'Decapitation strikes’ on terrorist groups may bolster attacks against civilians: study

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
People gather near the wreckage of a car destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the al-Qatn district of the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The United States’ controversial program of using drones to target terrorist groups overseas, especially their leaders, came into sharp focus again in recent days after President Barack Obama was forced to apologize for a drone strike in Pakistan that killed two foreign hostages held by al-Qaeda.

U.S. policy-makers view drones as the best way to disrupt terror groups with minimal risk to American lives. The strategy has created a backlash over unintended civilian casualties and the legality of targeting American members of terror groups.

Advocates claim it’s effective, making it harder for terrorists to operate in the open and putting a target on the back of anyone who aspires to the leadership.

But what if the basic premise behind so-called “decapitation programs” (attacks that target the leaders of an organization) is wrong? What if drone attacks or other forms of targeted assassination using special operations hit teams leads to more terror attacks on civilians?

Max Abrahms, a political scientist who studies terrorism at Boston’s Northeastern University, asserts in a new study that in fact removing the terror groups’ leaders makes it more likely lower-level members of the group will lash out at civilians instead of government military and government targets.

The paper published in the journal International Organization, co-written with Philip Potter, analyzes published reports of terror attacks and information on decapitation attacks.

Militant groups whose leaders had been killed and lower-level members had taken charge were more likely to be the source of attacks on civilians, Abrahms explained in a post on the blog Political Violence at a Glance.

The study grew out of Abrahms’ research into his long-held view terrorism itself is not a successful approach to achieving political goals. Indiscriminate attacks are likely to crystalize opposition to a terror group and harden a government’s resolve, he believes.

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Abrahms told Yahoo Canada News he has no strong view on whether striking terrorist leaders with drones is good policy, but instead looks at how decapitation attacks affect militant groups’ tactical decisions.

“There’s no consensus within the academic literature over whether drones are effective partly because there’s no consensus over how to define effectiveness,” he said.

Arguments for targeting terror groups’ leaders seems logical

Still, the idea that decapitation programs are actually counterproductive will add to the debate about the use of drones, which in public at least seems focused on morality and legality.

The logic behind a decapitation strike, whether it’s with drones or special forces, seems unassailable on the surface: Removing leaders should degrade a group’s ability to plan and execute attacks, and make those who replace the dead leader fearful of having the target now put on their back.

Israel has been a longtime practitioner in its endless war with Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas. The United States for the last decade has embraced drones as the principal means of targeting terrorist leaders overseas.

“I’m so tempted by the logic of drones,” admitted Abrahms, who believes the better fighters in militant groups tend to rise to the top and taking them out erodes the quality of the members and weakens the group.

“But on the other hand, I looked at all these different theatres where drones have been used. I can’t think of a single theatre where the militant group violence has dried up.”

Yet even if it’s hard to prove definitely that decapitation programs work, policymakers appear to believe they do, said Michael Zekulin, a political scientist at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.

“It is a very contentious issue mostly because it’s difficult to actually prove that decapitating leaders is effective or whether there are other circumstances or other things that are involved that appear to make it look like it is,” he said in an interview.

Killing militant group leaders is meant to create a power vacuum. But does it work?

“The answer is quite frankly you actually have a mixed bag on that,” said Zekulin.

There are instances where killing or capturing leaders can be disruptive, he said, noting the arrest of leaders of the extreme-left Baader-Meinhoff Gang (a.k.a. Red Army Faction) that terrorized Germany in the 1970s. However the group’s supporters still carried out attacks well into the 1990s.

There are other instances, however, where it doesn’t work.

Killing bin Laden didn’t kill al-Qaeda

“The best example, of course, is Osama bin Laden,” said Zekulin.

The U.S. was obsessed with eliminating bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks, hoping it would gut al-Qaeda. But by the time he was killed in the famous 2011 raid by Seal Team Six in his compound outside Islamabad, Pakistan, the organization had established offshoots in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

“It became so much more than him that it doesn’t matter (that he died),” said Zekulin.

As the hunt to destroy al-Qaeda intensified after 9/11, the organization successfully decentralized, which may have improved its security but also lessened leaders’ control and ability to communicate, he said.

The problem surfaced when al-Qaeda in Iraq, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, committed a series of atrocities after the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The killings alienated many Iraqi Muslims and captured documents show revolted even al-Qaeda’s leadership.

“There’s actual documentation of correspondence between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s deputy and later successor) around this time,” said Zekulin. “Basically they’re in a state of panic, oh my god, we can’t control this guy, he’s damaging our brand. So this is the risk.”

That’s not to say terrorist leaders shy from attacking civilians when it suits them. But Abrahms argues when leaders are killed in decapitation attacks, the likelihood of lower-level members of the group unleashing unsanctioned attacks appears to rise.

That’s been the case with the Taliban, whose leaders had stressed to members that targeting civilians was counterproductive, he said.

“Taliban violence has become more indiscriminate over time,” he said. “One of the reasons why is because we have continuously attrited the leadership and lower-level members have less inhibition against harming the population.”

Not everyone agrees. Bin Laden and Hamas leaders have explicitly sanctioned attacks on civilians, said Prof. Jenna Jordan, who studies terrorism at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.

“Maybe some of the lower-level operators may take things into their own hands,” said Jordan, who like Abrahms is skeptical about the value of decapitation programs.

“But it’s not like bin Laden was saying ‘we’re not going to kill civilians. We don’t want to be perceived that way.’ He precisely wanted to be perceived that way.”

Attacking civilians part of calculated terror strategy

Terror groups often use civilian killings as a calculated part of an overall strategy, ordered by their leadership, said Jordan. Abrahms is right in thinking some members might depart from the plan and attack softer targets.

“But I think the initial strategic decision is not specifically from the lower levels,” said Jordan.

Zekulin agreed. He noted the suicide bombers unleashed on Israel during the Second Intifada uprising in the late 1990s, dismissed at first as deranged fanatics, had proven to be anything but.

“The groups were very careful in terms of picking people they could control,” he said.

Jordan said it’s likely that removing the leaders can trigger more intense attacks on soft targets as retaliation and to establish the successors credentials with the group.

“So we do agree on some things, definitely,” said Jordan, who called Abrahms one of the leading scholars on terrorism.

“I think where we disagree is over the extent to which the decision to actually target civilians in the first place is coming from the upper- or lower-level operatives.”

It seems doubtful burgeoning academic debate over the effectiveness of decapitation programs is eroding support for them among policymakers.

“The kinds of policies that we’re seeing would signal that they think it’s a good strategy,” said Jordan. “I very much am skeptical of decapitation’s ability to really weaken a group over the long run.”

Jordan believes cutting off terror groups’ access to financing, such as ISIS’s ability to sell oil produced in the territory it occupies, and a greater effort to have regional powers take over the fight are better alternatives to dubiously legal decapitation attacks.

As for Abrahms, he remains ambivalent. If a drone strike has a shot at taking out a senior leader without harming civilians, he says yes, take the shot.

“But in doing so, we should recognize that the empirical record is not that strong, and that in theatres where we have practiced leadership decapitation these militant groups have persisted,” he said.

“In some ways these attacks might actually be counterproductive by making the target selection of the groups even more unrestrained than before the attack. So I don’t have a strong recommendation, really.”