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Counterterrorism: Targeting the Real Threat


Dissolving terrorist networks is inherently difficult, and success is tough to measure. Concealed naturally, these groups generally hide their internal functions, institutions, and other chains of command. While a potentially vast cadre of fighters, sympathizers, and suppliers wait in the wings, the outdoors only glimpses a couple of leaders, who often function as figureheads for his or her organizations.

With little else to be, states often make targeting these leaders an important priority. From the Shining Path in Peru to ISIL in Syria and Iraq, security forces accomplish operations to capture or kill mid- and upper-level leaders with the idea that their absence could be the knockout blow necessary to defeat a terrorist organization. Recent attention has considered ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, that is rumored being still alive. Intelligence gathering and planning is likely underway in multiple countries to capture or kill the man who is constantly on the lead one of many world’s deadliest terror groups. But is leadership decapitation, simply because this technique is known, effective?

Leadership decapitation rests with a simple principle: getting an integral player in a terrorist group with the aspiration that their absence destroys morale and slows the group’s operational tempo. Such strategies can target both leaders, who may hold symbolic and strategic importance, and tactical pros who may be difficult to replace, like bomb makers. The policy has played a huge role in U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11, recently receiving praise from Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

While the logic is obvious, the strategy’s results are mixed and rely on the terrorist group’s internal dynamics. Smaller, younger groups, variously defined, are more susceptible to the consequences of leadership decapitation, as are groups lacking an established bureaucracy. Group type is assumed to try out a task as well, with religiously-oriented groups being better suited to withstand loosing a leader. Most vulnerable are groups that lean heavily with a single, charismatic leader who plays a central role inside organization.

Leadership decapitation ends some groups. The capture of Abimael Guzman and 14 other leaders from the Shining Path in 1992 quickly reduced the group to some shadow of the company’s former self. The group struggled to recover following your capture of Guzman, who exercised near-total control. After the assassination of Fathi Shaqaqi in 1995, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) struggled to locate a capable successor and only recovered years later.

However, not every groups get into these categories. With its deep roots in a conflict that extends back decades, raids and airstrikes have killed numerous Al-Shabaab leaders, yet it is constantly execute deadly attacks, including an October 2017 truck bombing that killed greater than 500 Somalis. Al-Qaeda has suffered losing numerous key leaders, including founder Osama Bin Laden and leaders of the company’s Yemeni and Syrian branches. Despite these losses from 2011 to 2015, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) been able to wait as well as expand its operations in Yemen until coordinated US-UAE operations in 2016 forced the group to get familiar with direct combat, which reduced, but would not eliminate, the threat resulting from the group in Yemen.

Perhaps no group is a bit more emblematic of resilience in the face of leadership decapitation than ISIL itself. Airstrikes, battles, and military operations have killed many with the group’s leaders within Syria and Iraq as well as numerous regional affiliates. Despite this, the group has proven capable of finding replacements. When ISIL’s chief strategist and # 2, Mohammed al-Adnani, was killed in late August 2016, the group announced his replacement about two months later. ISIL continues to maintain the capability to launch deadly attacks via its worldwide cells and the ones inspired by its calls to violence, from Afghanistan to Indonesia to Egypt.

As evidenced above, ISIL won’t fit the profile of terrorist groups susceptible to the consequences of leadership decapitation. Its well-known penchant for bureaucracy has allowed slain leaders being quickly replaced. While losing ISIL leaders has likely impacted the organization, it arguably has become affected to your greater degree from the overwhelming firepower directed at the business from every level, not just its leaders. US strikes have pounded the group’s military positions, financial stores, and it is fighters at every level, not simply its leader. The redundancy within ISIL’s organization and also the not enough a single, charismatic leader imply finding competent replacements is not a life or death decision for the terror group.

The most frightening facet of ISIL’s lethality arises from cells and sympathizers strewn around the globe. Central leadership can plan and order these attacks, but cells with organic roots in localized conflicts can also plan and influence their particular operations. While ISIL may be reduced to some sliver of the company’s former territory in Iraq and Syria, the threat presented by its worldwide affiliates isn’t likely to disappear with Baghdadi.

To be fair, the choice to pursue terrorist leaders is not a purely strategic calculation. Arguments about the consequences of leadership on terrorists’ operational capacity mean little to the people who have lost household or reside in fear as a result of terrorist attacks. And when managing groups who have hardly any public presence, targeting leaders can often be one of many only options available. It would be unwise to dismiss the other ways to care for pursuing a decapitation strike beyond control, just as it would be unwise to visualize that killing Baghdadi or some other leader is necessarily a knockout blow.

There is little doubt that ISIL, while still dangerous, is really a weakened organization. Recent success in pushing back the group, a refreshing vary from 2014 and 2015, if this appeared prepared to flip much of Syria and Iraq, is owed to many factors. A growing international recognition in the threat resulting from ISIL, a crackdown on those planing a trip to and from Syria and Iraq, and overwhelming firepower directed up against the group in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere have got all played a role in reducing the threat. However, if you don’t reason to trust that what threat remains of ISIL would disappear with Baghdadi, particularly in light with the group’s demonstrated resilience and dedication to terror.

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