Killing Terrorist Leaders Is No Silver Bullet
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared as “Leadership Decapitation Is No Panacea” in our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
Jenna Jordan, Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019)
It is impossible to study international terrorism without reading and hearing repeatedly that the United States cannot kill its way out of the problem. When evaluating the efficacy of leadership decapitation in terms of a broader counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency campaign, it is critical to think beyond targeting individual leaders and to look more comprehensively at how to disrupt terrorist organizations writ large. In my own research on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is more effective to disrupt terrorist organizations and insurgent networks by focusing on dismantling supply lines, attacking logistical capabilities, and denying insurgents the ability to enjoy external support from both state and nonstate actors. This doesn’t mean that killing high-value targets is ineffective, but rather that decapitation is merely one of many tactics that should be used as part of a wider strategy and that its effectiveness is often likely to be situational.
Accepting this premise still leaves open the questions of how effective decapitation strikes can be, and under what circumstances they are likely to yield the highest return on investment. In her book Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations, Jenna Jordan seeks to answer the difficult question: Why does leadership decapitation of terrorist groups work in some cases, but not in others? Jordan’s book is a major contribution to the literature, and she should be recognized for her valuable research and commitment to bringing empirical evidence to bear on such a hotly contested issue. She deftly illustrates that removing high-value targets is not a panacea and, as the central focus of her book, examines when decapitation works, when it does not, and what accounts for variation across cases. There were two primary areas that I wished that Jordan had explored in more detail: the ways in which the new type of organizational approach that al-Qaeda pioneered affects the efficacy of decapitation strikes; and the known unknowns that can arise as a result of killing terrorist leaders.
The Organizational Structure of al-Qaeda
Befitting a scholarly work intended to develop generalizable findings, Jordan explores several different types of terrorist organizations. Taking a broader approach to case selection requires trade-offs when it comes to how deeply she can delve into any one group. All authors face trade-offs, and one can hardly fault Jordan for choosing to explore a broader universe of terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, I was left wanting a deeper dive into how decapitation strikes have affected al-Qaeda given its particularly complex organizational dynamics. Jordan calls al-Qaeda a “meta-organization” because it is “composed of many different and independent organizations and individuals characterized by their level of autonomy and their pursuit of shared goals.” I was left wanting more detail on al-Qaeda’s affiliates, especially in terms of how Jordan assesses the effects of decapitation strikes on these organizations and on their relationship to al-Qaeda central.
The first issue that deserves greater attention is the command and control exercised by al-Qaeda leaders. By the time U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, the founder and longtime leader of al-Qaeda Central in May 2011, some analysts had written him off as a marginalized figure who spent his time in hiding and had little impact on the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda’s global network. In reality, despite the suggestions that al-Qaeda’s top command was “isolated and irrelevant,” bin Laden remained an active leader who provided important input on tactics, operations, and strategy for the group. As Bruce Hoffman illustrated after reviewing documents found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, the al-Qaeda chieftain remained a hands-on leader until his last days. A more focused look at al-Qaeda’s command and control apparatus, especially in periods immediately following decapitation strikes, could have provided more granularity at exactly how impactful these targeted strikes actually were on al-Qaeda’s operational tempo.
Second, and relatedly, although bin Laden may have been a hands-on leader, his actual degree of command and control was limited by al-Qaeda’s organizational structure, which is fundamentally different than ethno-nationalist or secessionist terrorist groups of the past. Thus, removing bin Laden had little impact on al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Sahel, for example. Jordan’s book, while thorough in many respects, fails to discuss the interplay between the removal of top al-Qaeda leaders and how that impacted the day-to-day operations of the organization. From its earliest days, al-Qaeda proved it could operate as a hybrid entity, with its leadership spread between different countries. Both before and after bin Laden’s removal, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership remained involved in planning operations. Mid-level commanders were empowered to execute the organization’s strategic vision as they saw fit. Indeed, it was the “group of middle managers” that were able to “provide the connective tissue that links the top of the organization with its bottom and, thus, makes it possible for al-Qaeda to function as a coherent and operationally effective entity.” To the degree that targeted killing has been an effective tactic on its own against al-Qaeda, it has been where the United States used it to eliminate potential threats from external operations or to take out broad swaths of the al-Qaeda network, most notably against al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this is not the same as leadership decapitation.
Third, although not limited to the case of al-Qaeda, the effectiveness of leadership decapitation also relies partly on who replaces the deceased leader, demonstrating the importance of organizational structure and how that is affected by leadership losses at the uppermost echelons. There are several interesting counterfactuals to ponder in the wake of bin Laden’s death, including whether he would have been able to hold al-Qaeda together and prevent the split that led to the Islamic State if he had still been alive. No one knows whether the outcome would have been better or worse had bin Laden survived — these are, after all, subjective concepts — but it does appear that Ayman al Zawahiri has struggled to inspire the same level of allegiance. Now that al Zawahiri is in charge, if there is a general consensus among U.S. analysts that he is a completely ineffective leader, then it could make sense to allow him to remain alive despite the desire for rough justice against someone with so much American blood on his hands.
