Many people will greet the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death with a sense of relief. The families of his victims will likely see his death by an American bullet as a fitting retribution. As a symbolic act, his death is a coup for the Obama administration. But beyond the relief and symbolism, is the tradition of targeting terrorist group leaders simply an exercise in revenge, or is it good policy?
In a research project currently underway at Carleton University we examined almost 250 of the most important terrorist and insurgent groups operating between 1970 and 2007, with more than 130 cases of terrorist group leaders captured or killed. The initial evidence indicates that the killing of a leader is not systematically associated with a terrorist group’s termination or even a clear reduction in its pace of operations. Instead, the operational consequences of killing terrorist leaders are more complex.
In some cases, the death of a leader is connected to the demise of the group, as in the 1997 killing of Néstor Cerpa Cartolini by Peruvian commandos. After the death of their leader, an already diminished Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement effectively collapsed.
Along the same lines, the bombing death of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi in 2006, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was followed by a temporary decrease in the number of attacks lasting for several months. However, the attacks eventually resumed as if nothing had happened. Only after a surge in U.S. troops combined with the so-called “Awakening” was there a lasting reduction in Al Qaeda attacks along with other incidents of Iraqi sectarian violence.
At the other extreme, however, the killing of a leader may be followed by an increased operational tempo. When the Filipino military killed Abu Sayyaf’s leader Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani in a gun battle in late 1998, the group reached its zenith of terrorist attacks over the next four years.
Given these varied outcomes, can we predict the effects of what will happen to al Qaeda now that Bin Laden is dead? There are two competing views. Former CIA operative Marc Sageman contends that continuous pressure from the United States and its allies has long since marginalized the central command of Al Qaeda and bin Laden himself. By contrast, Bruce Hoffman of RAND argues that Al Qaeda retains a functional and lethal core of bin Laden associates, and his death represents a cataclysmic blow to the organization.
Our research suggests that the effect of killing a leader depends on the organization’s structure. Terrorist groups that are either very centralized or decentralized seem largely immune to isolated leadership targeting because the former have a framework for replacement and continuity while the latter have no key people to kill. However, groups with intermediate levels of centralization — such as post-9/11 al Qaeda — are generally more vulnerable to leadership targeting and experience, at least an initial operational decline.
Unfortunately, predicting the effects of killing a specific terrorist leader remains a guessing game. Perhaps the only clear effects are in the states that the terrorists have targeted. Killing a terrorist leader provides a catharsis for an emotionally wounded and grieving population in search of both revenge and justice. There may also be an important political payoff for government leaders who can burnish their security credentials by pointing to dead terrorists; President Obama’s popularity won’t be hurt by having the hunt for bin Laden succeed on his watch when success eluded his predecessor.
Joshua Kilberg and Dane Rowlands are terrorism experts at The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Canada.