Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Terrorist Leadership Elimination: When to Do It?

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Terrorist Leadership Elimination: When to Do It?

Article excerpt


The last couple of years have witnessed the publication of a number of studies that try to estimate the effectiveness of leadership elimination, be it through liquidation or arrest.1 The field of counter-terrorism studies has so far generated surprisingly few policy evaluations, so from this perspective alone, these effectiveness assessments are welcome additions.2 But there is also a more intrinsic reason why the effectiveness of leadership eliminations is highly relevant, and that is the appeal of this approach to policymakers. What the latter see in the liquidation or capture of terrorist group leaders is not difficult to gauge. First, it suggests efficiency. Many have rightfully pointed out that there are no silver bullets in counter-terrorism, but leadership elimination still holds the allure of a single action that can severely disrupt a terrorist group, perhaps even to the point where the group is no longer able to keep up its campaign. Second, there is the potential for successes that can be milked in the media. The publicity around the killing or capture of a terrorist leader can send a strong message about the state's ability to keep things under control. Also, when spun the right way, an elimination can be used to humiliate the terrorist leader. After his arrest in 1999, Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), was photographed while standing blindfolded in front of a Turkish flag. This picture did little to enhance the notion that the PKK was on a winning streak, and neither did the footage of Turkish Special Forces celebrating their success in the Kurdish leader's presence immediately after his arrest.3

But while we can think of plenty of reasons to eliminate terrorist leaders, research into the effectiveness of leadership elimination has done little to settle the debate about whether we should actually do so. Bluntly put, the studies referred to above show that it works in some cases, but not in others. This is not to denigrate the rigour and sophistication of the underlying research, but this outcome is hardly surprising given the large n approach taken in many of them. The problem is that this way of working obscures the importance of the particular circumstances of a terrorist group in determining the outcome of leadership elimination.

We should not discard the leadership elimination approach because it fails in the majority of cases. There is some anecdotal as well as statistical evidence that leadership elimination sometimes works, so the challenge for policymakers and researchers alike is to find out which groups are the most susceptible to this strategy. It is true that there have been attempts to find explanations for the effectiveness of leadership eliminations, but those have been largely focused on easily observable and only indirectly relevant factors such as ideology and the age of terrorist groups.4 Organisational structure has been considered as well, but with little success.5

In a modest attempt to make up for this gap, the remainder of this article outlines two fairly intuitive policy recommendations regarding terrorist leadership elimination. They are intended to help policy makers decide when-and when not-to try this strategy.

Recommendation 1: Target Leaders Who Are Indispensible

The success of terrorist leadership elimination depends on the extent to which the execution of their leadership tasks depends on skills or authority that are concentrated in one person, or in a very small group. If leaders derive their authority from personal status or charisma, it is less likely that someone will simply step in and successfully claim the leadership role. If, on the other hand, leaders derive their authority from their position in the organisation, or if they are surrounded by equally reputable figures, it may very well be the case that the fallen leader's successor will take on the leadership role with the same degree of success. In such a case, the terrorist organisation will keep functioning like before, and there has been little point in eliminating its leaders. …

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