A Long-Term Counterterrorism Strategy?

Decapitation : A Long-Term Counterterrorism Strategy? - Matthew Melino

On 1 November 2013, a US drone strike in North Waziristan killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.  His death is one of a growing number of high-profile senior Islamic militants, including Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Ayyub al Masri, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, who have fallen victim to the US counterterrorism strategy of leadership-targeting or decapitation.

Decapitation became a defining characteristic of US counterterrorism policy in 2003 following the release of the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (NSCT). The rationale behind the strategy is simple – terrorist leadership provides overall direction and strategy for the group, linking grievances and ultimately becoming the catalyst for terrorist action. Therefore, eliminating the leader should result in the group’s collapse. Counterterrorism strategies have since relied on this assumption and have succeeded in removing influential figures. However al-Qaeda and TPP continue to promote their extremist ideology, and their adaptability in the aftermath of targeted killings leads many to question whether decapitation is truly an effective long-term strategy. 

Decapitation achieves two important short-term objectives. First, it eliminates the central aspect of any terrorist organization – a charismatic leader, one with the ability to inspire, galvanize support for an idea, command unquestioned loyalty, and achieve internal unification amongst followers. Without such an individual, terrorist organizations become disillusioned and disorganized.  

Al-Qaeda has experienced such a period since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden. Lacking its talismanic leader, the group is fractured, and uncertainty about its future renders it increasingly ineffective. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is unable to mend internal divisions between the group’s numerous franchises including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria). This has led to the emergence of disparate agendas, which has subsequently reduced the organizations global influence and reach. 

Second, the death of a charismatic leader and the subsequent leadership transition creates space for the introduction of new ideas and objectives that could disrupt internal unification. This is currently unfolding within the TPP as the death of Hakimullah Mehsud prompted an internal power struggle. TPP Leadership recently selected hardliner Mullah Fazlullah as its new leader, a decision that created strong rifts among rival clans who opposed Fazlullah’s appointment on the grounds that he is not a member of the traditional Mehsud tribe.  The decision even prompted some senior militants in attendance to claim the group’s leadership was doomed. Although Mehsud’s death and Fazlullah’s appointment shifts TPP’s agenda, Fazlullah’s hardline ideology and tendency for greater militancy will complicate counterterrorism efforts. He already rejected the possibility of peace talks with the Pakistani government, a move his predecessor was considering. He also vowed to embark on a violent campaign of retribution, targeting government installations in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and a political stronghold of Prime Minister Sharif.

Although decapitation achieves several short-term successes and presents opportunities to further cripple terrorist groups, its long-term effectiveness is still unclear. Drone strikes, often the weapon of choice, legitimize extremist rhetoric. Terrorist leaders are transformed into martyrs, which increases publicity for the group’s cause, leading to greater recruitment, greater radicalization, and retaliatory attacks. The perceived indiscriminate use of violence by foreign governments is also a motivating factor for greater local support. In the wake of civilian casualties, the pursuit of revenge and fear of future attacks strengthens the bonds between militants and local citizens.

The bottom line is decapitation is successful at removing terrorist leaders, but it does not defeat the group’s source of strength – its message. Despite the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Hakimullah Mehsud, their ambition of fundamentally reshaping the global landscape lives on and continues to spread across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Since 2003, it is estimated that al-Qaeda has absorbed or merged with 10 terrorist groups and upped its presence in 19 countries, leading many to argue whether killing one terrorist only serves to create two more.

The question therefore must be asked – is there something missing within the decapitation strategy that limits its long-term effectiveness? In order to answer this question, policymakers must first understand the ideological nature of the threat. Al-Qaeda, the TPP, and its affiliates are defined as “traditionalist” insurgencies. They seek to reestablish an ancient political system characterized by political rule based on Islamic law. (See Bard E. O’Neill’s Insurgency & Terrorism). It is the strong religious ideology and societal ties these groups maintain that renders decapitation ineffective in the long-term. Their existence is not determined by the presence of a single charismatic leader, but instead a devoted following united by community held beliefs and a powerful message. This makes it easier for them to not only survive the loss of a figurehead but also to rebuild, retain communal support, and avoid collapse.

To be effective in the long-term, decapitation must be combined with an effective ‘ground game’. This includes taking advantage of the opportunity to inject a more appealing message amongst the communal support base in the aftermath of a leader’s death and during the subsequent period of transition. The message should win the hearts and minds of local communities and highlight the disconnect between society’s religious ideals and the increasingly violent and extreme actions of terrorist groups. In doing so, degrees of separation will emerge through which the US can build confidence amongst local populations and include them in the campaign against terror. Separating the terrorists from their support base will ultimately leave the group isolated and vulnerable to collapse.