Leaders May Die, But Terror Still Thrives

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 2011. Pete Souza—The White House


By: Tina Huang, Columnist

In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States launched a massive counterterror campaign focused on taking out al-Qaeda’s (AQ) high value targets (HVT), individuals in crucial leadership positions. Initially, these HVT operations eliminated key leaders within AQ and seemed to degrade the organization’s recruitment, communication, and training capabilities. Yet, AQ presently boasts a global movement consisting of over two dozen affiliates from North Africa to South Asia.[1] AQ’s recent resurgence underscores the group’s ability to adapt its strategy and organizational structure to withstand US counterterror measures. As a result, there is little evidence that HVT campaigns have successfully diminished the organization’s long-term operational capabilities and raises the question of why leadership decapitation has failed to eradicate the AQ network after 17 years.

One of the guiding assumptions animating the current HVT campaign against AQ is the notion that this tactic promises to eliminate charismatic leaders who are difficult to replace and, consequently, substantially degrade the terrorist group’s network. According to Max Weber, charismatic leaders are those who encompass superhuman or supernatural qualities that serve as the organization’s foundation for strength and cohesion.[2] Social network analysis contends that leaders within an organization typically have the most social ties within the group, thereby making them critical for operational success.[3] Combined, these two leadership components suggest that the elimination of a well-connected, charismatic leader should lead to an organization’s collapse. To date, the U.S. has killed over 50 senior AQ leaders, including 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.[4] Theoretically, bin Laden was an ideal candidate for HVT since he was incredibly charismatic and possessed immense connections throughout AQ’s vast network. According to this theory, eliminating bin Laden should have significantly diminished AQ’s functionality. Yet, the recent surge in AQ capabilities–seven years after bin Laden’s death–indicates that leadership decapitation may only cripple organizations under certain, highly nuanced conditions.

Research on HVT and leadership decapitation suggests that, in some cases, killing a leader may not only be ineffective, but also counterproductive. Terrorism scholar Jenna Jordan found that religious terror groups are exceptionally resilient to leadership decapitation, going as far as to argue that leadership decapitation can actually improve religious terror groups’ likelihood of survival compared to those group that have not suffered the loss of a leader.[5] This trend may be attributable to the idea of martyrdom, in which a leader’s death is considered a heroic act of immense sacrifice for a greater cause. In turn, this can fuel recruitment, attracting passionate and aggrieved individuals convinced it is necessary to continue the fight against a greater evil. Moreover, other studies found that removing the leader of a religious terrorist group may actually increase the frequency and lethality of the group’s attacks.[6] This trend was observed after the 2006 death of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Weekly terror attacks prior to Zarqawi’s death averaged around 950; three months after his death the average number of weekly attacks increased to 1,400, climbing to 1,600 the following year.[7] While there may be other factors contributing to this trend, it is clear that, at best, removing Zarqawi did not reduce AQI’s operational capacity.

Furthermore, the organizational structure plays a major role in an HVT campaign’s effectiveness. Groups with a centralized structure have a clear chain of command that drives the group’s functionality.[8] Consequently, the loss of a leader from a group with a hierarchical command structure tends to have a ripple effect across the group’s capabilities as the primary force within the chain of command is eliminated. At the same time, hierarchical groups usually possess clear mechanisms of leadership succession, allowing the group to recover more efficiently since internal disputes regarding who is next in line are less likely to occur. In a decentralized structure, the group is dispersed and factions have more freedom to operate independently.[9] Thus, while the loss of a leader in this organizational structure will not directly impact the group’s global affiliates, the entity that specifically suffered the loss may suffer a succession crisis. This will likely reduce the group’s operational capacity for an indefinite period as they identify a new leader.

Applied to AQ, the setbacks of sustained HVT operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan led the group to shift its organization to a more decentralized structure as affiliates began to appear across North Africa and the Middle East.[10] This allowed AQ to continue to maintain an international presence as the U.S. pummeled its headquarters with drone strikes. Furthermore, AQ began to shift its strategy from launching its own attacks to inspiring and advising individuals worldwide on how to carry out their own attacks in the name of the group. The proliferation of social media enabled AQ to communicate with its supporters in real time and expanded the group’s reach beyond the Middle East.[11] AQ’s ability to quickly adapt both its structure and strategy in the face of concerted U.S. counterterrorism efforts suggest HVT campaigns lose their effectiveness over time as terror groups learn how to be resilient. In fact, research has shown that the impact of leadership decapitation on a terror group decreases by half in the first ten years of a group’s existence and is virtually inconsequential after twenty years.[12] Considering that AQ is now thirty years old[13] and the war against the group is three years short of entering its second decade, the U.S. should acknowledge that HVT campaigns may soon be nearing their expiration date of effectiveness against AQ.  

