Friday, September 9, 2016
The “Decapitation” Strategy
Cut off the head of the terrorist organization, and the resulting chaos and demoralization will defeat your enemy. This has been standard military lore for a very long time. Our obsession with killing or capturing Osama bin Laden seemed laden with a deep message for al Qaeda leadership. We will get you. Ayman al Zawahiri took over immediately following bin Laden’s fatal meeting with Seal Team Six, and he is still the man in charge. But al Qaeda has been marginalized, not by this “decapitation” strategy… but by raw usurpation by ISIS, a terrorist organization that simply replaced what they believed was a fairly weak and ineffective “old world” body of “doddering” Sunnis ancients.
Indeed, ISIS seems to have been well-designed to withstand assaults on its most senior leaders. While there are clearly top-level leaders and functional support services, ISIS is efficiently compartmentalized within their overall rule system. Their field commanders, with lots of underlings ready to step up, have fairly autonomous control of their separate regional military operations, and the bureaucracy that steps into governed conquered cities operates without much specific direction from the top. But we still love to target powerful leaders with “elimination” in mind.
We are even battling over which superpower killed which terrorist leader! “ISIS announced the death of senior leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, its chief spokesman and an expert in social media and crude terror attacks outside Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon reported the Syrian national was targeted in an airstrike but cautioned that it was too early to confirm his death. The Russians this morning took credit and said they also launched their own strike, the same as the Americans.” Washington Post (Daily 202), August 31st. Very little happened at a macro level within ISIS that al-Adnani did not have a serious voice about. Did his death change anything? Probably not at all.
“[Scholars] have struggled to find evidence that killing leaders is an effective way to dismantle terrorist organizations, instead finding ample evidence that it makes little difference. That research seems to apply especially to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, whose attributes make it resilient to losing even a top figure like Mr. Adnani.
“Two features make a terrorist group able to withstand a senior officer’s death, according to research by Jenna Jordan, a Georgia Tech professor and a leading expert on the subject.
“The first is popular support. Groups need a steady stream of recruits and a pool of potential new leaders. Support among civilians in areas in which the groups primarily operate also makes them more stable, by broadening support networks and helping them to safely retrench when needed. Leaders are usually killed in or near communities that support them, resulting in those communities rallying behind the terrorist group and against whoever did the killing.
“While it might be difficult to imagine that a community would support the Islamic State, the group’s continued control over parts of Syria and Iraq and the recruits flooding in from abroad demonstrate its appeal. Religious groups are even better at absorbing attacks, Professor Jordan found, because their appeal is based on a shared identity that transcends any individual leader.
“The second feature is not something usually associated with groups like the Islamic State: bureaucracy. The more a terrorist group resembles a corporate organizational chart — often with administrative, payroll and logistical staff — the more stable it is, and the better able to handle a leader’s death.
“Just like any other bureaucracy, such groups have clearly delineated hierarchies, internal rules and divisions of responsibility. That clarity means it is easy to replace a leader with a deputy. It also makes the organization stable: If one cog falls out, the rest of the machine can still function.
“For a group as large and complex as the Islamic State, the infrastructure is simply too large for any one person, even a top leader, to make or break its future.” New York Times, August 30th. It is equally obvious that the size and maturity of the terrorist organization impacts the effectiveness of “decapitation.” Where there is a single, charismatic leader, early in that structure’s development, where the group still relies on that individual (and his immediate coterie of leaders), the strategy just might be effective. But we simply do not focus on these small groups, although perhaps we should. By the time a terrorist organization rises to a level of serious global concern, such organizations are usually already layered with leaders, a hierarchy ready to fill voids quickly and efficiently. The terrorist response to “decapitation” efforts? Decentralization.
