Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Just over 27 years ago, the prominent white supremacist Louis Beam Jr. published a now-infamous essay titled “Leaderless Resistance.” Extremist organizations, Beam argued, were too vulnerable to government disruption. The future of white supremacy was individual—lone actors and small, self-organized groups that could take action at their own initiative.

You might be forgiven for thinking this was a brilliant and lethal idea; certainly, many security analysts and policy makers believed as much. But the truth is that leaderless resistance was a bad strategy, based on overly optimistic assumptions. Reports of its success were greatly exaggerated, usually because of a false perception that most individual actors were not receiving direction.

But a rapidly changing social and technological environment may have rescued leaderless resistance from the dustbin of history—as the strategy was originally conceived, rather than as it has come to be understood.

The story of what Louis Beam got right, and what he got wrong, can help us understand the challenge presented by lone-actor terrorists, as the United States and the world grapple with a growing number of terrorist attacks by lone extremists, including this weekend’s carnage in El Paso, where 22 people were  killed, allegedly by a white-supremacist gunman.

Terrorism and extremism are inherently social activities, usually carried out by individuals because they dramatically overvalue their membership in a particular social grouping. Because of this social quality, it has been relatively rare to see terrorists who carry out violent attacks without any sort of strong social context. For many years, the exemplar of the lone-wolf terrorist was Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, who carried out a 17-year bombing campaign from his remote Montana shack. But such figures have largely been the exception rather than the rule.

In the 1980s, Beam, a former Klansman and Aryan Nations activist, had been linked to The Order, a semi-independent terrorist cell that carried out a spree of armed robberies and murder before finally being stopped by the FBI. Although The Order acted mostly at its own discretion, it funneled some of the proceeds from its crimes back into formal white-nationalist organizations.

Believing that The Order’s activities had been closely coordinated with leaders of the white-supremacist movement, the Justice Department indicted 14 prominent figures—including Beam—for seditious conspiracy in 1987. The high-profile trial was a disaster for the government, ending in the exoneration of all those accused (13 acquittals and one dismissal of charges). But it was also bad for the accused, some of whom were imprisoned for other crimes, and others made infamous, no longer able to operate from the shadows.

Beam himself leaned into his new notoriety, publishing a racist magazine tauntingly titled The Seditionist, in whose pages appeared the essay for which he is most remembered, “Leaderless Resistance.” Beam had not invented the idea, which was au courant in white-nationalist circles of the day, but he explicitly articulated and enthusiastically endorsed it. Alluding indirectly to his experience in the sedition trial, the thrust of his floridly written argument can be summed up as follows:

  • The structure of “resistance” (meaning white-supremacist) organizations is too vulnerable to disruption by the oppressive U.S. federal government, which through infiltration and prosecution will “crush” any organization with real potential to resist it effectively.

  • The solution to this problem is that extremists should adopt a strategy of self-directed action on an individual level, or as part of very small cells that operate independently from one another and from any larger organization.

  • These individual cells and organizations should not take orders from anyone else in the movement but should instead loosely coordinate their activities based on a shared information infrastructure of widely distributed “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.”

  • Numbers were key to the strategy, as outlined by Beam, because the FBI would be overwhelmed with the demands of investigating so many individuals and tiny unconnected groups. “A thousand small phantom cells … is an intelligence nightmare for a government,” he wrote.  

A little more than three years after the essay was published, the strategy produced what was, for a time, considered to be its most notable success, the Oklahoma City bombing. But that plot, carried out by a small cell superficially similar to what Beam had described, served in many ways to highlight the strategy’s weaknesses.

The first discontinuity related to the “leaderless” part of the equation. While Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators (at minimum Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier) were never proved to have taken direction from an organization, they were hardly independent and unconnected. McVeigh  communicated with many white supremacists and anti-government extremists as he advanced his plot, including traveling very near to Beam himself and communicating with several of Beam’s associates. He also repeatedly reached out to an even wider assortment of leaders, activists, and organizations, although most of these efforts appear to have been unsuccessful. If McVeigh was not connected to an organization or leader, it was not for lack of trying.

The nominally leaderless strategy did work in one key respect—only three people were convicted for the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history: McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier (who turned state’s evidence and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge). Despite this, the bombing provoked a backlash among domestic right-wing extremists, who feared it would lead to exactly the sort of government crackdown Beam’s leaderless strategy was intended to inoculate against. In this fearful environment, what Beam had optimistically called “a thousand points of resistance” could not and did not emerge.