Despite the drawbacks of HVT campaigns, targeting AQ’s leadership has yielded some positive milestones. To start, Osama bin Laden warned his aide that when top leaders die, the lower ranking leaders who are promoted are more susceptible to miscalculation and mistakes.[14] The extensive experience of leading a transnational terrorist organization can only be acquired through time. Therefore, even if a less qualified and experienced leader were to supplant the lost leader, the group may naturally lose operational capability. The obvious difficulty in measuring this loss is the counterfactual of whether AQ could have accomplished another spectacular attack if bin Laden was still leading the group. Additionally, counterterrorism expert Daniel Byman notes that U.S. drone strikes have taken out the lower ranks of AQ, diminishing the group’s ability to recruit, fundraise, and carry out suicide bombings. Byman also contends that in an effort to avoid drone strikes, AQ has significantly reduced use of electronic communication and the frequency of large gatherings.[15] This is because virtual communications can be easily intercepted by U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) and large groups of extremists present obvious and ideal targets for drone strikes. This restrains leaders from giving orders and deters large-scale trainings. These changes in behavior suggest that the U.S. Government’s HVT campaign has slightly deteriorated AQ’s capabilities.

Overall, the effectiveness of HVT campaigns continues to be a hotly debated. In the short run, leadership decapitation has hindered AQ’s proficiency. Yet, in the long-run AQ has demonstrated its ability to adapt its organizational structure and strategy to endure the loss of a leader. Furthermore, the group uses the concept of martyrdom to transform a perceived defeat into masterful recruitment propaganda. Thus, AQ has proven to embody the resiliency necessary to survive and thrive under HVT strikes. To further degrade AQ, U.S. forces should capitalize on successful HVT strikes and carry out additional counterterrorism measures to eliminate opportunities for the group to regroup and resurrect. Moving forward, the United States must account for AQ’s agility to adapt and implement policies flexible enough to both anticipate the group’s next move and change in response. By forecasting and proactively countering the terrorist group’s reaction, the United States will have a higher likelihood of degrading AQ’s operational capacity in the long-run.








[1] Bruce Hoffman, “Al-Qaeda’s Ressurection,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/al-qaedas-resurrection.

[2] Max Weber, The Theory of Economic and Social Organization (New York: Free Press, 1964).

[3] Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18:719-755, (2009).

[4] Peter Bergen, “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing,” Testimony presented before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, April 23, 2013, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/04-23-13BergenTestimony.pdf.

[5] Jordan, “When Heads Roll.”

[6] Aaron Mannes, “Testing the Snake Head Strategy: Does Killing or Capturing Its Leaders Reduce a Terrorist Group’s Activity?,” Journal of International Policy Solutions 9, (Spring 2008).

[7] Matt Frankel, “The ABCs of HVT: Key Lessons from High Value Targeting Campaigns Against Insurgents and Terrorists,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, January 3, 2011.

[8] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, “Terrorist Organizational Models” in A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, August 15, 2007

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jordan, “When Heads Roll.”

[11] Timothy L. Thomas, “Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of “Cyberplanning,” Army War College, Spring 2003, http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/Articles/03spring/thomas.pdf.

[12] Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists,” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 4. No. 36 (Spring 2012)

[13] Andrew Wander, “A History of Terror: Al-Qaeda 1988-2008,” The Guardian, July 12, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jul/13/history.alqaida.

[14] Daniel L. Byman, “Why Drones Work,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/somalia/2013-06-11/why-drones-work.

[15] Ibid.

One thought on “Leaders May Die, But Terror Still Thrives

  1. There is another aspect that needs to be considered. We have been operating under the assumption of the democratic peace theory that wars are the result of evil tyrants, and people would reject war if the tyrannical government is replaced by a democratic system. James Madison made the case for this view in his essay on universal peace (https://thefederalistpapers.org/founders/madison/james-madison-universal-peace-national-gazette-february-2-1792), but he also noted there is a second type of war, which accords with the will of society. We may be encountering the second type of war, not in the sense of the entire society desiring war, but in which enough are willing to fight that they are effectively in control. Ultimately, we have to confront the question of whether we have returned to the world which was described by Thomas Hobbes, in which the natural state of humanity is not peace but war. Hobbes’s solution was not democracy, but Leviathan–in other words, the tyrant. As I look around the world and see the challenges to democracy, I wonder if we are not going back in time.

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