Focus on killing head of Isis will distract from real threat

Delivering a fatal blow to terrorist leaders in an attempt to kill off the entire groups rarely has the desired effect and amounts to little more than militaristic box-ticking, writes Arie W Kruglanski

MANY believe that killing the leaders of terrorist groups such as Islamic State could change the course of events in Iraq and Syria.

Like the cutting off of a snake’s head, eliminating the chief of a terrorist organisation is assumed to deal it a fatal or near fatal blow. The US government, for instance, often boasts about killing major al-Qaeda leaders, and viewed such assassinations as a clear mark of progress in the global war on terror.

Yet there are reasons to question the premise that killing terrorist leaders is tantamount to progress. Indeed, rather than cutting off the head of a snake, killing off terrorist leaders resembles decapitating a hydra, the mythological monster reputed to replace severed heads with multiple new ones.

Admittedly, in some cases assassinating or arresting a major terrorist leader may paralyse the organisation for years. Such was the case with Abimail Guzman, the philosopher-leader of Peru’s Shining Path, and with Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, both of whom have been imprisoned for years. Fathi Shaqaqi, the founding chief of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was assassinated by Israeli security forces in 1995, which disrupted the organisation for a number of years.

In all these cases, however, the disruption was temporary and sooner or later the groups recovered their resolve and resumed the fight.

Moreover, major terrorist groups have adapted to the loss of leaders. Eliminated heads are typically replaced by those waiting in the wings. In addition to this, some organisations respond to assassinations by loosening their leadership structure and giving local chiefs greater freedom. This reduces their dependence on select few figures at the top and spreads the risk.

Palestinian organisations adopted this tactic after the assassination of their leaders by Israel. So did al-Qaeda, which dispersed power that was highly concentrated in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region to a worldwide network of affiliates carrying the al-Qaeda banner.

In defence of this Western strategy, some would respond by saying that terrorist leaders are in short supply. They posit that, sooner or later, their numbers will be exhausted, thus causing severe degradation of the organisations’ fighting capacity.

Available evidence does not unequivocally support this claim. If the group boasts a wide appeal, its supply pool of leadership talent may be large and able to replenish itself.

It is important to remember that the killing of Osama bin Laden, though of symbolic importance, didn’t seem to offer the US an appreciable strategic advantage in the fight against al-Qaeda. Nor did it appreciably alter the status of war against jihadist terrorism.

Occasionally, the “replacement” leader might actually be more adept and dangerous than the chief, so one needs to be careful what one wishes for.

Abu Musab al Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was a formidable foe, but not as formidable as his replacement, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Baghdadi is the current leader of Islamic State and is widely proclaimed to be one of the biggest threats to world security.

Similarly, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah, is considerably more dangerous to Israel than Abbas al-Musawi, the former head of the group assassinated in 1992.

That said, there is no question that the pressure of killing campaigns significantly degrades the organisations’ operational capability. Targeted leaders are forced to spend significant portions of their time looking over their shoulder and protecting themselves.

Their ability to communicate with subordinates is hampered, they are forced to frequently change locations, and often have to remain invisible for long periods. Not to be underestimated, either, is the psychological toll on leaders who are constantly on the run.

The Palestinian leaders’ reactions to targeted killings attest to the campaign’s impact. Time and time again, they have demanded that Israel end the policy. Abdel Aziz al- Rantisi, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s successor as the head of Hamas, conceded that the killing campaign posed significant hardships for his organisation.

All told, then, targeted killings have their place and remain a useful tool in the kit of counterterrorism strategists, if only for the constant pressure they bring to bear on terrorist organisations.

However useful they are in the short run, though, they are unlikely to bring an end to terrorism. They are a vehicle, not a panacea, and the billions of dollars spent on their implementation might not be worth it after all.


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