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Гр. София, ул. Антон Чехов

by Vladislav Krastev

A brief history of decapitation

Decapitation strategy is a widely practiced counterterrorism measure used by numerous countries around the globe. Essentially, decapitation policy is based on the assumption that capturing or killing the key leader of a terrorist organization would interrupt, impede and destabilize the group’s activities and operations and this would eventually lead to the end of its existence.

Although according to popular perception decapitation as tool for combating terrorism is a measure that was used in the aftermath of 9/11 mainly by the USA and Israel, a brief historical review shows that capturing and/or assassinating terrorist leaders is a counterterrorism measure as old as counterterrorism itself. Several notorious historical examples include the arrests of Red Army Faction leaders in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, the arrest of Abimael Guzman – leader of the Shining Path in Peru in 1992, the assassination of Fathi Shaqaqi, leader of Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine in Malta in 1995, the capture of Abdullah Ocalan – leader of Kurdish Workers Party in Kenya in 1999.  Additionally, in 2002, a US drone killed 6 аl-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, including Abu Ali al-Harithi – the architect of the USS Cole bombing, the assassination of Alfonso Cano, leader of FARC in 2011. And of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden in early May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan in operation Neptune Spear, followed by the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki again in late (in September) 2011, a US citizen and high-ranking leader of аl-Qaeda in Yemen. Finally, the special operation that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019 in Idlib province, northern Syria and most recently the drone strike in January 2020, again in Yemen, that killed Qasim al-Raymi – the leader of аl-Qaeda for the Arabian Peninsula.

Is it effective?

According to Jenna Jordan’s research from 2009 which reviewed 300 cases of leadership decapitation, the arrest and killing of key leaders is not an effective tool for combating terrorism. However, her study has been criticized for reviewing decapitation policy as a predominantly short-term policy rather than long-term as it is, in addition to the fact that she set high criterion for success – according to Jordan decapitation should dismantle the terrorist group in two years. In general, according to her findings, decapitation was effective only in 17% of all reviewed cases and the more resilient to these tactics were religious terrorist groups in comparison to nationalist groups. However, in a more recent study conducted in 2012 counterterrorism expert Bryan Price claims the opposite. According to Price, religious terrorist groups are less resilient and easier to dismantle than nationalist groups. In addition, he states that the leaders of these groups play an important role in framing and in interpreting the organizational goals and strategies and therefore, he argues that decapitation is especially effective against terrorist groups mainly because of the nature of terrorist organizations and their leaders
In general, he argues that terrorist organization are value-based, clandestine and violent, often with a formal hierarchy. In turn, terrorist leaders are charismatic and their succession is more difficult, firstly because of the clandestine nature and secondly, because that personal ideology is difficult to replace. For instance, аl-Qaeda appointed Ayman al-Zawahiri as their new leader almost two months after bin Laden’s death. This was acknowledged by experts as unusual behaviour for an organization which often sent messages through the media. As General John Bahnsen argues, terrorist leaders depend on charisma to gain and attract control, therefore terrorist group are more likely to experience difficulties when an unexpected change occurs.

In comparison, criminal groups such as drug cartels which are also clandestine and violent, exist only to make profit. They are not values-based organizations, their leaders do not do not rely on charisma or ideology to attract members nor does their authority derive primarily from charisma. Profit-based criminal organization leaders are mainly excellent logisticians and operatives. Key leadership decapitation has been a cornerstone tactic in US counterdrug policy since the 1990s. However, it failed to produce significant results. For example, killing Pablo Escobar, in 1993, did not bring an end to the cocaine industry. In 2010, a lead report from the US Customs and Border Protection concluded that eliminating key cartel leaders had had no significant effect on the drug trade. Nonetheless, that does not mean that in general decapitation policies are not effective against terrorist groups, especially religious terrorist groups. For example, the assassination of bin Laden intensified the transformation of аl-Qaeda’s structure from pyramidal organization to more decentralized organization with numerous affiliate groups around the globe. More importantly, terrorism analysts claim that today’s аl-Qaeda is operating with more isolated leadership than before. In general, targeting key leaders tends to weaken terrorist organizations. Counterterrorist expert Boaz Ganor argues that targeting the group’s leadership reduces its operational capability by eliminating its most highly-skilled members and forcing the group to invest valuable time and resources to secure its leaders. A move that detracts terrorist groups from their main activity – conducting terrorist attacks. Indeed, in аl-Qaeda’s case, the pressure coming from the US and its allies reduced the terrorist group’s capability to organize such a large-scale attack similar to 9/11 or the bombings in Madrid and London conducted in March 2004 and July 2005 respectively.

Steven David Professor of International Relations at John Hopkin’s University argues that decapitation also acts as a deterrent. Deterrence refers to the idea that individual or group will refrain from something they are capable of doing because of the fear of severe retaliation. This does not apply to terrorists who commit the actual suicide attacks. The deterrence concerns the operatives behind the suicide bombers, most of whom are people less inclined to martyrdom compared to the suicide bombers. When Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met three leaders of the Palestinian National Authority in January 2002, the Palestinians first wanted an end to Israel’s decapitation policy.

Can it backfire?

Boaz Ganor, the author of numerous articles on counter-terrorism coined the term “boomerang effect”. The “boomerang effect” happens when an attack on a terrorist organization occurs and it responds with retaliation against the state and its citizens. There are several examples of this, the assassination of Yahya Ayyash (aka the Engineer – chief bombmaker and high-ranking operative of Hamas), allegedly executed by Shin Bet, led to four suicide bombings that killed 78 Israelis in early 1996. However, when Fathi Shaqaqi (previously mentioned in the introduction) was gunned down in Malta, there was no retaliation attack against Israel. However, a brief analysis of terrorist acts shows that it cannot be categorically stated that after a target killing or arrest a direct terrorist attack follows. There are cases where there is “boomerang effect’” and cases there are not. And it should not be forgotten that the main activity of terrorist groups is to commit terrorist acts.

Is it legal?

The most important aspect of decapitation as a measure is probably the dimension of legality. It must be taken into account that terrorist are combats, regardless of whether they wear uniforms or not. As Professor Steven David claims according to the laws of war and armed conflicts, combatants are subject to attack. When the state is at war with an enemy that does not follow the rules of conventional warfare, options for self-defence could include use of decapitation techniques. Of course, the use of this measure must be with clearly defined criterion and should be used in cases when there is conclusive evidence that the target poses an imminent threat to the public of a given country.
Is it fit-all solution?

Decapitation as a measure is a long-term counterterrorism policy as well as context-dependent tactic. Whether it is a successful measure or not depends on the context.  Indeed, if the criterion for success is the immediate and total destruction of a terrorist group, then we could conclude that in very few cases this measure was successful. However, if we lower the criterion, we could conclude similarly to Bryan Price that the capture or the killing of terrorist leaders tends to disrupt terrorist organizations’ activity. The prominent scholars Seth Jones and Martin Libicki state in their study from 2008 that the narrower the goal of a terrorist organization, the more likely it can be achieved without violent action, simply by involving the terrorist group in the country’s political process. They also argue that the elimination of most terrorist groups requires a wide range of policy instruments, such as bilateral negotiations, economic sanctions, policing, intelligence work and use of military force. In that, policy makers need to understand where and how to prioritize their efforts depending on the terrorist organization they are dealing with. Unfortunately, given that аl-Qaeda’s final goal is to impose global jihad and Hamas aims at the full destruction of Israel, a negotiated settlement with these terrorist groups is not possible option in the near future and countries such as the USA and Israel do not have a wide variety of counterterrorism options in combating terrorism.


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