June 23, 2020 | Insight

America in 2020: “Insurrection” or “Incipient Insurgency”?

June 23, 2020 | Insight

America in 2020: “Insurrection” or “Incipient Insurgency”?

In the two weeks of disorder that followed the death of George Floyd, 200 cities imposed curfews; 31 states and the District of Columbia called out the National Guard; active-duty U.S. troops deployed in the capital; helicopters buzzed protesters; and police armored vehicles appeared on the streets, while Predator drones and other aircraft flew surveillance racetracks over Minneapolis and 14 other cities. Amid the tear gas and brick-throwing, more than 11,000 people were arrested; hundreds were hurt, and at least 20 were killed. Extremists on both the left and right exploited the chaos. Millions heard the words “Antifa” and “Boogaloo” for the first time and instantly decided, on purely partisan grounds, that they knew precisely what the problem was and that – oddly enough – the same political opponents they already hated were to blame. But the truth is more complex, and a term used by both sides offers some clarity here: “insurrection.”

In an interview on June 3, California Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters rejected the term “rioting,” which she considers racist, to describe the unrest. Instead, she said, “I choose to call it an insurrection.” The following day, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote that under today’s circumstances, “the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military ‘or any other means’ in ‘cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws.’” The controversy around Cotton’s piece – which prompted the purging of New York Times opinion editor James Bennet – obscured the fact that Cotton and Waters share a similar assessment, while differing on the response. But is that assessment accurate?

“Insurrection” has a specific meaning under U.S. law. It means “a violent uprising by a group or movement acting for the specific purpose of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers.” Insurrection is not mere rioting, looting, or mob violence, even if politically motivated. Nor is it simply the exclusion of government from a no-go area such as Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It is an organized, armed uprising with the intent of overthrowing and replacing governing authority. Insurrection, then, is narrower than insurgency, which the military defines as “organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” This has implications for how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies approach the problem.

A decade ago, when I began studying the organization and tactics of groups that are openly arming and training for conflict inside the United States (roughly 380 right-leaning militias and 50 left-wing armed groups), I approached an FBI friend with a simple question: “How is this legal?” He responded with a question of his own: “Are they advocating the armed overthrow of the state? If they’re not, and they’re not violating other laws such as firearms statutes, what they’re doing is perfectly legal.”

For the most part, in fact, U.S. armed groups do not advocate armed overthrow of the state. Left-wing militias describe themselves as community self-defense organizations or above-ground militant formations engaged in “active resistance” – resisting, rather than overthrowing the state. On the right, militias call themselves “constitutionalists” and “patriots” who, far from advocating the overthrow of the government, pledge to “uphold the law and the Constitution.”

A few groups, such as the white-separatist Northwest Front, seek “an independent and sovereign White nation in the Pacific Northwest” but aim to achieve it through internal migration and demographic change, not violent insurrection. Likewise, “accelerationists” on the Marxist or environmentalist left and the neo-Nazi right promote violence to trigger class war, save the planet by culling the human plague, or provoke “racial holy war.” Some fit the definition of terrorist groups, but it would be a stretch to call them insurrectionists. Many on the far right regard the current crisis as a deep-state provocation and have been warning each other to sit it out, lest they be blamed: Neo-Nazi accounts on the secure-messaging app Telegram are using the hashtag #WeDidntStartTheFire.

So, some do not meet the definition of insurrection, since they are not pursuing the “specific purpose of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers,” or because they are not engaged in an armed uprising. Many also fail to meet the organizational threshold of being a “group or movement” – in some cases, by design.

