Fluid Structures: Assessing Left-Wing Violent Extremist Groups’ Organizational Systems

April 8, 2024
Jessa Mellea  —  CEP Intern

Left-wing extremism and terrorism remain a significant form of ideologically motivated violence. Transnational connectivity and loose, leaderless networks—both offline and online—are key elements of this milieu’s operations. As with other extremist and terrorist phenomena that use these structures, this organizational structure presents challenges to security authorities. This blog is the third in a short series in which CEP aims to highlight the distinguishing characteristics of this extremist and terrorist movement and address individual case studies. Previous blog entries in this series can be found here and here.

Recent left-wing terrorist attacks, including an attempted bomb attack on a courthouse in Greece, an arson attack on an auto factory in Germany, and multiple attacks on communication infrastructure in Italy, have brought renewed attention to the left-wing extremist scene. In contrast to the groups that fueled the wave of left-wing extremist and terrorist violence of the 1970s and 1980s, which were characterized by organized cells, the current left-wing extremist scene has adopted different organizational structures, taking advantage of modern forms of communication and networking, particularly dedicated news media sites.

While the left-wing extremist movement remains diverse, many left-wing extremist groups active today operate in the style of “leaderless resistance.” Leaderless resistance, a term popularized in the 1980s by the American right-wing extremist Louis Beam, is a strategy that proposes that violent extremists should operate in small groups or as individuals, connected only by a common worldview and shared goals, sometimes with ideological leaders. When one extremist commits a violent attack, the other members of the movement are protected from detection by law enforcement because of the group’s decentralized nature. While left-wing extremist groups have long used dispersed networks to operate, and groups across the ideological spectrum are adopting these tactics, this organizational concept is helpful in understanding how modern left-wing extremist groups have adapted tactics through the utilization of the internet.

Rather than forming distinct, static cells, many left-wing extremists operate within a fluid network that regularly shifts in composition and even name. In one of their founding documents, Greek anarchist group Conspiracy of Fire Cells stressed that their label did not denote a group with fixed membership or a centralized structure, but instead individuals and small cells that engage in direct action (often, terrorist attacks) that may or may not be coordinated with other members of the network. The ideological basis for these attacks would not necessarily be ascribed to one specific, detailed doctrine, but would support a few central principles. They emphasize the anti-hierarchical, flexible nature of the group; no one member would take on “fixed, immutable roles.” Rather, members would decide themselves on what responsibilities to take on during attacks based on their own preferences. They note that when plans for an attack are not supported by all members of a group, those who want to carry out the attack would take the “autonomous initiative” to do so, often under a separate name for the temporary cell. The recent bomb attack on the Greek Ministry of Labor illustrates how left-wing extremist associations can fluctuate—the attack was claimed by a group called Revolutionary Class Self-Defense, and one of the suspected perpetrators allegedly has ties to the Conspiracy of Fire Cells.

The German-based left-wing network made famous by the trial of Lina E. operated in a similarly changeable manner. The network is suspected of carrying out multiple attacks between 2018 and 2020, mostly targeting right-wing extremists. A witness in the trial, who is a former member of the network, testified that the attacks were planned by a few key individuals and carried out with other members who had received training, as well as individuals on the fringes of the network who were invited to join specific assaults. The composition of the group committing each assault changed each time, and the witness testified that there were no set combinations of members.

These dispersed networks make many left-wing extremist movements difficult to track and disrupt. The strategy of leaderless resistance, as implemented by these movements, precludes centralized communication and large gatherings. Moreover, left-wing extremists often take steps to protect their privacy and security by using encrypted messaging services and keeping their activities clandestine until after attacks occur. These measures are undertaken not only to avoid monitoring by law enforcement, but also to prevent violence from or doxxing by right-wing extremists.

While violent left-wing groups are often less visible online than their right-wing counterparts, their networking, both locally and internationally, is supported by a robust array of news media websites specifically set up for left-wing organizing; such as IndyMedia, which is under observation in Germany by the domestic intelligence service, the Bundesverfassungsschutz. Many of these websites allow anyone to suggest or publish a blog post, avoiding the need for formal membership in a particular group. They act as a hub to collect and disseminate information to support left-wing extremist organizing. These sites serve as a mobilization tool for left-wing activists and extremists by publicizing upcoming protests and demonstrations. Calls for financial support, particularly fundraising to aid imprisoned left-wing extremists, are frequently facilitated through blog posts. The websites also function as a repository for tutorials and guides for organizing tactics. Some include instructions on how to create improvised explosive devices (IEDs), improvised incendiary devices (IIDs), and other weapons.

Though most left-wing extremist attacks in the European Union in the last ten years occurred in Southern Europe, transnational channels of communication between individuals in the scene could facilitate the dissemination of tactics and attack methods. This knowledge exchange could expand the capacity of other European groups, increasing their potential threat. These transnational networks are, among other contact methods, facilitated by the aforementioned news media sites.

One common form of transnational mobilization is solidarity demonstrations with imprisoned left-wing activists and extremists. The network of left-wing media sites publicizes details of incarcerated individuals’ treatment in prison and calls for protests or donations. These websites also publicize offline protests, which sometimes turn violent, in support of imprisoned extremists. One site included a post from a left-wing extremist saying they attacked the Greek consulate in Malmö in support of a Greek anarchist. Another post from German left-wing extremists claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a van in Hamburg in solidarity with a jailed Italian anarchist. On another site, a group in Leipzig claimed they burned six cars in solidarity. 

Modern left-wing extremist movements are becoming increasingly decentralized in their operational structures by implementing the tactics of leaderless resistance. These networks are constantly changing, with even co-conspirators in an attack not always knowing one another. However, the array of left-wing extremist news media sites creates a web connecting extremists across borders. The relative anonymity of these sites provides a medium for collaboration between these loose groups, with violent results.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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