“Decapitating” Terrorist Groups Doesn’t Work

People have raised a number of concerns about the US government’s increasing use of missile strikes inside Pakistani territory as a counter-terrorism measure, but rarely is the question asked “how valuable is killing terrorist leaders as a means of disrupting their organizations?” Robert Wright says it’s not very effective and you can tell he’s not going to convince anyone because he’s citing actual academic research from Jenna Jordan at the University of Chicago:

There’s no way of answering this question with complete confidence, but it turns out there are some relevant and little-known data. They were compiled by Jenna Jordan of the University of Chicago, who published her findings last year in the journal Security Studies. She studied 298 attempts, from 1945 through 2004, to weaken or eliminate terrorist groups through “leadership decapitation” — eliminating people in senior positions.

Her work suggests that decapitation doesn’t lower the life expectancy of the decapitated groups — and, if anything, may have the opposite effect.

Here’s Table 10 from her paper:


Consistent with the earlier data on organizational type, Decapitation is more effective against ideological organizations than religious organizations (see Table 10). Ideological organizations are more likely to fall apart than religious groups whether or not decapitation is taken into consideration. However, across all types of organizations, groups whose leaders have been targeted have a lower rate of decline. The marginal value of decapitation is negative for ideological groups, while the marginal utility of decapitation is even lower for religious and separatist groups. Ideological groups that had their leaders removed fall apart 7 percent less often than those that did not. Religious groups that have undergone decapitation are 16 percent less likely to fall apart than those that did not. Finally, separatist groups that have had a leader removed are 31 percent less likely to cease activity than separatist groups that have not. This data support the argument that decapitation is not an effective strategy. Given that religious groups are more resilient overall, it is surprising that decapitation has less utility against separatist than religious organizations. The difference between the utility of decapitation against religious and separatist organizations could be due to the fact that separatist organizations have a large base of community support that can ensure a group’s survival in the face of counterterrorism measures.

As a disclaimer, I haven’t personally reviewed the data set or the math that she’s working with, but the paper was in a peer reviewed journal. The first rule of being an American foreign policy practitioner or pundit is something like “ignore all relevant academic research” so I doubt this will make a ton of difference on the debate.

Andrew Exum offers some comments here.