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Convention Protesters To Be Treated As Terrorists

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Why Protesters in Denver and Minneapolis will be Treated Like Terrorists


Demonstrators are descending on the national political conventions in Denver and Minneapolis to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech; meanwhile government law enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies are planning to treat dissidents like potential terrorists because of a reliance on flawed research, hyperbolic assessments, and political bias.

Social science research into the handling of demonstrations at major events across the United States since the Seattle protests in 1999 reveals a pattern of distorted threat analysis and repeated police abuses. Just published is the book Policing Dissent by Luis A. Fernandez, with the subtitle Social Control and the Anti-Globalization Movement. It is the social control of radical political dissent that is at the heart of government political repression, and Fernandez joins a long line of analysts who explain how the erosion of civil liberties is always justified by fanning fears of violence, civil unrest, and terrorism.

Fernandez observes that:

in the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) forced our society to confront segregation and racial inequality by using confrontational but peaceful tactics. Yet forty years later, the United States seems to be moving toward suppression of dissent and other political practices, even though these practices define our democracy.

Fernandez warns that not only of “direct street-level repression” by police, but also a series of “emerging strategies” that are government attempts to implement the “regulation and pacification of free speech and radical thought.”

U.S. government polices involving crowd control, violence, and terrorism under the Bush administration have slipped back toward outdated social science models on collective behavior and paranoid right-wing political ideologies linking radical political dissent to subversion and armed revolt. So the war on communism becomes a war on terrorism and soon a war on “extremism,” a word that should never pass the lips of anyone who cares about the First Amendment. In their search for the radical subversive “extremists,” government agencies cast a wide net that ensnares thousands of dissidents and demonstrators who have violated no laws. To justify this, government counterterrorism “experts” warn that violence-prone cells are bubbling up through a domestic network in which radical ideology leads inexorably to “homegrown terrorism.” This was the same paranoid analytical model through which it was claimed during the Cold War that political radicals were on a slippery slope toward collectivism, socialism, communism, and then armed insurrection.

A key argument in this regard is that political radicals in the United States have adopted an organizing structure called Leaderless Resistance for creating independent action cells. Some analysts go so far as to suggest that the affinity groups planned for the protests at the national political conventions in Denver and Minneapolis are a form of Leaderless Resistance and thus spawn violence and perhaps even acts of terrorism. 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.

Much of the current faulty “counterterrorism” analytical model can be traced to flawed analyses based on sloppy scholarship by Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman—two leading experts heavily relied on by government policymakers. Sageman and Hoffman are currently embroiled in a well publicized dispute over whether future acts of domestic terrorism by Islamic militants, such as those carried out on 9/11, will be generated by the international Qaeda network (Hoffman) or homegrown terrorism, planned by Muslims living in the United States (Sageman).

The dispute gained public attention when Hoffman negatively reviewed Sageman’s recent book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century, in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism was published in 1998 and revised and expanded in 2006. Hoffman complained that Sageman’s book was a “brusque dismissal of much of the existing academic literature on terrorism in general and terrorist networks in particular,” and “employs historically groundless parallels.” Sageman responded in a following issue. The debate then was covered in the New York Times and other publications.

Both Sageman’s and Hoffman’s books examine how social movements are built, how terrorism is justified within small groups, and how people in activist underground cells can reinforce a decision that violence or terrorism is justified and necessary.

Behind the scenes, Hoffman’s analysis is favored by many analysts inside the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, while the work of Sageman and other researchers affiliated with the New York Police Department is favored by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Joe Lieberman, (I-CT). Lieberman is a supporter of Republican Presidential hopeful John McCain and has launched a campaign to pressure the federal government to adopt a more hard-line policy toward the threat of domestic terrorism. Not coincidently, this helps McCain and applies pressure on Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama to move to the political right on this and related issues such as U.S. policy in the Mideast. It also feeds a wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country.

