From the HOPE not hate Archive: Accelerationism, Leaderless resistance and Combat 18
30/10/2020 - Patrik Hermansson
CONTENT WARNING: This post contains quotes from and references to violent racism published in the second half of the 20th Century. Some of the historical writing/documents in this article may be distressing to some readers.
“There is no political solution”, writes a user on a terror advocating chat group on the messaging app Telegram. It is a cynical and pessimistic message that has increasingly got hold of the far right. It is part of a stream of thought that sees violence and terrorism as the only way forward termed “accelerationism”. The increased attention on the idea has been driven by a spate of terror attacks over the last years, a growing community online which glorifies these murderers and agitates for indiscriminate violence as well as a set of new organisations that subscribe to it.
While accelerationism exists in several ideological variants, many which are not violent, the version that has grown to prominence within the far-right is defined by its view that society is on the verge of collapse and beyond repair. Any attempt to prevent the collapse only stalls the inevitable for a little while and serves to hold up a morally corrupt system. Accelerationsists therefore see instigating (or accelerating) a complete collapse through violent conflict as the only way forward, after which a new order can be built.
The Christchurch shooting in March 2019 that took the lives of 51 was the most deadly far-right terror attack since Breivik in 2011 and the shooter made clear that his motivation was to a large part accelerationist. The manifesto makes clear the shooter’s racist motivations and how he considers the entirety of society corrupted and unsalvageable. In line with the accelerationist idea he wrote that “Stability and comfort are the enemies of revolutionary change”.
That the Christchurch shooter used social media to make the audience of his attack the entire world was noteworthy and it showed how far-right terrorists are adapting to the current context. But the attack and the current trend of accelerationism is in many ways just a new iteration in the long history of violent insurgency by the far right who have long sought to stoke up racial conflict or start an all out war against their government.
It’s for this reason that I have delved back into the HOPE not hate archive to explore similarities and differences between today’s violent extreme right and their forebears in previous decades.
The core texts of far-right insurgency
The discussions in online pro-terror chats on platforms like Telegram, as well as the writings by recent far-right terrorists, makes clear references to ideas that were first articulated several decades ago. Long before many of these activists were born. In the manifesto the Christchurch shooter refers to the state and society at large as “the system” which is a term popularised in the 1978 white supremacist book The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce. In the fictional story, a small group of racists fight the US state which it holds is controlled by an authoritarian Jew-controlled bureaucracy and is referred to as “The System” throughout the book. The state is here part of the problem according to Pierce and is therefore a valid target. This view continues to permeate the current wave of accelerationist groups and attacks
The book likely inspired the Oklahoma City bomber in 1995 and Anders Breivik in 2011. In 1982 Louis Beam, who had been part of the Ku Klux Klan, turned Turner’s fictional story into a manual, introducing a mode of insurgency violence and organising that he called “leaderless resistance”. Beam argued that traditional organisations were easily infiltrated and monitored and the white supremacist movement, in order to fight an oppressive government, should be organised in small cells and commit numerous terror attacks idependently. Traditional organisations and parties still had a role in Beam’s plan but could be protected if they did not get involved in violence which was supposed to be carried out independently by cells or single perpetrators.
Looking back at these texts show that not all practices or rhetoric that we associate with the current terror threat is as new as they are often made to seem. While social media undoubtedly has contributed to connecting and radicalising a new generation of the violent far-right, there are direct parallels in texts by Beam and Pierce. It highlights that we should be careful in trying to explain recent developments solely through new technology. The ideas were there long before.
Louis Beam even concocted a “point system” that gave points to a killer based on the importance of their victims: killing a president was worth a full point and a religious leader one-third of a point. The Halle shooter included a very similar list in his letter published before the shooting, giving a different number of points to different minorities and on Telegram “high score” lists of mass murderers are shared listing them based on the number of victims. Its term: “gamification of terrorism” implies that its a modern invention but even here there are historical counterparts.
“The ideal unit is a one man unit”
The ideas of Pierce and the leaderless resistance tactic came to the UK in the early 1990s and would play an important role in Combat 18 (C18). The group was originally meant to be the security arm of the British National Party when it was launched in 1992 by Charlie Sargent. A hooligan with a long history in the British far-right and in the British National Party (BNP). From the start C18 was a street force and, according to Nick Lowles in his book White Riot, it was “out for a fight”. Defined by its “enjoyment of fighting and the culture of drinking”.
