When we think of the model insurgent; we usually turn to an ‘insurgent leader’ like Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara or Mao Zedong. Yet this forgets a fundamental truth that both Che and Mao’s reputations are massively inflated.

Che was in fact a poor insurgent whose reputation is based on his part as the figurehead of the Cuban Marxist insurgency of Fidel and his brother Raul Castro as well as Camilo Cienfuegos, but in all of his other campaigns (i.e. Angola, Bolivia and his forgotten Argentinian insurgency) he was a complete and utter failure to the point of sheer embarrassment.

Mao on the other hand was heavily aided by the Soviet Union and was simply ‘damn lucky’ – as Charles Kraus has aptly put it – (2) in his timing for his campaign against Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists in the all-important Xinjiang province.

What this ‘leader-centric’ perspective also tends to overlook is the fact that guerrillas are not simply the sum of their ‘leaders’ but rather the guerrillas themselves and considerable intellectual effort has been expended on trying to create strategies to ‘combat’ such guerrilla insurgencies. (3)

Such works – which also include Robert Taber’s seminal ‘War of the Flea’ – assume that a guerrilla insurgency is an organized effort with a command structure of some kind even at the level of the insurgent cells that draws heavily on support and infrastructure from a disaffected population.

The problem with this view is that it relies on a pre-internet understanding of humanity and communications. Guerrillas can still coalesce into a formal structure and even a state as seen by the almost ex nihilo creation of the ‘Islamic State’ in 2014, but the limitations of such a formal structure are obvious in that same state’s quick annihilation by but a small part of the military strength of several other established and well-armed states such as the United States, United Kingdom, Syria and Iraq.

By formalizing what had previously been informal ‘Islamic State’ made it possible for its enemies to simply demolish its infrastructure and insurgent cadres because they changed their strategy to fight their opponents on the battlefield that the latter was strongest in and preferred rather than playing to their strengths as insurgents.

This is 20th century thinking in a 21st century world

Richard Ramirez – the infamous ‘Night Stalker’ of Los Angeles – is by contrast an excellent model to understand how effective an informal guerrilla war can be in so far as he didn’t follow one particular modus operandi (i.e. he killed with anything that came to hand or he could get his hands on) and was thus undetected as a serial killer for longer than say a ‘Son of Sam’ or a ‘Jack the Ripper’.

His targeting was difficult to predict because it was random within a very populated area and he didn’t have only one class of victim but struck at a very wide range.

He also lived very much off the grid and was thus very difficult to track down by authorities.

Thus when we realize that the only reason Ramirez was caught was a combination of him ‘going on the grid’ and massive amounts of resources being pumped in to the Los Angeles government infrastructure. We can see why the informal model of guerrilla warfare used by pre-geographically formalized ‘Islamic State’ was so successful – i.e. it was difficult to predict where they were going to attack and who the target would be (as they had so many ideological enemies) while their cells were largely independent and didn’t rely on a formal command structure per se and were also ‘off the grid’ so were difficult to detect and eliminate – and how that type of informal ‘leaderless resistance’ around an idea by tiny groups and individuals can effect radical systemic change by causing the system to have to deplete a vast amount of material and human resources to combat one individual and/or a tiny group of like-minded individuals.

Multiply that by a few hundred or even just a few dozen and it begins to put real strain on the system’s ability to maintain itself and it is forced to either accept the new security reality of relative insecurity or to cut material support to its citizens in some way or another. Put enough strain on the system and it will collapse like a pack of cards as Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union did in its turn, which is why I have been gratified to see the alleged mass shooters at a variety of locations plead ‘Not Guilty’ and force the system to spend large amounts of scare resources to prosecute them and prove them ‘Guilty’ in a court of law.

It also worth saying that just because resistance does not have a defined leadership group. It does not therefore mean that one cannot quickly coalesce e at a later date as was shown by ‘Islamic State’ quickly transitioning form an informal borderless and largely leaderless organization tp a traditional top-down hierarchy governing a swathe of territory and providing the benefits an services of a traditional government.

In summary; the model insurgent of the 21st century is less the ‘heroic’ actions of Che and Mao but rather the lone wolves who take matters in to their own hands. Say what you like about them, but they acted on their beliefs and not many people these days on any side of the political spectrum can say that.


  1. Malcolm Deas, 2010, ‘“Putting Up” with Violence: Ernesto Guevara, Guevarismo, and Columbia’, p.137 in Paulo Drinot (Ed.), 2010, ‘Che’s Travels: The Making of a Revolutionary in 1950s Latin America’, 1st Edition, Duke University Press: Durham; Ann Zulawski, 2010, ‘The National Revolution and Bolivia: What Did Che See?’, p. 203 in Drinot, Op. Cit.
  2. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/how-stalin-elevated-the-chinese-communist-party-to-power-xinjiang-1949
  3. For example: Max Boot, 2013, ‘Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present’, 1st Edition, W. W. Norton: New York