delanceyplace.com 3/3/10 - decapitation
In today's excerpt - American strategy to combat terrorist groups such as al Qaeda
has centered on finding and removing the leaders of these groups, a strategy known
as "decapitation." A rigorous analysis of all 298 such cases of leadership decapitation
in terrorist groups from 1945 to 2004 suggests that this may be an unproductive
strategy - that these leadership gaps are quickly filled and that groups become
more virulent as a result compared to similar groups where this strategy is not
"Immediately following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
President George W. Bush announced that a 'severe blow' had been dealt
to al Qaeda. Leadership decapitation is not limited to U.S. counterterrorism
efforts. The arrests of the Shining Path's Abimael Guzman and the Kurdistan
Workers' Party's (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan are commonly cited as examples of
successful decapitation. Israel has consistently targeted the leaders of HAMAS.
The arrest of Basque Homeland and Freedom's (ETA) leader Francisco Mugica
Garmenia was seen as likely to result in ETA's collapse, but authorities
determined that the organization was much more complicated than they had
assumed. The recent arrests of two ETA leaders in May and November of
2008 have been characterized by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez
Zapatero as a 'definitive operation in the fight against ETA.'
"Despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of decapitation, there
is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational
collapse. Moreover, there are inconsistencies among current studies of decapitation.
A core problem with the current literature and a primary reason for discrepancy
over the effectiveness of decapitation is a lack of solid empirical foundations.
In order to develop an
empirically grounded assessment of leadership targeting, this study examines
variation in the success of leadership decapitation by developing a comprehensive
dataset of 298 cases of leadership decapitation from 1945-2004. The overarching
goal of this article is to explain whether decapitation is effective. ...
"Optimism toward the success of decapitation is based primarily on theories
of charismatic leadership. ... Social network analysis, which is rooted in sociological
studies of organizational dynamics, would predict more variability
in the success of decapitation. ...
"A [terrorist] group's age, size, and type are all important
predictors of when decapitation is likely to be effective. The data indicate
that as an organization becomes larger and older, decapitation is less likely
to result in organizational collapse. Furthermore, religious groups are highly resistant
to attacks on their leadership, while ideological organizations are
much easier to destabilize through decapitation.
"Second, the data also show that decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism
strategy. Decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse
beyond to a baseline rate of collapse for groups over
time. The marginal utility for decapitation is actually negative. Groups that
have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups
whose leaders have been removed. Decapitation is actually counterproductive,
particularly for larger, older, religious, or separatist organizations.
"Finally, in order to determine whether decapitation hindered the ability
of an organization to carry out terrorist attacks, I looked at three cases in
which decapitation did not result in a group's collapse. The results were
mixed over the extent to which decapitation has resulted in organizational
degradation. While in some cases decapitation resulted in fewer attacks, in
others the attacks became more lethal in the years immediately following
incidents of decapitation. I argue that these results are largely driven by a
group's size and age.
"Ultimately, these findings indicate that our current counterterrorism
strategies need rethinking. The data show that independent of other measures,
going after the leaders of older, larger, and religious groups is not
only ineffective, it is counterproductive. Moreover, the decentralized nature
of many current terrorist organizations has proven to be highly resistant to
decapitation and to other counterterrorism measures."
Jenna Jordan, "When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,"
Security Studies, 18: 719-755, 2009, Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, ISSN:
0963-6412 print/ 1556-1852 online.
You can find the full paper and beta version of the terrorism database at: