The South Asia Channel

Killing al-Qaeda?

Leadership decapitation, which includes both the arrest and death of terrorist leaders, has become a major component of U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11. In the five months since Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Unites States has successfully carried out several leadership strikes against high-level al-Qaeda operatives. Most recently, ...

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Leadership decapitation, which includes both the arrest and death of terrorist leaders, has become a major component of U.S. counterterrorism policy since 9/11. In the five months since Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Unites States has successfully carried out several leadership strikes against high-level al-Qaeda operatives. Most recently, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric linked to a number of terrorist plots in the West, was killed in Yemen on September 30, 2011 by a Hellfire missile fired from an American drone. In addition to his suspected position of leadership within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Awlaki’s online lectures and teachings provided an important inspirational role to would-be militants in the West. It was his ability to inspire and motivate attackers that made Awlaki’s death particularly important to many Western analysts and policymakers.

In addition to Awlaki, Abu Hafs al-Shahri was killed in a CIA drone strike in Waziristan on September 11, 2011. Key al-Qaeda figure Younis al-Mauritani was arrested in the suburbs of Quetta, Pakistan a week earlier.  On August 22, 2011 Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, another key operational leader, was reportedly killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. He was believed to be the organization’s second highest leader, and served as a link between bin Laden and lower organizational ranks. Finally, Ilyas Kashmiri was said to have been  killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan on June 3, 2011. Kashmiri was reputed to be a senior member of al-Qaeda and the operational commander for Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), an Islamist militant organization largely active in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. But while these series of high profile killings and arrests may temporarily weaken al-Qaeda and its ability to carry out attacks in the short term, the loss of these leaders is not likely to significantly hinder the group’s operational capacity.  

Research on Leadership Decapitation

In order to identify whether and when targeting leaders has been an effective counterterrorism strategy, I compiled a dataset of 298 incidents of leadership targeting involving 96 organizations from around the world from 1945-2004. I also looked at terrorist organizations that had not undergone decapitation in order to compare the rate of decline for groups that had experienced leadership targeting to those groups that had not. The data show that decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse over time. While 53 percent of decapitated terrorist groups fell apart, 70 percent of groups that have never experienced decapitation are no longer active.

It turns out that the susceptibility of terrorist groups to decline after decapitation is strongly predicted by the organization’s size, age, and type — the larger and older, the more durable. First, once a group crosses a twenty-year threshold, the likelihood that decapitation will destroy it declines significantly. In fact, decapitation is counterproductive the older a group becomes. Older groups that have undergone decapitation have a lower rate of decline than those that have not had their leadership targeted. Second, decapitation almost never works against groups with over 500 members. Third, religious and separatist groups are difficult to destabilize through leadership removal. Religious groups that have undergone decapitation are less likely to fall apart than those that did not. 

Al-Qaeda, formed in 1988, is over twenty years of age, an age at which groups become more stable and less susceptible to leadership attacks.  Second, I argue that al-Qaeda has over 500 militants, which should increase its ability to withstand leadership attacks. While there is a considerable amount of disagreement over the size of al-Qaeda, even if the group’s core has significantly fewer members, the rate of decline for decapitated groups with between 100 and 500 members is still 35 percent, less than for groups with between 25 and 100 members. Third, al-Qaeda is clearly an organization with a religious ideology — its goals include the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, overthrowing putatively non-Islamic regimes, and expelling "infidels" from Muslim countries. 

Organizational Resilience

In order to place these findings in a more theoretical context, I argue that organizational resilience depends on two variables: bureaucratization and community support, both of which render decapitation less effective. Larger, older organizations are more likely to have bureaucratic features, including an administrative staff, a hierarchy of authority, and a system of rules and regulations, which increase organizational stability and efficiency. While al-Qaeda is largely decentralized, it has elements of a bureaucratic hierarchy that should increase its resilience to counterterrorism measures, including a structure that facilitates leadership succession . Organizations, like Hamas, that have features of both a hierarchy and a decentralized network of cells, are particularly resistant to leadership targeting. Moreover, al-Qaeda is highly bifurcated, with local affiliates in the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula, operating largely independently of central direction or support.  A weakened affiliate would not have long-term implications for the operational capacity of the organizational core, just as a weakened core may not have a great impact on local affiliates. 

Second, communal support allows a group to recruit, raise money, and acquire the resources necessary to function covertly. While not universal, many religious organizations enjoy some level of support from the communities in which they operate or are based. Moreover the doctrine upon which religious groups, like al-Qaeda, are based is not dependent upon specific leaders for its reproduction. The organization has an ideological resonance that transcends individuals. There is considerable variation in support for al-Qaeda, both cross-nationally and regionally. Jacob Shapiro and Christine Fair, for instance have collected survey data to examine Pakistani support for militancy. They found that urban Pakistanis are likely to support militant organizations under two conditions: when organizations use violence to advance the political goals that are of concern to the individuals in question, and when violence is seen a reasonable way to attain those goals. While they find that support for militancy is lower is areas where militants have conducted attacks, pockets of support persist in Pakistan, especially in the country’s tribal areas, where al-Qaeda cells or militant groups that help shelter al-Qaeda, like the Haqqani Network, maintain safe havens.

Defeating al-Qaeda

Following bin Laden’s death, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda." He argued that American counterterrorism policies must focus on capturing or killing the organization’s key leaders in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. While U.S. covert actions have successfully targeted at least eight high level leaders this year, the data on organizational resilience calls into question the ability of targeting to prevent the organization from regrouping after undergoing a period of destabilization. Al-Qaeda may experience a period during which it will be difficult for the group to engage in large scale attacks, but it has the structures, albeit weakened, necessary to regroup.  And the killing of leaders with a significant amount of popularity or influence within certain communities, like Awlaki and bin Laden, can motivate retaliatory attacks or increase sympathy for the militants’ cause. Third, targeting militants can result in civilian casualties, which can generate support for the group’s cause. This is a particularly contentious issue in the debate over U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

It is important to consider whether bin Laden’s or Awlaki’s deaths will impact the organization differently than the removal of Rahman, Shahri or Mauritani, who played important operational and communications roles within the organization. Taking out these leaders may be more disruptive than the removal of others, and Zawahiri may have a difficult time replacing these men, given their expertise, reputations, and connections within the organization and with other affiliates. But despite these complications, al-Qaeda still has the capabilities necessary to replace these leaders.

The death or removal of so many key figures in or linked to al-Qaeda are major tactical victories, yet research suggests that over time, al-Qaeda will survive this and other recent attacks. In order to undermine al Qaeda, targeting leaders alone is not enough.  It is necessary to follow up on these attacks in ways that will decrease support for the group. Undermining this support must ultimately be a critical feature of counterterrorism policies, as it is only when al-Qaeda and others find no friendly space to operate that they will truly fall apart.

Jenna Jordan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.

NEXT: Shashank Joshi, India’s Strategic Calculus in Afghanistan

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola