CATCHING OR KILLING THE LEADER
[T]he cardinal responsibility of leadership is to identify the
dominant contradiction at each point of the historical process
and to work out a central line to resolve it.
LEADERS OF TERRORIST GROUPS are often captured or killed in the final months of terrorist campaigns, dealing a death blow to the group and precipitating the demise of the movement. But the specific techniques of targeting vary, and the long-term effects of decapitation are inconsistent. While many campaigns end as a result, others barely falter and may even gain strength.2
The immediate effects of removing a leader vary, depending on the structure of the organization, the degree to which it fosters a cult of personality, the availability of a viable successor, the nature of its ideology, the political context, and whether the leader was killed or imprisoned. This chapter employs comparative case studies of the arrest or assassination of top leaders so as to probe the complex relationship between their removal and the ending of terrorist campaigns. A clear finding in what follows is that arresting a leader damages a campaign more than killing him does, especially when the jailed leader can be cut off from communicating with his subordinates yet also paraded in humiliation before the public. More surprising, however, a crucial consideration in determining whether the removal of a leader will succeed in ending a campaign is not the type of action a state uses against him or even his operational effectiveness, as we might logically expect, but rather the effects of his removal on potential supporters of both the terrorist campaign and the counterterrorist operation. Killing the leader of a group that has widespread popular support either has no measurable effect or is counterproductive. In this case, as in many others, the reaction of terrorism's multiple audiences proves crucial.
The “propagandist in chief” who explains the rationale for terrorism is important, even if he or she is not directing the group's operations.