This article was originally published on Homeland Security Today.
By Erik Kleinsmith, Associate Vice President, Public Sector Outreach, American Military University
After months of persistent demonstrations, riots, and looting, we are
witnessing many U.S. cities devolve into boarded-up ghost towns during
the day and war-torn disaster zones by night. The riots of 2020 have
presented a multi-faceted and complex challenge for anyone seeking to
maintain the rule of law and order.
For police investigators, analysts, and anyone else simply trying to
makes sense of this never-ending cycle of violence, the most important
task is to understand the activist groups involved: Black Lives Matter
(BLM), Antifa, or various opposing groups such as the Proud Boys or
[Related: Civil Unrest 2020: A Toxic Mix of Three Elements]
Both mainstream and social media have continued to shed light on this
problem, but they have also served to fan the flames of unrest by
misinforming, spinning, and pushing political agendas with their
coverage. Because of this, the line that separates peaceful protests and
violent anarchists have blurred to the point that these groups now seem
indistinguishable from each other. While many of these groups operate
in decentralized cells or chapters, the notion that they cannot be
patterned, predicted, and preempted is simply false.
Profiling Activist Groups
As I cover in my recent book,
every threat group can be profiled and analyzed according to a common
set of components. One of the most critical components to understand
about these political radicals lies in analyzing how a they sustain and
support themselves (i.e., where do they get their funding,
transportation, recruits, and even the public support and sympathy for
One helpful analytic technique is to lay out a group’s sustainment
and logistic activities according to four levels of involvement. As
shown in the diagram, each level has its own distinct set of members and
Leadership and Members
While a group like BLM or Antifa may have thousands of active and
passive members, the smallest subset of their active members is their
core leadership. These can be either their national organizers, chapter
or cell leaders, or simply their tactical leaders, agitators, and crowd
motivators on the street.
Some groups may have national founders and representation like BLM
while others may rely almost exclusively on independent or
semi-autonomous chapters or cells. BLM may claim that they are a
decentralized movement, but they differ from other prominent groups like
Antifa in that they are actually incorporated with a centralized
founding and leadership structure.
For other groups like the Boogaloo Bois or Antifa, the lack of a
national leadership structure requires analysis and understanding of
their universal guiding principles and applying that to each chapter’s
organization and actions more specifically. These groups may differ in
size and overarching ideology, but their methods and structure within
these four levels follow similar patterns.
The core leadership, along with their activist members in the next
level of involvement, are the foot soldiers of their respective
movements. These are the actual “card-carrying” members who have either
gone through some sort of recruitment or screening process and have
pledged themselves to the group. These two levels are distinct from
their supporters and sympathizers as they are the ones who have crossed
the threshold of conducting operations, including violence and other
Supporters and Sympathizers
Understanding group membership is important, but the most insightful
analysis about political radical groups can often be learned from those
who aren’t members of the group at all (i.e., their supporters and
sympathizers). The relative size of these two levels actually dwarf the
size of the leaders and activist participants in terms of numbers of
people and it is in these areas where analysis will find an entire set
of strengths and weaknesses about the organization in question.
Support and sympathetic activities include the active and passive,
legal and illegal, and even the witting and unwitting. For example,
those who march, protest, or post support on social media for the Black
lives matter movement, may not know about or entirely agree with the
doctrine of Black Lives Matter—the activist political organization—which
includes some previously known socialist and Marxist principles.
Regardless, their participation provides critical moral or sympathetic
support to the group as a whole. And whether they know it or not, those
celebrities or politicians who donate to the bail-out and legal defense
of political radical groups have jumped from passive to active
supporters no matter how much they may disagree with the violence
conducted by the most ardent radicals of that group.
Sustainment and Logistics
For law enforcement and others who seeking answers in how these
groups operate, understanding the four levels of involvement also
requires how sustainment and logistical operations function within each
of them. This includes both the short- and long-term aspects of funding,
communications, transportation, weaponization, recruitment, and
For example, you can deal with the violence of today’s activist
groups, but tomorrow’s members are currently sitting in the outer two
levels of involvement. Recruitment of new members requires identifying
those whose ideology and predispositions is already in line with the
group. They only need to be accessed, weighed, hardened, and admitted to
increase their ranks.
Conversely, once a group’s recruitment, funding, and logistical
support dries up, the group itself can no longer sustain itself and
ceases to exist. Law enforcement strategies to quell unrest in a
particular city can be successful in the short term, but until a
long-term plan is implemented to delegitimize, interdict violent
offenders, and enforce the rule of law, the most violent and radical
wings of these groups will continue to prosper and commit the heinous
crimes we see today unabated. Even in this case, each level of
involvement will require a different plan that goes far beyond simply
identifying and arresting perpetrators of violence.
About the Author: Erik
Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in
Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University.
He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio
manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin.
Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane
Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger, tracking
Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He is the author of the 2020 book, Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife, son, and daughter.