A June 2012 report (The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation in Combating Insurgencies) from Harvard’s Belfer Center (in the John F. Kennedy School of Government) discussed the underlying issues: “Leadership decapitation significantly increases states' chances of tamping down militant violence and defeating insurgencies. As such, it should come as no surprise that decapitation is an extremely common policy, regardless of the ethical objections and legal ambiguities that surround it. Despite the evidence of leadership decapitation's effectiveness, scholars and policymakers should consider what it is not. Although decapitation's impact may be significant in many instances, it is not a silver bullet; other factors will matter greatly in most cases and be decisive in many. Decapitation can help states' efforts against militants, but it is more effective as part of a larger strategy than as a stand-alone tactic.”
Since that report, many scholars have reexamined the underlying result of deploying that decapitation strategy. If you take these studies seriously, these efforts can be fairly expensive and ineffective, often drawing powerful negative responses from local constituencies… even to the extent of enhancing terrorist recruitment efforts.
The consensus? “[K]illing or capturing terrorist leaders — a strategy known, colorfully, as ‘decapitation’ — does not work… Robert A. Pape, a University of Chicago professor, wrote in a much-cited 2003 study that Israel and other governments had spent ‘over 20 years’ focused on killing or capturing terrorist leaders and found ‘meager success.’
“‘Although decapitation of suicide terrorist organizations can disrupt their operations temporarily, it rarely yields long-term gains,’ Professor Pape wrote… It can, in some cases, even backfire. Governments that engage in targeted killings risk resetting ongoing political negotiations. Daniel Byman, a Brookings Institution scholar who focuses on Israeli counterterrorism, has written that a policy of ‘decapitation’ may have led Palestinian terrorist groups to decentralize, ultimately making them more of a threat.
“Still, the research is necessarily fuzzy. As one paper laments, definitive conclusions would require setting up an experimental terrorist group, which ‘is neither desirable nor feasible.’… That paper, by Patrick B. Johnston, a RAND Corporation researcher, is more supportive of ‘decapitation’ strikes, however. Mr. Johnston found that repeated strikes against a terrorist group can, in some cases, increase the chances of a group’s defeat. But such strikes alone, he found, are not enough.
“What these studies share is an acknowledgment that terrorist groups are, in at least some important respects, a political phenomenon. They cannot be fully defeated without addressing their political roots, including whatever local support they enjoy.
Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch, was killed in 2006 as Iraqi Sunnis turned against the group in large numbers. His death was the result of his group’s decline, rather than a driver of it. Osama bin Laden’s death, in 2011, similarly came after a decade-long ground war to uproot Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and accompanying efforts in Pakistan.
“If killing terrorist leaders does little on its own to defeat terrorist groups, then why do countries like the United States make such frequent use of this strategy? Consider where this strategy has been deployed: Syria, Somalia, Pakistan’s tribal regions and Yemen.
“These are places where the United States might believe it has few, if any, options. Targeting terrorist leaders might not make much difference, but it is cheap, it is low risk for the United States (though not always for civilians in the vicinity of strikes), and it allows American leaders to credibly say they are doing something. But there is little evidence that these deaths, whatever their political value in the United States, make much of a difference on the ground.” NY Times.
Neither political party in the upcoming elections is offering much more than ineffective platitudes in its anti-ISIS strategy. Killing leaders of terrorist groups makes good press, serves our revenge motivations well, but doesn’t really make much of a change. Our notion of relying on local boots on the ground (almost entirely Iraqi and Turkish plus a few Kurds that Turkey is also attacking) – so we don’t need to commit massive U.S. forces (we can supply weapons and strike from the air) – is an utterly failing strategy, as my August 26th Those Who Prefer ISIS clearly illustrates.
Will ISIS lose or be contained? In the end, it seems very likely. But the underlying issues that have allowed such Sunni extremists to rise are only getting worse. The desertification and disenfranchisement of local farmers – a byproduct of unchecked global warming – will only increase a large body of angry people with nothing left to lose. What we have seen in the Middle East and surrounding lands in North Africa and Central Asia may just be the beginning.
I’m Peter Dekom, and that we are countering the malevolence of ISIS and their ilk with a strategy based on failed tactics and unfounded mythology distresses me deeply.