Decapitation Is Not an Effective Counterterrorism Policy

By Jenna Jordan

Dr. Jordan received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and M.A. in Political Science from Stanford University. She previously held a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include terrorism, population transfers, attachment to territory, and international security. Her book manuscript focuses on the leadership decapitation of terrorist organizations. Jordan’s research has been supported by grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation and the University of Chicago.

Is targeting the leadership of terrorist organizations an effective counterterrorism strategy? States can employ a number of different tactics in order to weaken and defeat militant organizations – they can use brute force, repression, regime change, negotiations, undermining support, ideological change, cutting off finances, and leadership targeting. While states have employed all of these measures, leadership decapitation – which refers to the arrest or killing of a group’s leadership – has become a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy and reflects the prevailing view among many academics and policymakers that removing a group’s leadership inflicts irreparable damage on its capacity to operate.

Attacks against the leadership of al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other militant groups show no sign of decline.  It­­ is thus critical to evaluate whether it is an effective counterterrorism strategy, the conditions under which it likely to succeed or fail, or whether it has the potential to result in adverse outcomes.

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