Leaderless Resistance and the Greater Threat
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
On May 21, the UK’s Times Radio aired the first-ever public interview of Ken McCallum, the chief of Britain’s internal security agency, MI5.
During the interview, McCallum remarked that his agency believes “self-initiated terrorists” pose a bigger threat to the UK than plots on the scale of 9/11 or the July 7, 2005, attacks in London.
The Shapeless Enemy
“Self-initiated terrorists” is the term that the British government uses to refer to attackers who operate under the leaderless resistance model of terrorism, or what many in the press refer to as “lone wolves.”
It is designed to help those who want to conduct terrorist attacks evade effective law enforcement and security agencies by avoiding hierarchical organization in lieu of becoming a shapeless enemy.
Certainly, self-initiated terrorists do pose a challenge to security services, as that is the idea behind adopting the leaderless resistance form of terrorism.
But terrorists who adopt leaderless resistance are in fact admitting that it is simply too dangerous and difficult for them to operate in larger, organized groups.
This has been the case in Europe and North America in recent years, where jihadists have struggled to get trained terrorist operatives into targeted countries to conduct attacks.
In 2009, out of frustration at their inability to get trained terrorist cadres into the U.S. and Europe, al Qaeda began to adopt leaderless resistance, urging its supporters to conduct attacks in the countries where they live.
After the Islamic State broke away from al Qaeda in 2013, it too began to promote the concept of leaderless resistance for its followers.
The concept of leaderless resistance is not just confined to jihadists. Like any tactic, it can be used by terrorists motivated by any ideology.
In fact, white supremacists embraced the concept long before the jihadists did.
While we saw a rise of organized right-wing groups in the U.S. in recent years, current law enforcement campaigns to dismantle groups such as The Base, Atomwaffen, and even The Proud Boys will cause right-wing extremists to again more widely embrace the concept of leaderless resistance.
Anarchists and single-issue terrorists have also long embraced the concept of leaderless resistance, operating as lone attackers or as part of insular affinity groups or clandestine cells.
Operating as a lone attacker or as part of a small cell has some distinct advantages in terms of operational security.
If those planning an attack are disciplined, it can be very difficult to detect them using traditional counterterrorism tools such as tracking travel, communications, and funds.
There simply are no observable connections with known terrorist entities.
In the case of a lone attacker, there is no organization to detect or monitor.
Even in the case of a small, secure cell, it is often very difficult for law enforcement to place undercover operatives or develop informants among the members of the cell.
But this greater degree of operational security comes at a price.
It means that a lone attacker must finance, plan, and execute the attack without outside guidance and assistance.
The claim that leaderless resistance makes the concept of the terrorist attack cycle obsolete simply is not true.
All leaderless resistance means is that a lone attacker must conduct every step of the attack cycle alone, which makes them even more vulnerable to detection, especially at critical stages of the attack cycle such as while conducting surveillance, acquiring weapons, or building bombs.
The burden is somewhat lessened in the case of a small cell, which provides a few other people to help conduct the required tasks of the attack cycle.
Lack of Hard Skills
But beyond headcount, there is also the critical issue of skill.
The set of skills required to conduct a terrorist attack is known as terrorist tradecraft.
It is a broad skill set that includes things like surveillance, bomb-making, covert communications, document forgery, weapons acquisition, finance, and logistics, among others.
In many ways, the elements of terrorist tradecraft are more like the skills needed for an intelligence officer to operate in a hostile environment than they are those of an insurgent fighter operating in a remote area.
While leaderless resistance looks great on paper, one of the problems we’ve witnessed as people attempt to put it into practice is that they rarely have the terrorist tradecraft to conduct a large-scale attack or attack a significant hard target.
As a result, the most successful attacks by lone assailants and small cells have been simple attacks using readily available weapons against soft targets.
Poor Soft Skills
Some efforts have been made to equip lone attackers, such as the Animal Liberation Front’s arson guide, or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine.
A number of attackers have used these guides; for example, the pair of brothers who attacked the Boston Marathon in 2013 used the pressure cooker bomb instructions from Inspire magazine.
In general, however, tradecraft remains the bane of would-be terrorists operating under the leaderless resistance model.
Many of them do not have the discipline required to be successful lone attackers and find themselves ensnared in government sting operations when they practice poor operational security by communicating with other extremists, or reach out for assistance with bomb-making, or obtaining explosives and other weapons.
This is not to diminish the threat posed by self-initiated terrorists; they do pose a very real and persistent threat.
However, that threat is generally limited, and it is rare that such an individual is able to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack.
Because of this, it is more accurate to say that such operatives pose the “most likely” threat, but not necessarily the biggest.
Danger in Numbers
The most dire, or dangerous threat remains an attack by trained terrorist operatives from groups such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or Hezbollah, who somehow manage to slip through the cracks and conduct an attack.
It is important to continue to focus on the severity of this threat, even while also working to prevent the smaller, more frequent attacks by lone attackers and small cells.
As we’ve seen over the past three decades, if the pressure is removed from organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, they can regain the resources and bandwidth to attempt large-scale attacks against the West.
Large-scale attacks such as 9/11, London 7/7, or the Nov. 2015 Paris attacks, not only result in significant loss of life but also tend to energize grassroots supporters and lead to additional attacks by self-initiated terrorists.
Therefore, preventing such attacks must remain the primary objective of security and intelligence services.