The killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces is being hailed as an important symbolic victory. But will it lead to the collapse of al-Qaeda, or at least degrade its ability to carry out terrorist activities?
Research on terrorist organizations past and present leads academics to different conclusions. But the current consensus is that “leadership decapitation” of such groups is of little long-term value, and may even be counterproductive.
“Leadership decapitation seems to be a misguided strategy, particularly given the nature of organizations being currently targeted,” the University of Chicago’s Jenna Jordan writes in a 2009 paper published in the journal Security Studies. “Targeting bin Laden and other senior members of al-Qaeda, independent of other measures, is not likely to result in organizational collapse.”
In contrast, Harvard University’s Patrick B. Johnston argues that the strategy of killing top leaders of terrorist organizations, like Osama bin Laden, “is more effective than the conventional wisdom suggests.” In a paper presented at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies last October, he asserts that “campaigns are more likely to end quickly when counterinsurgents successfully target enemy leaders.”
Let’s look at Jordan’s research first. She analyzed 298 incidents between 1945 and 2004 in which the leadership of a terrorist organization was targeted for assassination. (She defines leadership as “any member of the upper echelon who holds a position of authority.”)
Jordan found 17 percent of the assassination attempts were successful. She then compared that data with the success or failure of the organizations themselves in the following years.
The results hardly suggest leadership removal hastens a terrorist group’s demise. Fifty-three percent of the terrorist organizations that suffered such a violent leadership loss fell apart — which sounds impressive until you discover that 70 percent of groups who did not deal with an assassination no longer exist.
Further crunching of the numbers revealed that leadership decapitation becomes more counterproductive the older the group is. The difference in collapse rates (between groups that did and did not have a leader assassinated) is fairly small among organizations less than 20 years old but quite large for those more than 20 years in age, and even larger for those that have been around more than 30 years.
Assassination of a leader does seem to negatively impact smaller terrorist groups: The data shows organizations with fewer than 500 members are more likely to collapse if they suffer such a leadership loss. But organizations with more than 500 members are actually more likely to survive after an assassination, making this strategy “highly counterproductive for larger groups,” Jordan writes.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, al-Qaeda was formed in the late 1980s, and estimates of its membership range from “several hundred to several thousand.”
Assessing if a violent leadership change dampens an organization’s ability to carry out operations is more difficult to assess. But Jordan analyzed data on three prominent terrorist groups — ETA, FARC and Hamas — and found their capabilities either increased or were unaffected by the decapitation.
Jordan also found that leadership assassination “is more effective among ideological organizations than religious organizations.” This makes it an even more problematic way to deal with al-Qaeda, which is driven by a desire to impose a harsh, fundamentalist vision of Islamic law.
“I argue that the resilience of religious organizations can be attributed in part to the fact that many of these groups are older and larger,” she writes. “Second, it is frequently assumed that religious and separatist organizations are more decentralized in structure, while ideological organizations are more hierarchical. The literature on social network analysis argues that decentralized organizations are less likely to suffer setbacks than hierarchically structured organizations.”
“Overall, this study shows that we need to rethink current counterterrorism policies,” she concludes. “Decapitation is not merely ineffective against religious, old or large groups — it is actually counterproductive for many of the groups currently being targeted.”
Johnston, whose paper has yet to be published but is available online, comes to a different conclusion. He collected data on 118 attempts to assassinate top insurgent leaders between 1974 and 2003.
His data varies from Jordan’s in two key ways. First, he looked at only assassination attempts on the top man in the organization, rather than everyone in a high leadership role. Second, “I restrict my analysis to ‘near miss’ cases — instances where insurgent leaders narrowly escaped capture or death. Attempts in which insurgent leaders fled their base camps well ahead of counterinsurgent military operations are not included in this analysis.”
Why the distinction? Johnston argues that when the top leader easily escaped, he was “likely tipped off,” meaning the operation had no real chance of success. Thus, in his view, it’s unfair to call such operations failures, even though they did not achieve the desired result.
Johnston concludes that a successful leadership assassination — compared to a near-miss — “(1) increases the chances of speedy war terminations; (2) enhances the probability of campaign outcomes that favor the counterinsurgent; (3) reduces the intensity of violent conflict; and (4) reduces insurgent-initiated incidents, such as armed attacks and kidnappings, thought this last finding finds less support in the data than do the first three.”
“Targeting militants directly can play an independent role in disrupting and defeating insurgencies,” he concludes.
It remains to be seen whether Johnston’s approach, and his contrarian conclusions, will be widely accepted. For now, the research suggests we should be extremely cautious in predicting that the death of Osama bin Laden will have a significant impact on al-Qaeda or lead to its demise.
As Jordan notes, “going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.” Osama bin Laden is dead, but bin Ladenism may still have a long life ahead.