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Why do contemporary Racially-Motivated Violent Extremist (RMVE) movements champion “leaderless resistance,” and how can practitioners combat this organizational strategy? To answer this question, we draw on insights from military planning to identify why this online network structure provides the RMVE community its primary source of power, or “center of gravity.” We then use this information to deconstruct the movement’s operational activities including its critical capabilities and critical requirements to perpetrate these actions. Based on these requirements, we identify key vulnerabilities to undercut the movement’s resilience and growth. Leaderless resistance is an organizational strategy “that allows for and encourages individuals or small cells to engage in acts of political violence entirely independent of any hierarchy of leadership or network of support.” Fueled by a growing virtual reach, leaderless movements and groups based in the United States have flourished in the last decade. These entities can largely be divided into two categories: those that deliberately adopted a leaderless structure for its strategic benefits (e.g., Atomwaffen, the Base), and those that are organically leaderless due to the highly fluid nature of their network of followers (e.g., Boogaloo Bois, Groypers). The online RMVE leaderless resistance network relies on three critical requirements to achieve their desired end goals: (1) common doctrine, (2) shared narrative, and (3) dense communication networks. Online communication networks, in particular, are critical to spread information, share key doctrinal concepts through common texts, mobilize followers, and radicalize individuals to take actions. Given these requirements, we identify at least three vulnerabilities in these network structures: 1. Poor organizational cohesion and control, 2. Limited visibility of ideological narratives/influencers, and 3. Barriers to communication and coordination. These challenges can undercut the perceived legitimacy, momentum, and growth of the movement. To exploit these vulnerabilities, we assess the effectiveness of several previously tested policy interventions including:

• Law Enforcement-Based Interventions: Proscription, Arrests, and Litigation

• Community-Based Interventions: Inoculation Theory, Counter-Messaging, Disengagement, De- Radicalization

• Industry-Based Interventions: De-platforming, Content Moderation, Redirect, and Hash-Sharing Directories

We assess that community-based and industry-based interventions are more likely to succeed than law enforcement-based interventions because the profound distrust of government in these communities limits the potential effectiveness of government-backed interventions and also creates a high potential for unanticipated, counterproductive effects.


About the authors: Iris Malone is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University ( Lauren Blasco is a MA Candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University ( Kaitlyn Robinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Stanford University ( Corresponding author: Iris Malone ( About NCITE: The National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center was established in 2020 as the Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence for counterterrorism and terrorism prevention research. Sponsored by the DHS Science and Technology Office of University Programs, NCITE is the trusted DHS academic consortium of over 60 researchers across 18 universities and nongovernment organizations. Headquartered at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, NCITE seeks to be the leading U.S. academic partner for counterterrorism research, technology, and workforce development. Acknowledgement: This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under Grant Award Number 20STTPC00001‐02. Iris Malone, Principal Investigator, was the primary author of this analysis. Significant contributions from NCITE Ph.D. Candidate Kaitlyn Robinson and M.A. Candidate Lauren Blasco contributed to this report’s production. All errors in reporting are those of the authors. Disclaimer: The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Suggested Citation: Malone, Iris, Lauren Blasco, and Kaitlyn Robinson. “Fighting the Hydra: Combatting Vulnerabilities in Leaderless Resistance Networks.” 2022. NCITE: Omaha, NE (March).