THE BLOG
12/01/2014 12:49 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

The Hunt for Terrorist Leaders: Is the Effort Worth It?

If confirmed, reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakhr al Baghdadi may have been wounded or killed in a U.S. strike is likely to be hailed by Americans as a major coup, a bit of good news in an area recently dominated by depressing setbacks. But while of unquestionable PR value, the deeper question is, what concrete advantage does the killing of leaders offer in the global war against Islamic terrorism? A clear assessment of this subject is clouded by several myths.

A Snake or A Hydra?

The presumed effectiveness of killing leaders often rests on the premise that this will significantly alter the course of war and bring victory closer. Like the cutting of a snake's head that terminates the danger, eliminating a chief of a terrorist organization is assumed to deal a fatal or near fatal blow. The U.S. government, for instance, has often boasted about eliminating major Al Qaeda leaders, viewing it as a clear mark of progress in the "global war on terror."

The killing of Osama bin Laden has been touted as a major achievement of the Obama administration, as was the killing of Awlaki, Zarqawi and others. Yet there are reasons to question the premise that killing terrorist leaders is tantamount to progress.

Admittedly, in some cases assassinating or arresting a major terrorist leader may paralyze the organization for years. Such was the case with Abimail Guzman, the philosopher-leader of the Peruvian Shining Path organization (Sendero Luminoso), and with Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) both of whom have languished under longstanding imprisonment. Fathi Shikaki, the founding chief of the Palestiniann Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was taken out by the Israelis in 1995, which disrupted the organization for a number of years. In all these cases, however, the disruption was temporary and sooner or later the groups in question recovered their resolve and resumed the fight.

Moreover, major terrorist organizations have cleverly adapted to the loss of their chiefs. Typically, others waiting in the wings quickly replace them. Also, in response to killing campaigns, some organizations loosened their hierarchical structure and allowed local leaders greater freedom. This reduced their dependence on a select few figures at the top and spread their risks over a wider domain. Palestinian organizations did this in reaction to targeted killings of leaders by the Israelis.

So did Al Qaeda in diffusing its core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region and replacing it by a world-wide network of affiliates carrying the organization's banner. Rather than cutting the head of a snake, killing terrorist leaders resembles cutting the head of a hydra, the mythical monster reputed to quickly grow new ones to replace those lopped off.

Limited Supply?

A different argument has it that terrorist leaders are in short supply and sooner or later will be exhausted, thus causing severe degradation of an organization's fighting capacity. Available evidence does not unequivocally support this claim. Especially, if the group boasts a wide appeal, its pool of leadership talent may be large.

Despite Israel's extensive, targeted killing campaigns against Hamas, the military prowess of that organization has grown appreciably in recent years, and during the last round of fighting managed to launch thousands of rockets against Israeli population centers. The killing of Osama bin Laden, though of symbolic importance, didn't seem to offer the United States 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 may even be more adept and dangerous than his predecessor. One needs to be careful what one wishes for! Abu Musab al Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was bad enough, but not as bad as his replacement, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS who is widely proclaimed as a major threat to world security. Similarly, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the current leader of the Hizballah, is considerably more problematic for Israel than was Abbas al-Musawi, the former head assassinated in 1992.

In short, as long as the group's ideological narrative is inspirational and capable of inflaming thousands, there will be others eager to step into the shoes of departed leaders and carry on the fight.

The Force of Outrage?

A popular objection to targeted killing of terrorist leaders is the contention that the outrage it engenders among sympathizers intensifies their struggle and boosts recruitment to the organization's ranks. Admittedly, the outrage is real; it elicits an outpouring of frustration and the promise of horrendous revenge. In reality, however, the bite can be considerably weaker than the bark.

Israel's assassination in 2004 of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin brought thousands of infuriated mourners to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, threatening bloody retaliation. But, the actual increase in Palestinian violence was slight. Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, Yassin's successor was also killed without provoking Palestinian retaliation.

Systematic research on targeted killings attests to a temporary spike in violence and a boost in recruitment to militant organizations. However these effects are typically short lived. Emotional outrage about the killing of leaders subsides quickly; other concerns soon assert their priority, reinstating the "business as usual" mode, albeit under "new management."


Heat

Thus, the outcomes of targeted killings often fall short of expectations. Killing a top leader does not often checkmate an organization. Nor can one count on exhausting the terrorists' pool of "talent."

Even so, the very attempt to kill a terrorist leader may have a profound affect that arguably justifies the effort: It generates an unbearable "heat" that compromises militants' chiefs' ability to function. It may not stop them in their tracks, but it does force them to walk much more carefully.

There is no question that the unrelenting pressure of killing campaigns significantly degrades the organizations' 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 and motivate them is hampered; they must frequently change locations, or remain invisible for long stretches of time. Being constantly on the run takes a psychological toll on leaders' capacity to function. The effect should not be underestimated.

The Palestinian leaders' reactions to targeted killings strikingly attest to the campaign's impact. Time and again, they demanded that Israel end the policy. Rantisi, Sheikh Yassin's successor as head of Hamas, conceded that the campaign posed significant hardships for his organization. And the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders certainly forced them underground and appreciably reduced their ability to launch complex operations requiring sophisticated planning and co-ordination.

Overall, then, targeted killings remain a useful tactical tool in the kit of counterterrorism strategists. While they cannot be expected in the long run to paralyze a terrorist organization, they often can bring short-term, intense pressure on a successor's operations.

They cannot bring an end to terrorism. As many are now recognizing, terrorism has no military solution, and "we cannot kill our way out of this mess" as Governor Romney aptly quipped. A strong offense, coupled with a response to the true motivations that underlie terrorism and radicalization, offer the most likely path to greater global stability.