The triumphalist tone of the leaks — the Tarzan-like chest-beating of various leakers — not only is in poor taste but also shreds a long-standing convention that, in these matters, the president has deniability. The president of the United States is not the Godfather.
–Richard Cohen, Washington Post, “Obama loses veneer of deniability with intelligence leaks“
One of the (many) iconic scenes in the first “Godfather” movie is the baptism, where Michael Corleone becomes a godfather at the same time his men are killing the heads of the rival mafia families. Putting aside much of the other symbolism, at it’s core this scene is about protecting the future of the Corleone family by killing enemy leaders. Sound familiar?
Both the Bush and Obama Administrations focused on eliminating Al Qaeda leaders, and it could be argued that this effort has recently been raised to a science of deadly precision with a mix of intelligence gathering and exploitation, special forces’ strikes, and drone attacks.
Putting aside the issue of what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage” — not because it is not morally and strategically important, but because it’s beyond the scope of this particular post — the general argument put forth against this approach is a perceived lack of intelligence gathering. Drone strikes in particular might eliminate a terrorist threat, but they do not allow for questioning of the individual to gather information. On face value this makes sense, yet it also doesn’t take into account the daunting logistical hurdles required for “snatch and grab” missions as compared to drone strikes. And often it seems more like the last resort of a political opposition that has no other argument to make while this Administration has vastly accelerated the elimination of known Al Qaeda leadership. In other words: “yes, you killed the enemies we wanted to kill…but you didn’t capture and torture, uh, we mean subject them to enhanced interrogation!”
A new, novel, and interesting argument on the side against a concerted elimination campaign has begun to be made by Leah Farrall, an Australian counter-terrorism expert. She suggests that perhaps the simple elimination of the current cadre of Al Qaeda senior leadership might result in an even worst outcome due to the ideology of the next generation of leaders:
What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.
In the years to come, owing to this generation being killed off, this type of restraint will disappear; in fact it is clearly already heading in this direction. A significant part of this change is directly attributable to the counter terrorism strategies being employed today. I’m working on a more detailed, research driven piece on this. But in the meantime, the best way of summing up the consequences of a strategy of killing off leadership instead of using a criminal justice approach lies with what happened in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa many years ago.
This provocative opinion set off a virtual firestorm of response…on twitter and among the counter-terrorism blogosphere. You may have missed it. A good summary of the counter-argument was provided by Will McCants of the blog Jihadica:
In summary, al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies. AQ Central’s senior leaders choose their physical targets and means of attack overseas based on opportunity and policy impact. High body counts are welcome. They sanction these attacks for a variety of strategic reasons, the main one being that they want to pressure the US and its Western allies to reduce their influence in Muslim-majority countries so that it will be easier to establish Islamic states.
It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago. AQ Central may have moderated in how it conducts itself in Muslim-majority countries, but it certainly hasn’t moderated toward the United States, which is what has to be uppermost in the minds of US government counter-terrorism policymakers.
In a fortuitous coincidence, the journal International Security not only published two articles addressing this very issue, but have made them available free to the public. As editor of the journal, Sean Lynn-Jones, describes them:
In “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” Bryan Price, who will soon join the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, analyzed the effects of leadership attacks on 207 terrorist groups from sixty-five countries between 1970 and 2008. Price argues that the health of a terrorist organization is tied closely to the strength of its leadership. Removal of a charismatic leader can undermine a terrorist organization. In addition, leadership succession poses particular challenges in secretive organizations that do not institutionalize their operations or train lower-level leaders to assume control. Price finds that killing or capturing the leaders of a group significantly increases the probability that the group will collapse or dissolve, although the organization may endure for several years. This effect was much stronger for new groups; groups that have existed for twenty years are much more likely to survive the killing of their leaders. One of Price’s most important findings is that religious terrorist groups were almost five times more likely to end than nationalist groups after having their leaders killed.
Patrick Johnston, a former fellow in the Belfer Center’s International Security Program who is now at the RAND Corporation, considers whether leadership decapitation reduces the effectiveness of terrorist and insurgent groups. In “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” Johnston compares the consequences of 118 failed and successful attempts to kill top-level insurgent leaders. His study finds that removing the leaders of militant groups enables governments to defeat insurgencies more frequently, reduces the number of insurgent attacks, and diminishes levels of violence. Johnston points out that killing insurgent leaders does not guarantee success, but it increases the probability that governments will defeat insurgents by 25 to 30 percent. He also finds that killing leaders has a stronger effect than capturing them.
You can take or leave these different points of view. However, I believe they are all worth serious consideration.