The tactic of assassinating terrorist group leaders
Jenna Jordan has done a study of the effectiveness of assassinating the heads of terrorist groups in stopping the group's terrorism: When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation Security Studies 18/2009 that's just come to my attention from different sources, including:
Her conclusions may seem counterintuitive. But I'm not surprised by them. Depending on the size of the terrorist group, killing the leader may not end their activities and can even make them more radical and violent. Many of the drone strikes that have caused such anger in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other places are deployed based on the decapitation approach to counterterrorism.
From Jenna Jordan's synopsis, with paragraph breaks inserted:
Leadership targeting has become a key feature of current counterterrorism policies. ... However, leadership decapitation is not always successful, and existing empirical work is insufficient to account for this variability. ...
I develop a dataset of 298 incidents of leadership targeting from 1945–2004 in order to determine whether and when decapitation is effective. First, I identify the conditions under which decapitation has been successful in bringing about organizational decline. The data show that a group’s age, size, and type are critical in identifying when decapitation will cause the cessation of terrorist activity. As an organization grows in size and age, it is much more likely to withstand the removal of its leadership. Organizational type is also significant in understanding the susceptibility of an organization to decapitation. Ideological organizations are most likely to experience a cessation of activity following the removal of leader, while religious organizations are highly resistant to leadership decapitation.
Second, I determine whether decapitation is an effective counterterrorism strategy that results in organizational collapse. The data show that decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time. Organizations that have not had their leaders removed are more likely to fall apart than those that have undergone a loss of leadership. The marginal utility of decapitation is negative for many groups, particularly for larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations.
Finally, I look at the extent to which decapitation results in organizational degradation and hinders a group’s ability to carry about terrorist attacks. Case studies illustrate whether decapitation has an effect on the operational capacity of an organization by identifying whether the removal of key leaders changes the number and lethality of attacks. If certain organizations are more resilient than others, it is important to know when decapitation should be effective and when it could lead to counterproductive outcomes. Overall, these findings illustrate the need to develop a new model for evaluating the efficacy of leadership decapitation and for developing effective counterterrorism policies. [my emphasis]
In the body of her paper, she writes:
Optimism toward the success of decapitation is based primarily on theories of charismatic leadership. The concept of charisma has been pivotal in developing decapitation as a dominant counterterrorism strategy. Organizations headed by charismatic leaders, whose skills are viewed as essential to the operational success of the group, are seen as more volatile than other types of organizations. Social network analysis, which is rooted in sociological studies of organizational dynamics, would predict more variability in the success of decapitation. According to social network analysis, social ties between actors are the primary means by which to understand the functioning of an organization. Actors with the most social ties are crucial to organizational planning, and their removal can weaken an organization. If organizations have networks that are susceptible to the removal of central actors, decapitation should be effective. These two theoretical perspectives have both been used to bolster claims regarding the effectiveness of decapitation. [my emphasis]
And she writes:
Ultimately, these findings indicate that our current counterterrorism strategies need rethinking. The data show that independent of other measures, going after the leaders of older, larger, and religious groups is not only ineffective, it is counterproductive. Moreover, the decentralized nature of many current terrorist organizations has proven to be highly resistant to decapitation and to other counterterrorism measures. ...
Overall, this study shows that we need to rethink current counterterrorism policies. Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, 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. Based on these findings, it seems imperative that policy makers consider not only the overall effectiveness of decapitation as a counterterrorism measure but also the potential for adverse consequences.