Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has used leadership decapitation – the targeting and killing of terrorist leaders – as a pillar of its counterterrorism strategy. Through combat operations, special operations forces raids, and drone strikes, the U.S. has successfully removed al Qaeda and ISIS commanders from battlefields across the globe and has undermined the operational capacities of militant organizations that aim to strike the U.S. homeland, as well as America’s allies and interests abroad.
“In the … years post 9/11, there have been almost no terrorist attacks launched at us from al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Countless nascent al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the West were suddenly curtailed by aggressive counterterrorist actions that decimated their senior leadership. This was a huge success,” Kevin Hulbert, Cipher Brief expert and former CIA Chief of Station, wrote last year.
Leadership decapitation has emerged as a crucial piece of the counterterrorism puzzle, but Hulbert cautions not to mistakenly substitute these tactical killings for a comprehensive strategy.
“Our tactical successes against al Qaeda senior leadership notwithstanding, we are missing the bigger questions: Can we really kill our way out of this? Are we capturing and killing terrorists faster than new ones are being created in that endless web of radical madrassas and Muslim clerics,” Hulbert asks. “The tactical efforts have kept us safe over the last 15 years. But, we can’t have another 15 years of all tactics and no strategy.”
One instance where leadership decapitation has been particularly effective is against core al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By implementing this approach and hunting core al Qaeda chiefs, the U.S. decimated the group’s capabilities. Today, analysts point to al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen (AQAP) as the most dangerous al Qaeda branch.
“Generally, [leadership decapitation is] most effective against the organizations that are extremely hierarchical and don’t have a lot redundancy in their command structure, or that are led by one extremely charismatic individual who holds the movement together,” said Mike Leiter, Cipher Brief expert and former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “The broad sense of leadership decapitation that was pursued against what was once known as al Qaeda senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan was extremely effective.”
According to Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, a critical factor that contributed to the weakening of core al Qaeda was the group’s lack of connection with the local populace in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certain al Qaeda affiliates, such as AQAP and al Shabaab, receive backing from and maintain strong ties to various indigenous communities and are therefore able to regenerate more effectively even if their leaders are taken out. But the core of al Qaeda failed to amass the same levels of support and consequently has been unable to recover at a comparable rate.
“The strategy of leadership decapitation is more likely to work against a vanguard group that is not socially connected or socially embedded in the local community,” Pape told The Cipher Brief.
“Core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan fits that model because you have a group, which is composed largely of leaders and a handful of people who are not deeply embedded socially in the local area that they inhabit,” Pape added.
However, while leadership decapitation has played a major role in keeping terrorist groups off balance, it has not necessarily resulted in their complete demise. Osama bin Laden, the emir of al Qaeda, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS’ second in command, and several other high-ranking terrorist operatives are gone, yet the al Qaeda and ISIS networks remain largely intact. In essence, leadership decapitation – while critical – is often not sufficient to dismantle an entire terrorist infrastructure.
ISIS has proven especially resilient to leadership decapitation since its re-mergence onto the international stage in late 2013. Formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and finally ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the organization has survived the deaths of several key leaders including its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2007, the first leader of ISIS Abu-Umar al-Baghdadi in 2010, and al-Adnani last year. But it has nonetheless persisted and transformed into the focal point of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
ISIS’ predecessor, AQI, was on the verge of defeat in 2009 with only approximately 60 members left, but the group rebounded and took the world by storm after it captured large swaths of territory in Iraq in Syria in 2013-2014. Part of the reason for ISIS’ reemergence was its appeal to the local Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq that felt disenfranchised by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the former Bagdad government led by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki.
Due to its resiliency, experts, including Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price, Director of the Combating Terrorism Center the United States Military Academy, anticipate ISIS’ survival even if the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, eventually meets his demise.
“Removing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would likely make the group more susceptible to organizational death than if he remained in power,” Price wrote in The Cipher Brief last year.
“Given the timing of the succession, however, the group is much more resilient than it was 13 years ago and it will likely continue to grow more resilient to a leadership decapitation event over time,” Price explained. “The fact that it has survived the loss of two leaders prior to al-Baghdadi also bodes well for the group’s durability.”
Thus, while leadership decapitation has undoubtedly contributed to promoting U.S. security both at home and abroad, questions still linger over whether this approach faces inherent limitations. Few argue against the continued use of leadership decapitation to weaken terrorist groups, but the need for a more comprehensive strategy has grown increasingly evident as the War on Terror drags on.
“Half a decade after Bin Laden’s death, the world is much changed but seemingly no less dangerous,” The Cipher Brief reported last year. “So the question remains, does cutting the head of the snake destroy the body? Or, like the mythological hydra, does it only leave room for two new heads to sprout in its place?”
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.
Megan Sharifi contributed to this report.