Jordan notes that al-Qaeda and its affiliates were targeted 288 times between 1995 and 2016, although as she concludes, “leadership targeting has been an ineffective strategy against al-Qaeda.” She goes on to write that “decapitation has been unable to significantly degrade and defeat al-Qaeda or any of its franchises, and barring the complete breakdown of the group’s structure or support, is unlikely to bring about its defeat.” One of her overarching conclusions describes why al-Qaeda has been largely immune from decapitation — the groups that are the most difficult to weaken through this approach are those that are bureaucratized, have substantial communal support, and adhere to an Islamist ideology. Forebodingly, this also describes the Islamic State, suggesting that it, too, may be able to sustain a degree of longevity far beyond the norm for most terrorist organizations.
Targeting the leader of a terrorist organization may be temporarily worthwhile and bring certain benefits, but it also leads to a series of second- and third-order consequences, which are something that Jordan could have discussed more in her book. To begin with, decapitation can reshape the composition of a terrorist or insurgent group, and not always to the benefit of counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency forces. As Cynthia Irvin has demonstrated through her research on ethno-nationalist actors, terrorist groups and insurgent movements consist of some combination of ideologues, radicals, and politicos. Ideologues are often vehemently against any negotiations and see armed struggle as the only path to victory. Radicals, while preferring violent ends to achieve goals, may be amenable to a political solution if they deem one viable. Politicos, finally, are those within the organization squarely focused on ending the conflict through peace talks or a negotiated settlement if the terms are acceptable. If a counter-insurgent force believes that removing a recalcitrant leader could lead to the ascension of a more moderate figure, it may be worth taking the calculated risk of targeting the more militant leader.
On the other hand, it is possible that leadership decapitation will lead more extreme forces to rise to the fore, or create the conditions for more violent splinter groups to emerge. For example, as I’ve argued in my recent book After the Caliphate, although killing Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was undoubtedly necessary, it could create the conditions for the fracturing of the Islamic State. This, in turn, could lead to the emergence of new, and in some cases more violent and operationally capable, splinter organizations. Policymakers, government officials, and military leaders should be prepared to deal with splinter groups as they emerge in the aftermath of what seems to be a relatively successful campaign against the parent group. With the Islamic State, these splinters could form their own, new organization, or be absorbed into existing franchise groups in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, or elsewhere. Research by Phil Williams and Paul Kan in the field of criminology, building on a concept initially developed by Richard Friman called “vacancy chains,” have shown how leadership decapitation efforts against violent drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have resulted in new opportunities for other criminal organizations. Some of them have proven more violent than the original target. Competition to fill power vacuums can also lead to a spike in violence as a “feeding frenzy” between groups eager to move into new territory brings with it battles over control of territory, supply lines, and access to both product and market. Jordan’s findings largely track with these conclusions, as she notes that decapitation does not increase the mortality rate of terrorist groups and, in some cases, even leads to more terrorist activity.
Another problem with decapitation strikes is the issue of “intel gain-loss,” or the decision over whether the value of collecting information from an enemy target is more worthwhile than destroying the target itself. If, by monitoring the leadership of a terrorist group, security and intelligence services are afforded an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the contours of the organization, how it is structured, and how it operates, this could be an argument in favor of eschewing a decapitation strike and continuing to monitor various forms of intelligence, including signals intelligence and human intelligence. This is not to say that valuable intelligence cannot be gleaned from decapitation strikes — it can, especially when collection is focused on reactions within the group to the loss of a terrorist leader. Put simply, the point is that decapitation should not be the default setting, but should be viewed as complementary to other aspects of a well-defined strategy.
Despite the amount of attention paid to the subject of leadership decapitation in both counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, it remains merely one of many approaches that security forces should adopt. A growing body of research, as discussed above, highlights the importance of targeting an organization’s logistical network, thus disrupting its flow of resources, including manpower, financing, and materiel. Terrorist groups seem more likely to survive the elimination of a leader, even a highly charismatic one like bin Laden, than they are to overcome the crippling of their supply infrastructure. This is especially the case when seeking to combat transnational organizations that can rely on a constellation of affiliates and franchise groups — a model adopted by both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and one that provides the global jihadist movement with a level of resilience that blunts the impact of decapitation strikes.
Too often, leadership decapitation is viewed as a panacea, as policymakers tout the removal of high-value targets to suggest a “turning point” that fails to materialize. It is correct to seek to decapitate terrorist organizations, but these are tactical actions, not strategic ones. If these tactical actions occur without a real strategy, they will have limited impact. Decapitation also fails to address the phenomenon of terrorist groups splintering, unless the proposed solution is to continuously target the leaders of those splinters as well, evoking well-worn clichés of playing “whack-a-mole.”
Finally, leadership decapitation is not a viable tactic when dealing with movements that adopt a “leaderless resistance” model, as pioneered by white supremacist extremists in the United States. Nor is leadership decapitation effective against movements and networks like al-Qaeda. One of the conclusions of Jordan’s case study on al-Qaeda is that it is an outlier. In Jordan’s words, “the al-Qaeda case is slightly different, in that al-Qaeda is not only one organization.” Yet, other than movements modeled around leaderless resistance and networks like al-Qaeda, there are few major terrorist threats that concern countries like the United States. This means that decapitation is, and may continue to be, of decreasing utility going forward, as other violent extremists adapt their approaches to mimic the organizational structures of terrorist groups that have been most successful in surviving.
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. He tweets at @ColinPClarke.