But it turned more ideological relatively quickly. Sargent was in contact with US nazi Harold Covington who had previously been leader of the National Socialist White People’s Party who provided organisational and ideological inspiration for the new organisation. In 1980, Covington went into self-imposed exile in Ireland and later came to live in London after failing in both elections and in attracting supporters in the US. While here, he wrote his book The March Up Country which argued that the white race faced extinction if “race mixing” was not reversed within fifty years and called for a “White Revolution”. Covington drew inspiration from both Beam and Pierce and advocated for a similar leaderless resistance tactic. Sargent who had read and enjoyed Covington’s newsletters called Resistance came into contact with Covington which led to his involvement in C18 as an advisor.
The direct role of Covington and the influence of Pierce and Beam’s ideas were evident in the new organisation with one of C18’s publications being named “The Order”, the same name as the nazi organisation in The Turner Diaries. Another of C18’s publications was the Blackmag which is notable for being the place where the organisation’s most extreme racist tirades were printed.
Covington’s post office box: Dixie Press, Raleigh, North Carolina was printed as the correspondence address of Blackmag, as well as in Redwatch, which exposed the contact information of antifascists and other ideological enemies. The foreign address allowed Sergent and C18 to keep their real address’ hidden (similar to how some hide their real identity online today behind a VPN).
It was also from Covington, Pierce and (indirectly) from Beam that they got their mode of organising and targets. About a year after launching, C18 had already broken off from the BNP and turned against it. The party which was hoping to (and eventually did) win local elections was seeking to distance itself from violence while C18 was becoming even more extreme and suspicious of the democratic process. The pages of the Blackmag make it clear that the group’s main enemy was now “ZOG”, a term first coined in The Turner Diaries. Short for Zionist Occupation Government, an antisemtisic conspiracy theory that holds that the state (really most states in the world) are under Jewish control.
Having come to the conclusion that the democratic process completely lacked viability, C18 needed to change tactics. In Blackmag they describe their views in a way that directly matches what accelerationist groups write on Telegram today; far-right parties are only as successful as “the system” allows them to be. The first issue reads:
These so called parties and movements are nothing more than pressure valves that the state uses to release any steam which might otherwise blow up against them. Do you think for one minute that they would allow a movement to legally exist which would stand a chance of wrestling power from the Jews? NO WAY!
Instead Blackmag outlined a change of tactics taken largely from Covington and Beam’s work. The mode of organising that was going to be pursued was to “set up thousands of cell structured groups all over the country”, Sergeant wrote, continuing to inform of the danger of infiltrators and the importance of self sufficiency. The tactic was beneficial as it prevented the whole organisation from being compromised if one cell was discovered: “The ideal unit is a one man unit, so only he can let himself down. Good luck.” The first issue of Redwatch similarly read: “This is the new era, the silent hunter is the most feared enemy, one it can neither name nor can find, UNDERMINE – DEMORALIZE – DESTROY”.
From leaderless resistance to Terrorgram
It is difficult not to see the similarities in the rhetoric of C18 and the current far-right terror threat. Despite lacking the communication tools available to the far right today, it was already an international movement and the British far-right was inspired by its US counterparts. The fundamental idea that the state is corrupt and beyond repair remains an important motivation (and internally; a justification) for far-right terrorism. The Turner Diaries remain close to the top of the reading list of European nazi groups, although there are also newer additions.
On far-right accelerationist channels on Telegram a relentless stream of thousands of posts serve a simple purpose, to ingrain the idea that “there is no political solution” and remove hope of any form of action except for the most violent one. The only way forward is to tear everything down, and start anew. It is a tactic that relies on instigating a feeling that the reader has already lost everything worth losing in order to remove resistance to violent action. It is well suited to fast online communications and a relentless news cycle but C18 publication Redwatch, besides publishing the contact details of anti-fascists, already relied on the same tactic. One undated issue opens with the line: “Is it “nice” to have your woman live in constant fear of being raped or murdered”.
However, there are also many differences. Despite making explicit calls for leaderless resistance, the actions of C18 rarely lived up to the idea in practice. The irony of calling for cell structured organising in a magazine carrying the organisations name and the fact that C18 ran a sizeable music distribution business, seems to have been lost on them. Even more contradictory: Sergeant continued to keep a memberlist throughout his time as the leader, although he refused to hand it over after a split with a rival faction of the group in 1997, choosing instead to stab to death the man that was supposed to receive it.