Lone actors continued to surface periodically and carry out ideologically motivated attacks in the years that followed, but few of these succeeded on a scale large enough to attract national attention. Meanwhile, widespread adoption of the “leaderless” paradigm helped further erode a domestic right-wing extremist scene that was already deeply enmeshed in egotistical leadership competitions and ideological infighting. Leaderless resistance successfully created a low-profile attack surface for government countermeasures, but it also led to quiescence in the movement itself. None of this deterred extremists from taking up the leaderless paradigm. While the resistance part fell short of Beam’s expectations, the leaderless part did help keep people out of jail and out of the spotlight.

The idea eventually spread to extremist movements abroad. Notably, the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri proposed a somewhat similar decentralized strategy that came to be referred to as “leaderless jihad.”

Then came the internet. Beam’s original conception of leaderless resistance required widely distributed “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.” to spread extremist ideologies and loosely synchronize the activities of leaderless “phantom cells” by signaling the time and type of the required action.

While white supremacists certainly generated enough of this material—thousands and thousands of pages produced fairly consistently over the course of decades—virtually no one saw it. When Beam introduced the leaderless concept in 1992, the only media platforms that could meet the requirements of his strategy—television, commercial radio, and commercial presses—were prohibitively expensive and protected by regulatory and corporate gatekeepers. All of the white-supremacist newsletters, videotapes, shortwave-radio programs, and cable-access shows combined could only reach a tiny fraction of the population.

The spirit was willing, but the distribution was weak, until the internet age arrived. White supremacists were early adopters, following the example of Beam, who had run dial-up BBS forums for white supremacists as early as the 1980s. In 1995, the former Klansman Don Black launched Stormfront, a white-supremacist message board that still operates today. Other boards and websites soon followed.

While these forums helped provide some continuity in the movement during the years that followed the Oklahoma City bombing, they were not engines of growth. Open social-media platforms changed the game.

Jihadists were the first extremists to extract real terrorist value from the new environment. It began with Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and distributed online, first through jihadist message boards and later on social media. Inspire welded ideological provocation to detailed instructions about how to carry out terrorist attacks, alarming media outlets and policy makers enough to make sure that everyone with a television or the internet knew about its existence. After a slow start, the magazine eventually lived up to its name and inspired a significant number of self-directed terrorist attacks, most notably the Boston Marathon bombing.

Even more dramatic was the rise of the Islamic State, whose slow-motion split from al-Qaeda was formalized in early 2014 amid an aggressive social-media campaign. ISIS quickly went from automated “astroturf” tweets to more sophisticated forms of online recruitment, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms (remember Google+?) to build enthusiastic communities of fans and successfully urge online supporters to carry out attacks. Some of these were again misconstrued as leaderless or lone-wolf attacks, when in fact they were directed quite systematically by the organization’s hierarchy.

Meanwhile, white supremacists were catching up in the online space. Although many legacy white-nationalist figures and organizations had Twitter or Facebook accounts by 2012, most boasted only a handful of followers. By 2016, the same figures on Twitter had increased their follower counts by more than 600 percent, and by 2018, hundreds of thousands of new and legacy racist extremists had flooded the platform. Those numbers were amplified by astroturf, but unquestionably included thousands of real, engaged people, many of whom were visible participants in mainstream politics.

Less prominent platforms, including 4chan, 8chan, and Gab, made space for more extreme white supremacists who couldn’t color within the lines of the major social-media platforms’ rules. When Facebook and YouTube began, belatedly, to crack down on white-supremacist content this year, many users moved to the encrypted Telegram app, joining ISIS in exploiting that platform’s more permissive environment.

Deplatforming helped reduce the overall reach of white-supremacist propaganda, but users who migrated to less prominent platforms quickly created a pressure-cooker environment where radicalization to violence could take place very quickly, with adherents goading one another into ever more extreme views and actions.

While all this was happening on the information front, another important dynamic changed—the art of the possible.

