Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.
Sometimes a specialized community debates a topic that the general public considers a no-brainer. For example, the “decapitation thesis”: Is the assassination of “terrorist leaders” effective? Does it result in less violence and the demise of insurgent groups? “Duh,” says the man on the street, “Why are my tax dollars funding your research?”
Robin Wilcox, a senior fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society weighs in on the decapitation debate in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the assassination of al Qaeda leaders has been a good thing:
Bin Laden is simply not replaceable. The idea that Obama made a strategic misstep by killing a man responsible for the death of thousands of U.S. citizens and committed to killing thousands more is absurd. Rather than making him a martyr, Bin Laden’s killing demonstrated that he was, like the rest of us, mortal. And it warned terrorists everywhere that targeting U.S. citizens will bring retribution.
The killing of Awlaki, an American citizen, further illustrates why targeting certain Al Qaeda leaders is an excellent strategy. Operationally, Awlaki was not a huge loss to Al Qaeda. He had no military reputation to speak of. But he was an eloquent English-speaking lecturer, able to effectively reach out to Western Muslims and urge them to attack their homelands. He provided theological justification for jihad to the failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and he was in direct email contact with the Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. There is no Awlaki replacement within Al Qaeda’s ranks. His death in September 2011 has, at least for now, limited the group’s ability to get persuasive messages out to Western Muslims.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in 2003 and is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, is proof that the detention of high-value targets, though not always possible, is also an effective counter-terrorism measure. Al Qaeda was so reliant on Mohammed’s plans that variations of attacks he thought up in the early 1990s were being implemented as late as 2006. His reputation among jihadists for having conceived and coordinated the Sept. 11 attacks hasn’t been rivaled, and taking him out of action dealt a devastating blow to Al Qaeda.
Wilcox may be overplaying his hand a bit. Take Osama bin Laden. The Saudi had been irrelevant within his own organization for some time before his death. After being ousted from Afghanistan and having his funds frozen, he was little more than a figurehead — one whose supposed popularity among Muslim youth was widely exaggerated. Therefore, killing him did not make him a martyr. His death probably meant more to Americans than to young Muslims, who have their own actual revolutions to worry about – though things might have been different had he been killed in 1998 or 2002.
Similarly, I am skeptical about the impact Awlaki’s death had, as his importance within the jihadist movement has also been overstated. As Wilcox points out, the man was a propagandist, not an operational chief. It’s thus hard to measure the effect his assassination has had, but it would appear that his absence has not affected al Qaeda in Yemen, or so American officials keep telling us. (Counterterrorist alchemy may play a role in this assessment, as I’ve argued before.)
Where Wilcox is on firmer ground is in arguing the effectiveness of targeting midlevel operators who possess tactical knowledge and technical knowhow that is not easily replicated. Many of these individuals are relatively unknown to the public — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed being an exception — but their deaths are often serious blows to the organization.
Assassinating leaders, however, isn’t applicable to all insurgencies. Some studies have shown that this strategy is in fact relatively ineffective. According to political scientist Jenna Jordan the effectiveness of killing leaders depends on the groups’ history:
Simply focusing on the leadership of a terrorist organization rarely brings about the group’s demise. My study of approximately 300 cases of singling out the leadership of 96 terrorist organizations globally — including Al Qaeda and Hamas — between 1945 and 2004, shows that the likelihood of collapse actually declines for groups whose leaders have been arrested or killed.
For established terrorist organizations that are more than 20 years old, the likelihood that eliminating leaders will destroy the organization declines significantly. In fact, it becomes counterproductive as a group becomes more established. Large groups can bounce back from the removal of leaders; this almost never cripples groups with more than 500 members. Also, religious and separatist groups are difficult to destabilize. In fact, religious groups that have lost their leaders are less likely to fall apart than those that have not.
A second factor that may determine the effectiveness of targeting insurgent leaders — whether through assassination or detention — is the level of social support for insurgent organizations. Israeli forces have killed individual leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah time and again, which has yet result in the demise of these organizations. Since the 1970s, Spanish and French security forces have arrested dozens of ETA leaders. Like Hamas and Hezbollah, ETA was able to replace these leaders by drawing on its substantial social base for new recruits — that is until their base became fed up with armed struggle.
In cases where decapitation has worked, the groups in question lacked — or lost — social support. For example, the 1992 arrest of Abimael Guzmán, the leader Peruvian Sendero Luminaso, resulted in the almost total collapse of the guerrilla organization. While the cult of personality that Guzmán had formed around himself certainly played a role, the insurgents had by this period alienated much of their indigenous base by assassinating local leaders and massacring villagers suspected of collaboration, effectively sealing the group’s demise. Similarly, “al Qaeda in Iraq,” which cared little for securing a support base, declined rapidly following the killing of the group’s founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group did not, however, dissolve completely. Like their supposed Iraqi “franchise,” we can probably expect bin Laden’s organization to stagger on — much as it had prior to the death of their leader.
Wilcox does limit his argument to al Qaeda. However, this general argument will likely be – and has been — used by those within the counterterrorism field to justify drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. After all, al Qaeda is al Qaeda, right? The problem is that, unlike bin Laden’s organization, insurgents in Yemen and Somalia, as well as the Taliban in Pakistan, can draw on a significant support base — especially clan networks — that may make drone strikes against their leaders less than effective. Insurgents may simply promote midlevel commanders, while drawing on local recruits to replenish the ranks, unlike bin Laden’s al Qaeda with its uprooted transnational membership.
Furthermore, drone attacks that do not kill leaders may exacerbate this problem. According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedmann, only one out of seven drone attacks in Pakistan targets insurgent leaders. What’s worse is that it’s not always clear who’s being killed in these drone attacks since, as Glenn Greenwald argues, the Obama Administration defines a “militant” as “any human being whose life is extinguished when an American missile or bomb detonates.” The continued use of drone strikes — with the questionable “decapitation thesis” as its rationale — thus may be entirely counterproductive, producing more rather than less political violence.
One final point: sometimes it’s good policy not to target insurgent leaders for arrest or assassination. In Northern Ireland the British government, beginning in the late seventies, refrained from arresting the leadership of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. The governments rationale was that at some point they would have to negotiate with the Provisionals. Targeting leaders would not only create distrust between future negotiating partners, but it would leave a vacuum at the leadership level that would make finding a settlement more difficult.
Might this explain the reason why Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Jalaluddin Haqqani are still among the living?