Compared to the current day, there is also a stark difference in terms of raw numbers. Following the Christchurch mass murder in March 2019, several attackers following a similar tactic and acting alone (although still engaging with far-right communities online) have taken place. While C18 attacked migrants and antifascist, and had easier access to weapons and explosives through connections in Europe and especially Scandinavia, it was not connected to terror attacks which could be said to fall into the category of the leaderless resistance. In 1999, David Copeland, the London Nailbomber, set off three bombs across London, murdering three people and hurting many others before he was caught. Copeland had read The Turner Diaries and was a member of BNP but is not known to have been in touch with C18.
Difficult in practice
Although the rules of leaderless resistance might sound easy they have proven hard to follow in practice. It is a tactic that relies on the activist being able to resist the urge to speak to others or brag of their plans. They need to plan and execute their attack alone or in a small group and, if they plan to commit more than one attack, resist the temptation to take credit for their deeds.
Several aspects of it clearly clash with other elements of C18. Its origin in hooliganism and a fighting culture where respect was given to those who won fights is one of the clearest contradictions. C18’s Blackmag always used the first pages to describe its supposed victories in brawls with anti-fascists in London and named its own fighters. It was difficult to gain that sort of respect outside of a group. The road of the leaderless resistance would mean that one did not get this notoriety, at least not in life. The leaderless resistance tactic came with a cost that most, even dedicated nazis, were not willing to pay.
The internet has changed how one can gain notoriety and respect. It has also changed what being a member of a group means as well as how radicalisation works. It has made access to both far-right propaganda and resources on how to take violent action considerably easier.
On Telegram and imageboards most users are anonymous but can gain notoriety and respect from other users in other ways. Rather than physical fights which inevitably reveal who they are, on these forums respect is given to those who contribute with good content as well as to those who can outdo the rest in how extreme they are. It’s a rhetorical extremeness rather than a physical one (although now, like then, the rhetoric motivates some to commit violent attacks, most does not). Physical stature or even location matters less. As was the case with the Feuerkrieg Division, a pro-terror group that was launched on Telegram with members in the UK and US, which was actually run by a 13 year old Estonian boy.
They also become part of a community which they might not have had otherwise, although this community might not know their real name it remains important. They can receive support, comradeship and will be remembered by it if they commit an attack. The cost-benefit calculation is therefore different.
Research by Countering Lone Actor Terrorism project has showed that in-practice few far-right terrorists completely follow the rules laid out by Beam. Most talk to at least a few people about their plans. The community that social media channels gives far-right terrorists today, while remaining anonymous, was difficult to create in the 90s.
Social media has also opened up for the terroristic far-right to find supporters in a wider cohort. Whereas in the 90s, groups like C18 drew its members mainly for existing subcultures, either the music and skinhead scene or football. Personal contact was more important and recruitment took place in person. Today, radicalisation often takes place online, without offline world connections to other far-right activists. It means that supporters can be drawn from almost anywhere. It makes today’s movement less predictable and harder to monitor.
For C18 there were also other incentives to not fully commit to the leaderless resistance tactic. One of the most successful ventures of C18 was its white power music operation. ISD Records produced about 30,000 CDs and made 200,000 pounds in profit that helped fund C18’s activities. Although clearly an incentive to grow the group in its traditional structure it was also the lucrative business that led to internal splits and finally Sergent leaving the organisation after falling out with Wilf Browning who was leading the music business.
Insurgency violence in the far-right is not a tactic that will likely go away. As we have seen recently it can involve a broad range of tactics and be adapted to the current context. Unfortunately it is a tactic that benefits from the increasingly decentralised and post-organisational far-right landscape that we are seeing today.
C18 was in many ways ahead of their time when it came to the leaderless resistance tactic. Sergent saw its potential but had difficulties translating it into practice, unfortunately that is much less of a challenge today. Today, it is driven by the ease to which one can be submerged into a world of far-right propaganda, explicit calls to violence and instructions on how to do it.
However, the case of C18 also shows that social media is not the only cause of the problem. Terms like “gamification” highlights a serious issue and how the modern far right’s mode of organising and rhetoric is deeply tied to social media and the internet but the world view that drives their actions is not that different from previous generations of the far right. Far-right terrorists today are a new iteration of an existing movement, inspired by its predecessors, rather than a completely new phenomenon.
C18 is not gone. The German offshoot of C18 was banned in January 2020 and splinter groups remain active in the UK. But it is largely inactive after many members of its leadership were arrested between 1998 and 2000. Cutting the head of what ultimately was a traditional, hierarchical organisation is a viable method to make it inoperable but this is getting increasingly difficult when the concept of group membership becomes increasingly irrelevant.