic that shaped the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These countersubversion panics have been well-studied in the social sciences. Such panics rely on mass media to generate fear though hyperbole, misinformation, and ethnocentric bigotry. Fox News is the most notorious current source, but there are scores of others. Serious attempts to confront intelligence-agency abuses are also undermined by people who spread dubious assertions, such as claiming that the Charleston, Boston, and Paris terrorist attacks were “false flag” operations by various intelligence agencies. Speculating about conspiracies is protected by the First Amendment, but it impedes attempts to build broad coalitions to confront the curtailing of our civil liberties and the right to dissent. The murders of Black people in a Charleston church by a domestic White Supremacist was an act of terrorism. To call it anything else is to refuse to face reality. The federal government has an obligation to protect citizens from violence and threats of violence. It has failed in this duty in a racialized way. Government officials aggressively pursue and prosecute people of color–especially Black people, Muslims, Mexicans, and indigenous peoples for breaking the law. Meanwhile, armed mobs of White people confronting law enforcement officials are allowed free reign, as in the case of the deadbeat Nevada rancher Clive Bundy . Black people with picket signs are surrounded by police, taken down hard, sometimes beaten, and hustled off to jail. The obvious Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right by law enforcement in the United States was the prescient headline on an article by sociologist Naomi Braine in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine from PRA. It was published before the Charleston massacre by a White Supremacist. Braine wrote:
“The differential treatment of right-wing and Muslim cases draws attention to the political contexts surrounding terrorism-related law enforcement, as these disparities only make sense within politically-driven calculations. Mainstream conservative politicians and media personalities protest depictions of right-wing militants as anything more than troubled but patriotic Americans, while Muslim men—particularly young men— are constantly monitored as intrinsic security risks. In the process, Muslims lose Constitutional protections for belief, speech, and association—forced to inhabit an ambiguous territory as “un-American” and presumptively foreign.”
In a broader context, many people in this country—and not just Black people—think the routinized killing of Black people by law enforcement represents a form of domestic terrorism. The facts have been available for years. In 2012 researcher Arlene Eisen wrote Operation Ghetto Storm, an Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of 313 Black People. “What’s Behind the Wave of Police, Security, and Vigilante Killings of Black People?” was the title of a conference in Washington, DC by the Spirit House project April 22, 2014, which was before the November killing in Ferguson that prompted an ongoing national movement of protests. Civil Rights are part of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Without civil liberties people cannot organize for civil rights. Neither Constitutionally-protected right is superior to the other. They were seen as a package by those who crafted the Bill of Rights as a way to protect citizens from possible (and for some framers inevitable) excesses of the power and force controlled by the federal government. The undermining of civil liberties occurs periodically throughout U.S. history, starting with the panic that shaped the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These countersubversion panics have been well-studied in the social sciences. Such panics rely on mass media to generate fear though hyperbole, misinformation, and ethnocentric bigotry. Fox News is the most notorious current source, but there are scores of others. From 1798 to today, countersubversion panics often are led by demagogues who chose as their main targets persons who belong to or are identified with particular unpopular racial, ethnic, religious, or fraternal groups: 1798 – Irish 1800s – Freemasons 1880s- Catholics …and many more. In the United States today, those framed as potential “terrorists” today are targeted across the political spectrum. Whenever we hear the terms “radicalization” or “extremists,” we should be suspicious. These terms are free-floating signifiers of politicized disapproval by people who defend the status quo and thus marginalize all dissenters from the right, center, and left. The current main targets of repression in the United States are Muslims, Arabs, Mexicans, environmentalists, international solidarity activists, and animal-rights activists—but there are many others, and more will be added to the list unless we organize to protest the panopticon surveillance state, intelligence agency dragnets, and political prosecutions. Accurately defining the terms used to discuss terrorism and terror cells is an important aspect of exposing scaremongering. The ongoing processes that undermine our liberties and rights have been and are very effective. They will increase in aggression unless people across the political spectrum join forces to demand government transparency and adherence to the words and values of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment.
A Statement from the Board of the Defending Dissent Committee:
The justified public outcry over recent white supremacist murders and other violence against people of color should not be exploited to further erode the Bill of Rights and its protection of dissident ideas. Civil Rights and Civil Liberties have equal status. Just as we have protested the religious, ideological, and racial targeting of Muslims in America, we oppose similar objectionable targeting of white racists by government agencies. The use of language such as “Radicalization” and “Extremism” by the government has created the public impression that dissident ideas alone lead to violence. This is false. Investigations should never be based on ideas rather than actions and credible evidence of planned criminal actions.