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Leadership Strikes Are Not a Sound Counterterrorism Policy

According to the State Department’s 2020 Terror Assessment, the policy of assassinating organization leaders — a mainstay of U.S. counterterrorism efforts — is insufficient to curbing the spread of terrorist groups or to diminishing the lethality of their attacks. This finding should not come as a surprise to terrorism experts: the command-and-control structure of modern terrorist organizations renders useless conventional military doctrine. Instead, policymakers should create space for cooperation between military and foreign policy professionals, identifying the tactical and ideological centers of power for terrorist organizations and planning campaigns accordingly.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, 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, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Leadership assassinations have been a fixture of U.S. defense policy since the beginning of the War on Terror. The best-known example of this strategy is that of Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda founder who was killed by a U.S. commando raid in 2011. At the time, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy was well-positioned to take over the leadership of al-Qaeda, and the terrorist group’s operations continued largely unhindered. Even Bin Laden’s charisma and oratory abilities was not lost to the group, as al-Qaeda continues to use recordings of his speeches in propaganda campaigns, hailing Bin Laden as a martyr to the cause.

As with the case of al-Qaeda, the al-Shabaab terrorist organization faced little operational disruption after a 2014 U.S. drone strike killed then-leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. Godane’s successor was named just two days after his death, and the group’s attacks have since increased in both frequency and intensity. Finally, Mutaz al-Jaburi, a man believed to have been one of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) top leaders was killed by a coalition airstrike in May 2020. While it’s too early to tell if Jaburi’s death will have a tangible impact on ISIS operations, this example highlights that the U.S. continues to prioritize leadership strikes.

Targeted killings have remained a central tenet of counterterrorism strategy because of their political expedience, and due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the structure of terrorist groups. First and foremost, targeted killings make for good public relations opportunities for government officials. It is well documented that four-year presidential election cycles compel leaders to seek out quick victories that can build on  a reelection platform rather than investing in longer-term strategic thinking. Particularly on issues of terrorism, where violent attacks frequently stem from underlying political and economic grievances, total eradication is not a purely military effort, but necessitates investments in development and diplomatic engagement.

A second reason for the endurance of this counterterrorism strategy is the prevailing idea that terrorist groups can be defeated using conventional military tactics. The idea of “cutting off the snake’s head” has permeated military thinking as far back as the Prussians, postulating that focusing overwhelming force on an important leader will bring about mission failure. What this tactical goal fails to consider is that terrorist groups do not function as a single military unit, but as a dispersed group of fighters. Although there may be a symbolic organizational head, tactical decisions are made by cell leaders. As such, the assassination of a Bin Laden or a Godane will not disrupt attack plans. Because terrorist groups are ideologically driven, leader deaths may actually drive recruitment or further radicalize existing members.

The 2020 Terror Assessment noted that truly combatting terrorism requires concerted effort to address those threats within American borders, most notably white supremacist groups. But even within the realm of overseas operations, more can be done to enhance counterterrorism efforts. The key to effectively and systematically address these threats is to account for the decentralized command-and-control structure employed by nearly all modern terrorist organizations.

Short of deploying soldiers to every corner of the world, military leaders must be prepared to rely on civilians for support in combatting terrorism. Within the U.S. and allied countries, community leaders have a role to play in preventing homegrown extremism among youth. Technology firms can also contribute these efforts by stepping-up efforts to identify and remove content linked to terrorist operations. In farther-flung parts of the world, military force may continue to be the most effective way of purging terrorist groups. These military leaders should draw on the expertise of diplomats and on-the-ground aid workers to get a better sense of local conditions, discerning which terrorist cells are responsible for particularly deadly or damaging attacks. Eliminating these strong local cells will have a more tangible impact on terrorist operations.

The War on Terror is not one that can be won or lost, but is a sustained security threat that necessitates careful, systematic work to mitigate. Shifting this thinking on terrorist issues will go a long way towards holding military and political leaders accountable for tangible gains — those that diminish terrorist capabilities, curb recruitment, or address underlying issues — rather than rewarding quick wins like leaderships assassination.


Kathryn Urban

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