Does killing lead­ers de­ter ter­ror­ists?

Not al­ways, ex­perts say. Some mil­i­tant groups can re­bound.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Melissa Ete­had melissa.ete­had @la­times.com

Amid re­cent spec­u­la­tion about the fate of Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr Bagh­dadi, U.S. of­fi­cials were quick to say they had no idea whether Bagh­dadi was dead or alive.

De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis, nev­er­the­less, told re­porters the deaths of such ex­trem­ist lead­ers in­evitably rep­re­sent sub­stan­tial blows against the groups.

“To take out lead­ers of th­ese kind of or­ga­ni­za­tions al­ways has an or­ga­ni­za­tional im­pact,” Mat­tis said dur­ing a July 14 news con­fer­ence. “It has an im­pact. … It al­ways does in war.”

Killing lead­ers of ter­ror­ist groups has been a cen­ter­piece of U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism strat­egy at least since Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush launched the “war on ter­ror” in 2001.

The num­ber of mil­i­tary strikes against ter­ror­ist lead­ers in­creased and ex­panded un­der Pres­i­dent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion with the killing of both se­nior and ju­nior ter­ror­ist lead­ers in places in­clud­ing Pak­istan, Ye­men and Iraq. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, for ex­am­ple, was killed by U.S. forces in Pak­istan in 2011.

An­a­lysts don’t ex­pect the pol­icy of tar­get­ing mil­i­tant lead­ers to change un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But many an­a­lysts also say that while re­mov­ing lead­ers may hurt mil­i­tant groups, there are nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of new lead­er­ship tak­ing charge and continuing their mis­sions. In some in­stances, an­a­lysts said, killing ter­ror­ist lead­ers fu­eled even more vi­o­lence.

“The pre­vail­ing wis­dom has been for a long time that tak­ing out ter­ror­ist lead­ers helps to desta­bi­lize their groups,” said Jenna Jor­dan, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at Ge­or­gia Tech, who is writ­ing a book on the sub­ject. “But it's un­likely to di­min­ish a large ter­ror­ist group's ac­tiv­i­ties in the long run.”

Many an­a­lysts say that even if Bagh­dadi were dead, Is­lamic State has shown an abil­ity over the years to turn to dif­fer­ent lead­ers and main­tain a mis­sion of ex­trem­ism and sec­tar­i­an­ism in Iraq and Syria.

Sev­eral groups have re­mained po­tent enough to re­cruit mem­bers and carry out at­tacks, ex­perts said.

In So­ma­lia and parts of Kenya, for in­stance, the Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked ex­trem­ist group, car­ried out at­tacks killing scores of peo­ple in 2016 de­spite hav­ing been hit by gov­ern­ment strikes that re­sulted in a weak­ened lead­er­ship.

On Fri­day, the U.S. mil­i­tary con­firmed that an airstrike killed Ali Mo­hamed Hus­sein, a high-level com­man­der from the ex­trem­ist group blamed for plan­ning at­tacks in Mogadishu, the cap­i­tal of So­ma­lia.

Al Qaeda has lost key lead­ers be­sides Bin Laden over the years. In 2006, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch, Abu Musab Zar­qawi, was killed in a tar­geted U.S. strike. This year, a U.S. drone strike killed the sec­ond-rank­ing Al Qaeda of­fi­cial in Syria, Abu Khayr Masri.

Nev­er­the­less, the group’s pres­ence in the Ara­bian Penin­sula con­tin­ues to threaten Ye­men, the Gulf re­gion and U.S. forces, ac­cord­ing to the State Depart­ment’s 2016 coun­try re­port on ter­ror­ism.

The State Depart­ment re­port, re­leased July 19, also found that de­spite los­ing key se­nior fig­ures and a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq, Is­lamic State re­mains one of the most ca­pa­ble ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions in the world.

Although the U.S. has killed sev­eral Al Qaeda lead­ers over the years, the slay­ings don’t ap­pear to have sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced the mil­i­tant group’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties long-term, said Bruce Hoff­man, direc­tor of se­cu­rity stud­ies at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and au­thor of the book “In­side Ter­ror­ism.”

Hoff­man’s re­search fo­cuses on the ef­fec­tive­ness of U.S. tar­geted killings of Al Qaeda lead­ers. His re­search sug­gests that while killing Al Qaeda lead­ers might have tem­po­rar­ily pre­vented the group from car­ry­ing out at­tacks, it con­tin­ues to re­main a threat.

Some an­a­lysts point to two main vari­ables when de­ter­min­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of killing ter­ror­ist lead­ers: how much pop­u­lar sup­port the leader’s group has from sym­pa­thiz­ers or civil­ians liv­ing un­der its rule, and the group’s bu­reau­cratic or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture.

In some cases, an­a­lysts say, the death of an Al Qaeda or Is­lamic State leader could have a mar­tyr­dom ef­fect, mean­ing it could in­spire sym­pa­thy for the group and help re­cruit more mem­bers.

Jor­dan said the more a group op­er­ates like a bu­reau­cracy, the more likely it is to with­stand dis­rup­tion to its lead­er­ship and ex­pe­ri­ence a smooth suc­ces­sion.

“Is­lamic State has stan­dard op­er­a­tional pro­ce­dures that makes it func­tion like a state,” Jor­dan said. “If Bagh­dadi is dead they know who is go­ing to step in, just like a firm has a suc­ces­sion mech­a­nism in place.”

In some cases, schol­ars say de­cap­i­ta­tion strikes can in­crease vi­o­lence if the leader was an in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure or if the killing re­sulted in civil­ian deaths.

In the early 2000s, for ex­am­ple, Is­raeli of­fi­cials led a tar­geted killing cam­paign against Ha­mas lead­ers, which re­sulted in pub­lic out­cry and re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks against Is­raelis. The killing of Ha­mas lead­ers also helped to de­cen­tral­ize the group. While that may dis­rupt an­other group from con­trol­ling its mem­bers, Jor­dan said it made de­feat­ing Ha­mas more dif­fi­cult for Is­rael.

Jor­dan said re­li­gious ter­ror­ist groups tend to be the most re­silient even af­ter their se­nior lead­er­ship gets killed. She found that the odds of an Is­lamist ter­ror­ist group car­ry­ing out at­tacks the year af­ter a se­nior leader was killed was more than two times higher than nonIs­lamist groups.

“Re­li­gious ter­ror­ist groups are sta­ble be­cause the ide­ol­ogy of th­ese groups are not de­pen­dent on a leader for re­pro­duc­tion,” Jor­dan said. “Osama bin Laden, for ex­am­ple, was suc­cess­ful at broad­en­ing Al Qaeda’s ap­peal be­cause the group’s be­lief went be­yond any leader.”

Brian Jenk­ins, a coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­pert and se­nior ad­vi­sor to the pres­i­dent of Rand Corp., said tar­geted killings can be use­ful in some in­stances against smaller ter­ror­ist groups. Ter­ror­ist lead­ers bring skills and tal­ents cen­tral to the group’s abil­ity to func­tion, Jenk­ins said, which aren’t al­ways eas­ily re­place­able.

“Lead­er­ship is a pre­cious com­mod­ity, and ter­ror­ist groups have lim­ited tal­ent un­less it’s a gi­gan­tic move­ment,” Jenk­ins said, “So a group that doesn’t have as charis­matic or a skilled leader may not be able to op­er­ate at the same level of ef­fec­tive­ness.”

Some ex­perts say re­mov­ing ter­ror­ist lead­ers has helped gov­ern­ments de­feat in­sur­gent or­ga­ni­za­tions or smaller ex­trem­ist groups. Still, his­tory shows ter­ror­ist groups can avoid be­ing fully dis­man­tled by re­moval of their lead­ers.

For ex­am­ple, Peru’s Shin­ing Path rebel group, which sought to over­throw the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment in the 1990s, was sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ened when its leader, Abi­mael Guz­man, was cap­tured in 1992 and sent to prison. The Peru­vian gov­ern­ment and some schol­ars praised the cap­ture as an ex­am­ple of how tak­ing out ter­ror­ist lead­ers could re­sult in the end of the group, but in re­cent years Shin­ing Path has made a come­back.

In some ways, Jenk­ins said, killing ter­ror­ist lead­ers pro­vides gov­ern­ments with a low-risk and eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able met­ric to demon­strate to the pub­lic what it’s do­ing to bat­tle ter­ror­ist groups.

“There’s the need to show the pub­lic that some­thing can be done,” Jenk­ins said. “And it also sends a mes­sage to ter­ror­ists that they aren’t im­mune.”

MD Nadeem Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

PAK­ISTANI PO­LICE stand guard in May 2011 at the Ab­bot­tabad com­pound where a U.S. raid killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Killing lead­ers of ter­ror­ist groups has been a key U.S. strat­egy for years.

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