Examining Extremism: U.S. Militant Anarchists
By: Grace Hwang
Anarchists in the United States promote an alternative societal structure—one opposed to the existence of the U.S. government. Although anarchy exists as a broader political ideology, this piece will only analyze militant anarchists who promote the use of violence to induce societal change. This analysis provides a general overview of U.S. militant anarchists’ history, ideology, organizational structure, and targets and tactics. It concludes with an assessment that militant anarchists will remain an enduring but relatively low threat to the United States in relation to other extremist movements.
Anarchism formally emerged in Europe during the late nineteenth century as a political ideology that rejected the authority of the state. European anarchists influenced the development of U.S. anarchism, which particularly resonated with the U.S. labor movement. The union of the two movements triggered the 1886 Haymarket Riot, a workers’ strike for an eight-hour workday that ended with a deadly explosion. Although the perpetrator was never caught, police arrested and charged eight anarchists. Anarchism became further integrated with the workers’ movement when on September 6, 1901, U.S. anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley, whom he believed to be an enemy of the working people and the head of a corrupt government.
In response, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to deport noncitizens identifying as anarchists through the Immigration Act of 1903, which later aided in the deportation of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. Followers of Galleani, known as Galleanists, conducted a series of bombings in 1919 in eight cities that targeted law enforcement, judges, and politicians—including Attorney General Alexander Palmer. The bombing on Palmer’s house triggered a government response, led by J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation, who oversaw the 1919–1920 Palmer Raids and arrested thousands of suspected anarchists.
Despite the mass arrests and deportations, U.S. anarchists continued to advocate for social issues as well as socialist and communist causes. Following the wave of social change in the 1960s, the Weather Underground Organization, an anarcho-communist group, conducted a campaign of 25 bombings in order to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and the “empire” of the United States. Militant anarchists reemerged at the “Battle for Seattle” during the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference held in Seattle, Washington, when protesters assaulted officers and caused millions of dollars in property damage in opposition to labor rights, sustainable economies, and human rights abuses from globalization.
Modern U.S. anarchists began actively protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 to show solidarity with the indigenous-resistance movement. The United States also saw a rise in anarchists taking part in protests during 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd and racial injustice.
At the core of anarchism is the belief in an individual’s uninhibited freedom. Anarchists view any social relationship with a power dynamic that is enforced by threats as inherently restrictive, and they therefore oppose government in any form. Anarchists strive to achieve a society based on self-determination and mutual aid in which individuals can live out their freedom to the extent that it does not interfere with the freedom of others. Beyond this central belief, anarchism is divided into a multitude of sub-ideologies that differ in their view on implementing the principles of anarchism into society. These sub-ideologies include anarcho-collectivism, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, mutualism, anarchism without adjectives, agorism, anarcho-capitalism, crypto-anarchism, egoist anarchism, green anarchism, anarcho-primitivism, neo-Luddism, anarcho-pacifism, religious anarchism, and anarcha-feminism—to name a few.
While many anarchists have influenced antifascists and other far-left extremists—and cases do exist of cooperation—fundamentally, they are motivated to achieve different societal end states, particularly in their desire for abolition of the state rather than reform. Anarchists are also not exclusively placed on the far-left spectrum of extremism, and far-right national anarchists who advance anarchy to achieve white separatism do exist.
The first self-proclaimed anarchist and mutualist was Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who notably stated, “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” Militant anarchists choose to live out this philosophy by seeking to destabilize and destroy symbols of the state—including its borders, financial systems, and governing bodies—through violent methods labeled as “propaganda by deed.” In contrast to most anarchists who conduct nonviolent direct action—which includes occupying locations such as military bases, universities, houses, or factories—militant anarchists use violence as a means to produce tangible change in the current social system. These violent tactics are shared through resources such as The Anarchist Cookbook, which contains instructions on how to construct homemade bombs and weapons.
Anarchists organize in informal and decentralized networks that often assemble at the local, community level. These small gatherings of individuals are often referred to as affinity groups and are formed to carry out propaganda by deed. These affinity groups, however, usually disband after carrying out an attack, making it difficult for law enforcement to track down perpetrators.
Individuals can also communicate over online platforms that are organized by larger anarchist networks. For example, some anarchists maintain a Facebook page—the International of Anarchist Federations (IAF)—that brings together anarchist groups and organizations from around the world. Meanwhile, other militant activists gather though organizing anarchist networks, including Anonymous, a digital hacker collective; the Youth Liberation Front, a network of autonomous youth collectives; and It’s Going Down, the largest online website of anarchist news. The ability to connect online allows militant anarchists to maintain a network that is diverse in ideology and transnational in reach.
Tactics and Targets
According to data compiled by the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, which tracks terrorist attacks and plots in the United States from January 1994 to January 2021, anarchists have conducted 30 of the total 980 identified attacks and plots. This data set defines terrorism as the deliberate use—or threat—of violence by non-state actors in order to achieve political goals and create a broad psychological impact. While anarchists have used other tactics, including doxing, vandalism, and sit-ins, these incidents did not meet the criteria for terrorism.
Anarchists target individuals and institutions that represent symbols of power or the authority of the state. Since 1994, 56 percent of targets were government, military, and police personnel and facilities; 20 percent were transportation and infrastructure; 16 percent were businesses; and 6 percent were private individuals. For example, in July 2019 self-proclaimed anarchist and Antifa activist Willem Van Spronsen attempted to ignite a propane tank and launch firebombs near the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Tacoma, Washington.
Weapons used by anarchists since 1994 are overall composed of 76.6 percent explosives and incendiaries, 10 percent melee weapons such as knives, 6.6 percent firearms, and 6.6 percent other types—of which two attacks involved sabotage. For example, Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, was one of the most infamous neo-Luddite anarchists and mailed 16 bombs from 1978 to 1995 to advocate for nature-based anarchism. Modern anarchists still favor explosives, as demonstrated by incidents such as on May Day in 2020, when militant anarchists firebombed an Amazon delivery vehicle in Los Angeles County in retaliation for Amazon’s provision of services to ICE. Most recently, anarchist attacks throughout 2020 took place at protests and were intended to protect protesters from being arrested or to harass law enforcement.
While there is a long and violent history of anarchism in the United States, the threat that anarchists pose has evolved. Though anarchists remain a persistent problem in the United States, they pose a low-level threat—both in terms of lethality and rate of attacks—in comparison to other extremist movements.
Anarchism is a persistent threat that will challenge domestic security in the United States. The end goal of anarchists—the eventual downfall of the U.S. government—is inherently at odds with the United States. Furthermore, the use of social media allows anarchists to remain anonymous yet connected, thwarting law enforcement efforts to prevent militant anarchists from organizing. For example, on July 25, 2021, anarchists organized rallies in more than 20 cities with the use of the hashtag #J25 on Twitter.
Anarchists, however, present a low threat to the United States in comparison to other extremist movements, such as white supremacists. Anarchist attacks have a very low rate of lethality, and only two fatalities resulted from the 30 attacks conducted since 1994. This is likely because militant anarchists in the United States attack property and infrastructure (92 percent of attacks and plots since 1994) more often than private individuals (6 percent).
There is the possibility that as far-right violent extremism grows in the United States, far-left violent extremism—particularly violent retaliatory acts by anarchists—will also grow in response. Accordingly, U.S. government officials and law enforcement agencies should focus on mitigating the growth of extremism by expanding their data collection and analysis. A data-driven response will enable U.S. government officials to prioritize and counter the greatest threat to U.S. security—which is currently violent far-right extremists, not militant anarchists.
Grace Hwang is a program coordinator and research assistant with the Burke Chair in Strategy and Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.