Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Preserving the Pied Piper: The Importance of Leadership in Deradicalisation

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Preserving the Pied Piper: The Importance of Leadership in Deradicalisation

Article excerpt

The ability to inspire hope, restore confidence, ameliorate frustration, enforce obedience, stir inspiration and embolden character is what makes a potent leader. Many a victory in battle was wrested solely by the acumen of leadership, and many defeats were the direct cause of enemy decapitation and the disarray that followed. And just like all wars, the study and analysis of the global "War on Terror" must address the issue of leadership and its importance in achieving victory.

Evidently, works abound on this issue in the context of counter-terrorism, many of which stress the effects of decapitation on reducing the efficacy of terrorist organisations. However, few speak of the detrimental effects this tactic might have on long-term deradicalisation efforts that aim to uproot the very causes of violent extremism.

This article argues that while proponents of decapitation and targeted killings of terrorist leaders advance logically sound arguments, empirical studies have often shown that these arguments do not take hold in reality. The article then draws on the Egyptian experience with the deradicalisation of Islamist militant groups to claim that capturing rather than eliminating certain types of leaders can have a substantial impact on efforts to reform weakly committed foot-soldiers of terrorist organisations and non-violent sympathisers, which should be at the heart of all long-term counter-terrorism strategies. The potential of leaders to become heralds of disengagement and deradicalisation must be considered before sending out the order for liquidation.

Testing Hypotheses on Decapitation

One of the simplest definitions of targeted killings is that they are acts that involve "the intentional slaying of a specific individual or group of individuals ... with explicit governmental approval."1The proponents of this measure as a tool of counter-terrorism will often argue their utility in decreasing the potency of a terrorist organisation by ridding it of its able leaders, thus throwing it into a frenzy of disorder and inefficacy. Successful targeted killings will also, according to its backers, decrease the morale of the organisation, which will subsequently help it wither away, or at least make leadership positions less appealing to likely candidates.2

While these arguments appear logical, they have often been disproved by empirical studies that aimed to assess the effects of targeted killings on the viability of the targeted organisation. For example, Hafez and Hatfield studied the effect of Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders during the second Intifada and showed that they had no significant impact on reducing attacks against Israeli targets, and thus had no discernible effect on deterring or even disrupting belligerent Palestinian organisations.3 Similar findings were reiterated by Jenna Jordan's seminal study on the subject, which utilised aggregate data from a little less than 300 incidents of targeted killings and leadership capture during a time period of 60 years.4 Perhaps one of Jordan's most pressing findings, and one that is highly relevant to the context of modern contemporary counter-terrorism efforts, is the low utility of targeted killings when applied against religious groups, to the extent that they might even be counterproductive, hardening the organisation and lengthening the conflict.

Counterarguments have been proposed by competing empirical studies that aimed at showing that targeted killings are indeed effective. The most notable of the studies has probably been Patrick Johnston's piece, which concluded with the assertion that killing or capturing leadership has significant impacts on reducing an organisation's ability to induce violence and its chances of success in an insurgency campaign.5 However, despite the carefully constructed scaffold of statistical inference, Johnston's study is riddled with shortcomings. The most lamentable of which is probably that his dataset does not include Islamist insurgencies post-9/11, and his admittance that based on his data there is indeed a "small and insignificant relationship between successful decapitation attempts against Islamist insurgencies and counterinsurgency victory. …

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