Consider Antifa. Individuals and local chapters self-identify as members, are recognized as such by others, and conduct pre-planneddirect action,” which in the Antifa lexicon means confrontational violence to disrupt opponents. Direct action forms part of a mix of methods known as “diversity of tactics.” Antifa groups have websites, Facebook pages, and social media tools; study the tactics of other groups; host training events; and have thought-leaders, such as Mark Bray and Matthew N. Lyons. Antifa action is carried out by self-recruited, self-synchronized cells known as “affinity groups,” which collaborate loosely in clusters and apply something akin to swarming “netwar” tactics both in real life and online. Antifa, in this sense, operates like a militant mash-up between the hacker collective Anonymous and the Occupy movement, not as a formal organization with a central staff or membership list. Declaring Antifa a terrorist organization – as President Donald Trump has threatened to do – would thus be fraught with practical problems and civil rights concerns.

There is cross-pollination here. Just as right-wing groups borrowed accelerationism from an earlier generation of Marxists, modern Antifa draw heavily on the organizing method of leaderless resistance, pioneered by white supremacist leader Louis Beam in the 1980s and picked up by jihadist groups as a way to operate under pervasive, but constitutionally constrained, law enforcement. Similarly, Antifa have co-evolved through repeated rounds of street combat with their arch-enemies Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and Identity Evropa, until these groups now resemble each other and fill similar niches of the left and right within an overall conflict ecosystem.

None of these groups could be considered insurrectionists in the formal, U.S. legal sense. Still less could this term be applied to the unorganized looters who pillaged property or to the mobs that attacked police precincts over the past several weeks. These people, however violent, were committing acts of civil disturbance, property destruction, and assault that are well-addressed by ordinary civil and criminal law. And of course, protesters legitimately exercising the First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” are committing no crime whatsoever and should be protected, supported, and – most importantly – heard.

In this respect the argument that the protests have been “largely peaceful” may be true, but it is also irrelevant. Only a tiny minority – 2 to 5 percent – of individuals in insurgencies, civil wars, or criminal gangs actually commit violence. In Iraq during the “Surge,” my team started from the assumption that 20 percent of insurgents would prove so irreconcilably violent that they would never negotiate and must therefore be killed or captured. We were off by an order of magnitude –the true number was not 20, but 2 percent. Likewise, the nonprofit Cure Violence has found that only 2 to 3 percent of gang members engaged in violence, while an alternative name for the militia – Three Percenters – rests on the assertion that only 3 percent of American colonists took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War.

Any guerrilla leader knows that it takes only a tiny violent cadre to turn civil unrest, street disorder, and social discontent into armed insurrection, given appropriate conditions. Che Guevara’s “focoism” theory – despite many failures in practice – is founded on his real-world observation that a small armed element of a few hundred guerrillas at most, operating in the mountains and along the urban fringe, could create revolutionary change when combined with mass urban unrest, strike action, legal political organization, and underground resistance in the cities and plains of Cuba. Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Nepal’s Maoist guerrillas, and the Continental Bolivarian Movement in Latin America specialize in this technique. Several successful “color revolutions” have used some variant of it, and American groups – from far-left Antifa to right-wing accelerationists – are fully aware of the approach.

Thus, as this month’s disorder fades, the main long-term impact may be its radicalizing effect on a tiny minority of participants who join more violent groups as a result. It is commonplace in insurgencies for guerrilla talent spotters to identify recruits through street violence, inducting them into armed, organized groups over time. More broadly, the military concept of insurgency –subversion plus violence, intended to seize, nullify, or challenge political control – may be more applicable here than insurrection.

One possible interpretation is that America may be in what the CIA Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency calls “incipient insurgency.” This encompasses pre-insurgency and organizational stages; it may involve inchoate action by a range of groups, followed by organization, training, acquisition of resources, and building external and public support, then increasingly frequent antigovernment incidents displaying improved organization and forethought. Many simultaneous proto-insurgencies can coexist, and it may be impossible to determine which (if any) of them will progress to a more serious stage.

Clearly, current conditions in the United States match some – though not all – of these criteria. There is no reason why, even with today’s toxic political polarization, we must inevitably slip further toward conflict. But if we want to avoid that risk, it is essential to recognize that it does exist and that, “insurrection” or not, the best thing to do is to treat the current unrest as a wake-up call and act urgently to address it.

David Kilcullen serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Domestic Extremism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy