Individuals working underground focus mostly on small-scale acts of sabotage and subversion that make the most of their skill and opportunity. Because they lack escape networks, and because they must be opportunistic, it’s ideal for their actions to be what French resisters called insaisissable–untraceable or appearing like an accident—unless the nature of the action requires otherwise.
Individual saboteurs are more effective with some informal coordination—if, for example, a general day of action has been called. It also helps if the individuals seize an opportunity by springing into action when those in power are already off balance or under attack, like the two teenaged French girls who sabotaged trains carrying German tanks after D-Day, thus hampering the German ability to respond to the Allied landing.
One individual resister who attempted truly decisive action was Georg Elser, a German-born carpenter who opposed Hitler from the beginning. When Hitler started the World War II in 1939, Elser resolved to assassinate Hitler. He spent hours every night secretly hollowing out a hidden cavity in the beer hall where Hitler spoke each year on the anniversary of his failed coup. Elser used knowledge he learned from working at a watch factory to build a timer, and planted a bomb in the hidden cavity. The bomb went off on time, but by chance Hilter left early and survived. When Elser was captured, the Gestapo tortured him for information, refusing to believe that a single tradesperson with a grade-school education could come so close to killing Hitler without help. But Elser, indeed, worked entirely alone.
Underground networks can accomplish decisive operations that require greater coordination, numbers, and geographic scope. This is crucial. Large-scale coordination can turn even minor tactics—like simple sabotage—into dramatically decisive events. Underground saboteurs from the French Resistance to the ANC relied on simple techniques, homemade tools, and “appropriate technology.” With synchronization between even a handful of groups, these underground networks can make an entire economy grind to a halt.
The change is more than quantitative, it’s qualitative. A massively coordinated set of actions is fundamentally different from an uncoordinated set of the same actions. Complex systems respond in a nonlinear fashion. They can adapt and maintain equilibrium in the face of small insults, minor disruptions. But beyond a certain point, increasing attacks undermine the entire system, causing widespread failure or collapse.
Because of this, coordination is perhaps the most compelling argument for underground networks over mere isolated cells. I’ll discuss coordinated actions in more detail in the next chapter: Decisive Ecological Warfare.
Since individuals working underground are pretty much alone, they have very few options for sustaining operations. They may potentially recruit or train others to form an underground cell. Or they may try to make contact with other people or groups (either underground or aboveground) to work as an auxiliary of some kind, such as an intelligence source, especially if they are able to pass on information from inside a government or corporate bureaucracy. But making this connection is often very challenging.
Individual escape and evasion may also be a decisive or sustaining action, at least on a small scale. Antebellum American slavery offers some examples. In a discussion of slave revolts, historian Deborah Gray White explains, “[I]ndividual resistance did not overthrow slavery, but it might have encouraged masters to make perpetual servitude more tolerable and lasting. Still, for many African Americans, individual rebellions against the authority of slaveholders fulfilled much the same function as did the slave family, Christianity, and folk religion: it created the psychic space that enabled Black people to survive.”6
Historian John Michael Vlach observes: “Southern plantations actually served as the training grounds for those most inclined to seek their freedom.” Slaves would often escape for short periods of time as a temporary respite from compelled labor before returning to plantations, a practice often tolerated by owners. These escapes provided opportunities to build a camp or even steal and stock up on provisions for another escape. Sometimes slaves would use temporary escapes as attempts to compel better behavior from plantation owners.7 In any case, these escapes and minor thefts helped to build a culture of resistance by challenging the omnipotence of slave owners and reclaiming some small measure of autonomy and freedom.
Individuals have some ability to assert power, but recruitment is key in underground sustaining operations. A single cell can gather or steal equipment and supplies for itself, but it can’t participate in wider sustaining operations unless it forms a network by recruiting organizationally, training new members and auxiliaries, and extending into new cells. One underground cell is all you need to create an entire network. Creating the first cell—finding those first few trusted comrades, developing communications and signals—is the hardest part, because other cells can be founded on the same template, and the members of the existing cell can be used to recruit, screen, and train new members.
Even though it’s inherently difficult for an underground group to coordinate with other distinct underground groups, it is possible for an underground cell to offer supporting operations to aboveground campaigns. It was an underground group—the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI—that exposed COINTELPRO, and allowed many aboveground groups to understand and counteract the FBI’s covert attacks on them. And the judicious use of sabotage could buy valuable time for aboveground groups to mobilize in a given campaign.
