Killing Top Terrorists Is Not Enough

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A skeptical caution about the efficacy of targeting top leaders comes from Jenna Jordan, an assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She first distilled her critique in a 2009 article in Security Studies titled, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation.”

“Decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism strategy,” Jordan wrote bluntly. She said killing top leaders “does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse,” and that “decapitation is more likely to have counterproductive effects in larger, older, religious and separatist organizations.”

Analyzing 298 incidents from 1945 to 2004, Jordan found that killing the leader of a group resulted in its collapse only 30 percent of the time. With religious organizations, less than 5 percent collapsed after the leader was killed. Overall, organizations were actually more prone to decline if their leaders survived.

Jordan updated her contrarian assessment last year in in an article titled “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark” in the journal International Security. Here, she focused on the decade-long decapitation campaign against al-Qaeda following its Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. She found that the United States launched 109 strikes on al-Qaeda leadership between 2001 and 2011. But the number of attacks by the group and its affiliates “rose steadily” over that decade. As the lethality of attacks from al-Qaeda’s core declined, that of its affiliates increased.

“Essentially, al-Qaeda did not suffer a period of degradation,” she warned in the 2014 study. The lesson was that, “even if organizations are weakened after the killing or arrest of their leaders, they tend to survive, regroup and continue carrying out attacks.”

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

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Keywords
al-Quada, INTA, Jordan, Nunn School, press, terrorism
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  • Created By: Beth Godfrey
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Mar 9, 2015 - 5:49am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 10:24pm