3/3/10 - decapitation

In today's excerpt - American strategy to combat terrorist groups such as al Qaeda has centered on finding and removing the leaders of these groups, a strategy known as 'decapitation.' A rigorous analysis of all 298 such cases of leadership decapitation in terrorist groups from 1945 to 2004 suggests that this may be an unproductive strategy—that these leadership gaps are quickly filled and that groups become more virulent as a result, compared to similar groups where this strategy is not employed:

"Immediately following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, President George W. Bush announced that a 'severe blow' had been dealt to al Qaeda. Leadership decapitation is not limited to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The arrests of the Shining Path's Abimael Guzman and the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan are commonly cited as examples of successful decapitation. Israel has consistently targeted the leaders of HAMAS. The arrest of Basque Homeland and Freedom's (ETA) leader Francisco Mugica Garmenia was seen as likely to result in ETA's collapse, but authorities determined that the organization was much more complicated than they had assumed. The recent arrests of two ETA leaders in May and November of 2008 have been characterized by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as a 'definitive operation in the fight against ETA.'

"Despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of decapitation, there is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational collapse. Moreover, there are inconsistencies among current studies of decapitation. A core problem with the current literature and a primary reason for discrepancy over the effectiveness of decapitation is a lack of solid empirical foundations. In order to develop an empirically grounded assessment of leadership targeting, this study examines variation in the success of leadership decapitation by developing a comprehensive dataset of 298 cases of leadership decapitation from 1945-2004. The overarching goal of this article is to explain whether decapitation is effective. ...

"Optimism toward the success of decapitation, is based primarily on theories of charismatic leadership. ... Social network analysis which is rooted in sociological studies of organizational dynamics would predict more variability in the success of decapitation. ...

"A [terrorist] group's age, size and type are all important predictors of when decapitation is likely to be effective. The data indicate that as an organization becomes larger and older, decapitation is less likely to result in organizational collapse. Furthermore, religious groups are highly resistant to attacks on their leadership, while ideological organizations are much easier to destabilize through decapitation.

"Second, the data also show that decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism strategy. Decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond to a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time. The marginal utility for decapitation is actually negative. Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. Decapitation is actually counterproductive, particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations.

"Finally, in order to determine whether decapitation hindered the ability of an organization to carry out terrorist attacks, I looked at three cases in which decapitation did not result in a group's collapse. The results were mixed over the extent to which decapitation has resulted in organizational degradation. While in some cases decapitation resulted in fewer attacks, in others the attacks became more lethal in the years immediately following incidents of decapitation. I argue that these results are largely driven by a group's size and age.

"Ultimately these findings indicate that our current counterterrorism strategies need rethinking. The data show that independent of other measures, going after the leaders of older larger and religious groups is not only ineffective it is counterproductive. Moreover, the decentralized nature of many current terrorist organizations has proven to be highly resistant todecapitation and to other counterterrorism measures."


Jenna Jordan


When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation


Security Studies


Number 18


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