There are clearly campaigns in which aboveground groups have no desire for help from the underground, in which case it’s best for the underground to focus on other projects. But the two can work together on the same strategy without direct coordination. If a popular aboveground campaign against a big-box store or unwanted new industrial site fails because of corrupt politicians, an underground group can always pick up the slack and damage or destroy the facility under construction. Sometimes people argue that there’s no point in sabotaging anything, because those in power will just build it again. But there may come a day when those in power start to say “there’s no point in building it—they’ll just burn it down again.”
Underground cells may also run a safehouse or safehouses for themselves and allies. Single cells can’t run true underground railroads, but even single safehouses are valuable in dealing with repression or persecution. A key challenge in underground railroads and escape lines is that the escapees have to make contact with underground helpers without exposing themselves to those in power. Larger, more “formalized” underground networks have specialized methods and personnel for this, but a single cell running a safehouse may not. If an underground cell is conscientious, its members will be the only ones aware that the safehouse exists at all, which puts the burden on them to contact someone who requires refuge.
Mass persecution and repression has happened enough times in history to provide a wealth of examples where this would be appropriate. The internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II is quite well-known. Less well-known is the internment of hundreds of leftist radicals and labor activists starting in 1940. Leading activists associated with certain other ethnic organizations (especially Ukrainian), the labor movement, and the Communist party were arrested and sent to isolated work camps in various locations around Canada. A few managed to go into hiding, at least temporarily, but the vast majority were captured and sent to the camps, where a number of them died.8 In a situation like that, an underground cell could offer shelter to a persecuted aboveground activist or activists on an invitational basis without having to expose themselves openly.
Many of these operations work in tandem. Resistance networks from the SOE to the ANC have used their escape lines and underground railroads to sneak recruits to training sites in friendly areas and then infiltrated those people back into occupied territory to take up the fight.
Underground networks may be large enough to create “areas of persistence” where they exert a sizeable influence and have developed an underground infrastructure rooted in a culture of resistance. If an underground network reaches a critical mass in a certain area, it may be able to significantly disrupt the command and control systems of those in power, allowing resisters both aboveground and underground a greater amount of latitude in their work.
There are a number of examples of resistance movements successfully creating areas of persistence. The Zapatistas in Mexico exert considerable influence in Chiapas, so much so that they can post signs to that effect. “You are in Zapatista rebel territory” proclaims one typical sign (translated from Spanish). “Here the people give the orders and the government obeys.” The posting also warns against drug and alcohol trafficking or use and against the illegal sale of wood. “No to the destruction of nature.”9 Other Latin American resistance movements, such as the FMLN in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, created areas of persistence in Latin America in the late twentieth century. Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon have similarly established large areas of persistence in the Middle East.
Because working underground is dangerous and difficult, effective resisters mostly focus on decisive and sustaining operations that will be worth their while. That said, there are still some shaping operations for the underground.
This includes general counterintelligence and security work. Ferreting out and removing informers and infiltrators is a key step in allowing resistance organizations of every type to grow and resistance strategies to succeed. Neither the ANC nor the IRA were able to win until they could deal effectively with such people.
Underground cells can also carry out some specialized propaganda operations. For reasons already discussed, propaganda in general is best carried out by aboveground groups, but there are exceptions. In particularly repressive regimes, basic propaganda and education projects must move underground to continue to function and protect identities. Underground newspapers and forms of pirate radio are two examples. Entire, vast underground networks have been built on this principle. In Soviet Russia, samizdat was the secret copying of and distribution of illegal or censored texts. A person who received a piece of illegal literature—say, Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless—was expected to make more copies and pass them on. In a pre–personal computer age, in a country where copy machines and printing presses were under state control, this often meant laboriously copying books by hand or typewriter.
Underground groups may also want to carry out certain high-profile or spectacular “demonstration” actions to demonstrate that underground resistance is possible and that it is happening, and to offer a model for a particular tactic or target to be emulated by others. Of course, demonstrative actions may be valuable, but they can also degrade into symbolism for the sake of symbolism. Plenty of underground groups, the Weather Underground included, hoped to use their actions to “ignite a revolution.” But, in general—and especially when “the masses” can’t be reasonably expected to join in the fight—underground groups must get their job done by being as decisive as possible.