In 2011, the Norwegian white supremacist and anti-Muslim extremist Anders Behring Breivik carried out a devastatingly deadly and truly lone terrorist attack, killing 77 people in a single day with no assistance, no accomplices, and apparently none of the craving for validation that led Timothy McVeigh to make repeated phone calls to white-supremacist leaders in the days before the Oklahoma City bombing. Other lone actors had killed before, but Breivik was set apart by his solitary plan, his massive body count, and his 1,518-word manifesto, which laid out both his reasons for carrying out the attack and his detailed tactical preparations.

That manifesto became the baton in a relay race of extremists, passed from one terrorist murderer to the next through online communities. Since Breivik’s attack, a series of terrorist imitators and successors have replicated the form of the written record he left behind, and his style of attack. In the aftermath of Breivik’s attack, a significant number of extremists, both white nationalist and jihadist, carried out regular and highly lethal gun massacres without apparent direction, including but not limited to a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, and the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. In July of this year, an anarchist lone attacker was killed by police while mounting an assault on an ICE facility in Tacoma, Washington.

In recent months, the chain of custody has become much clearer and more explicit, especially within white nationalism. The Christchurch mosque shooter published a manifesto in March 2019 that directly cited Breivik’s manifesto. In April, the attacker of a Poway synagogue posted a manifesto citing the Christchurch document as inspiration, and the killer in El Paso on Saturday did the same. The next terrorist attacker may well point to El Paso.

The leaderless-resistance strategy of yesteryear was unmoored from its time, but reality may finally have caught up with Beam’s magnum opus. Yet in its current manifestation, leaderless resistance is still less than what Beam himself and those who have interpreted his essay as a Rosetta Stone for understanding and prioritizing the “lone wolf” model of terrorism conceived it to be. The jury is still out as to whether the current iteration of the strategy can be considered truly leaderless or truly a resistance movement.

On the leadership front, many of the recent attacks are fully self-directed, in the sense that no evidence has emerged that the perpetrators are taking orders from any one person. But a host of other influences are easier to detect. In place of leaderless resistance, we seem to be witnessing distributed leadership, as 2019’s manifesto writers suggest. The manifestos themselves offer a form of direction, and the three key examples—Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso—all followed the same vector of introduction. The documents were posted to 8chan, where a community of bloodthirsty boosters encourage imitators by lionizing previous killers, rating them for the quality of their manifesto writing and their body count “high scores.”

Distributed leadership is more difficult to combat than more ordinary influence patterns, where one or two relatively prominent figures have a disproportionately large influence over a large number of people. Nevertheless, movements marked by distributed leadership can be addressed through a variety of methods, including countervailing messaging and deplatforming or disruption. 8chan is currently down after the backlash from El Paso. While many of its denizens will find another online home, past studies of deplatforming suggest that repeated relocations erode extremist communities, even if they are not likely to eliminate the groups entirely.

If the leaderless paradigm remains complicated, so too does the resistance part of the equation. Leaderless resistance was originally conceived as a strategy to directly fight an oppressive government seeking to crush white supremacy under its jackbooted heel. This idea seems almost quaint in 2019.

Instead, something genuinely resembling leaderless resistance is emerging at a time when Americans are soberly debating whether the president is himself a white nationalist, a time when institutional white nationalists find some new presidential pronouncement to celebrate almost every week, and white-nationalist political priorities are being carried out by the government in real time.

Not all white nationalists are satisfied, but in truth, they are getting far more of what they want from the mainstream political process than at any time in recent memory. While the current social and political landscape is volatile and unpredictable, brutal massacres do not obviously help the cause of white nationalism just as it is reemerging from the shadows, and they may hurt it deeply.

Terrorism has always been a double-edged sword, as Timothy McVeigh learned when his attack produced condemnation and loathing instead of inspiring the revolution he had hoped for. In the short term, at least, the El Paso attack (coming between two other significant acts of gun violence) has resulted in substantial calls for more aggressive action against the white-nationalist movement, although it is unclear whether real change is afoot.

And all of this may also be mere prologue. While white nationalists are currently enjoying the most hospitable political environment they have seen in decades, America’s electoral system creates constant opportunities for change. The 2020 election, accompanied by uncertainty about America’s future direction, seems unlikely to calm the waters. What kind of country will emerge after the election is anyone’s guess.

Leaderless attacks will likely be with us for the foreseeable future. Twenty-seven years after Beam published his essay, though, it is still too soon to know whether they will ever amount to something like a resistance.

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