A central aspect of the analyses by Sageman and Hoffman involves examining the intersection of religiously-motivated violence, insurgent right-wing movements in the United States, and an underground cell structure called “Leaderless Resistance.” Yet their research into this area is woefully inadequate and at times simply not accurate. They also fail to adequately distinguish between radical ideas and violent methods, which raises serious First Amendment issues. In fairness to Hoffman, the flaws in his book are confined to one area of analysis, while Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad lacks the citations generally considered appropriate in scholarly work, and in two instances constitute intellectual plagiarism.

A growing environment of flawed and superficial research has created a series of problems for public policy analysts studying terrorism:

  • Pointless polarization of debate into two camps when there are numerous other valid analytical interpretations.
  • Failure to adequately distinguish radical ideologies from violent methodologies.
  • Flawed and sometimes woefully inaccurate information about right-wing violence in the United States.
  • Misreading of the concept of “Leaderless Resistance.”
  • Misapplication of contemporary social movement theories.
  • Superficial analysis of the role of religion in political struggles and violence.

Ideology, Cell Structure, & Violence

Are street-level affinity groups a form of proto-terrorist formation? Does radical ideology lead to violent methodology? Do all “leaderless” social movements need violence to survive and grow? Does Leaderless Resistance cell structure lead to Leaderless Jihad? Many counterterrorism “experts” say yes. Most social scientists say no.

A thorough public debate over scholarly theories and public policy assessments is needed to ensure public safety while protecting civil liberties. A central question in this regard is the role of the concept of Leaderless Resistance in political violence. The terms “Leaderless Resistance” or “Phantom Cells” refer to spontaneous, autonomous, unconnected underground cells organized by insurgents seeking to carry out acts of violence, sabotage, or terrorism against a government or occupying military force.

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 of Leaderless Resistance in 2003, and is now an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Garfinkel explains that Leaderless Resistance “applies specifically to groups that employ cells and that lack bidirectional vertical command links—that is, groups without leaders.”

Leaderless Resistance is widely discussed among U.S. right-wing insurgents, many with ties to militant religious ideologies, and this form of underground cell structure is frequently discussed among government analysts and policymakers investigating ways to combat domestic terrorism. Like many other scholars and journalists, neither Sageman nor Hoffman conveys an accurate picture of the history of Leaderless Resistance.

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. 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 counterterrorism, 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.

Government agencies are reportedly analyzing secret intelligence data scanning for networks, patterns of interaction, etc. in a search for different kinds of underground terrorist cells.

Tracking an actual "Leaderless Resistance" cell that is truly spontaneous, autonomous, and unconnected would require a much deeper level of intrusiveness and penetration of a larger community in which these cells achieve some level of anonymity. Everyone in the community would need to be suspected until their innocence had been proven.

But if in fact the "Leaderless Resistance" model is not how potential homegrown Muslim terrorist cells are actually organized, then different techniques would be needed to locate the would-be terrorists--techniques that are, ironically, much more similar to those advocated by Marc Sageman in his first book.

If our understanding of domestic terrorist tendencies is more properly modeled as an outside contagion, rather than as something spontaneously generated, then it would be more proper to monitor known terrorists, rather than conducting sweeps of all potential terrorists.

Is this just scholarly semantic duels and pointless academic nitpicking? No. By failing to fully explore a range of social science research, policymakers are doomed to commit analytical or conceptual errors. An accurate understanding of social movement boundaries helps predict potential violence within some social movements, while accurately assessing others as simply exercising First Amendment rights. The level of surveillance and infiltration by government agencies is supposed to be regulated by these considerations. Drawing distinctions between radical ideology and violent methodology is at the heart of the First Amendment. In the United States, stopping ideological radicalization is not a job for government agencies.

Anti-terrorism policy and civil liberties deeply affects us all—we deserve better.


Read more about the topic at our special collection of web resources:

...including special feaures on Sageman, plagiarism, Hoffman, Leaderless Resistance, and a narrated slide show on terrorist cell structures.

Adapted from an article "Leaderless Counterterrorism Strategy" in the Fall 2008 issue of the Public Eye Magazine of Political Research Associates.