Attacking ISIS’s Leadership: Short Term Gain for Long Term Pain?

By Sebastian Bae and Scott Lassan

In recent months, the United States has made several strikes against ISIS’s leadership, wounding its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and killing another senior commander, Abu Sayyaf. Yet shortly after, ISIS, seemingly unaffected by the strikes, went on the offensive and captured the city of Ramadi leading to questions about the efficacy of targeted killings and whether or not such attacks were actually effective in weakening ISIS.

In order to determine whether or not targeted killings can weaken and/or defeat a terrorist organization, it’s important to look at previous cases when the US and/or other countries eliminated terrorist leaders– the quintessential example being the Osama Bin Laden raid in 2011. While the removal of Bin Laden was applauded worldwide, the strike did not cripple al-Qaeda’s operational capacity. After his death, Bin Laden was replaced by Ayman al-Zawahiri and the organization continued operating more or less normally.

The survival of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s demise was widely predicted by terrorism experts like Audrey Cronin who argued in her book, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, that terrorist organizations that have been defeated through the death of their leaders were hierarchically structured, possessed a certain degree of a cult of personality, and lacked a viable successor – none of which characterized al-Qaeda. According to Cronin, the group enjoys a mutable structure composed of a hierarchy, but also a network of cells and sub-groups operating around the world with their own local initiatives. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one such sub-group, has arguably had more success after the death of Bin Laden as Yemen slowly spirals into chaos. Only time will tell if this week’s death of the head of AQAP and al-Qaeda’s second in command Nasir al-Wuhayshi will have any impact on AQAP’s power of operational effectiveness or if business as usual will continue like after Bin Laden’s death (AQAP has already appointed Wuhayshi’s successor: Qasm al-Rimi).

Another example of when targeted killings failed is with the death of Boko Haram’s original founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf sought to create an Islamic state in the northern part of Nigeria and had become popular among disaffected youth for speaking out against police and political corruption. He was captured by Nigerian forces and killed in police custody in 2009 along with several other members of the group (he was said to have been killed while trying to escape). Yusuf’s death did little to change the rampant corruption within the country, leaving the primary impetus behind Boko Haram’s cause untouched. Furthermore, Yusuf’s death paved the way for one of his deputies, Abubakar Shekau, to take over the organization. Ironically, Yusuf’s death has spurred Shekau’s current campaign of terror in Nigeria and the border areas of neighboring states like Chad, dwarfing his predecessor’s geographical range and death toll.

While these examples demonstrate that the death of a terrorist organization’s leader does not necessarily hurt the organization, there have been cases where strikes against the leadership have done exactly that. The death of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, the leader of Abu Sayyaf, the Filipino terrorist organization, (an offshoot of the Moro National Liberation Front and not to be confused with the ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf) led to the organization’s fracturing. According to Audrey Cronin, the group splintered into several smaller loosely affiliated groups, which couldn’t reach the same level of success as Abu Sayyaf, and instead began engaging in criminal activity as a means to support themselves. While the death of Janjalani severely weakened the group, it did still manage to survive and would later swear an oath to join ISIS in 2014. Even so, some experts have stated that this pledge is more of a means to gain publicity and notoriety than to actually materially support ISIS.

The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, a Tamil separatist and terrorist organization in Sri Lanka, also serves as a successful example of a targeted killing defeating a terror group. For nearly thirty years, the LTTE waged a brutal insurgency and terrorist campaign against the Sri Lankan government, best embodied by four bloody Eelam Wars. Yet, despite fielding a highly sophisticated suicide division, called the Black Tigers, a wealth of funding, and unprecedented military capabilities including a nascent air force and naval assets, the LTTE was summarily defeated in May 2009 by the Sri Lankan military. Analysts have argued the death of Prabhakaran in Eelam War IV as the critical deathblow to the fierce insurgency. As the LTTE was heavily centralized around Prabhakaran’s leadership, best described as a cult of personality, his death collapsed the organization. Nearly six years removed from the defeat of the LTTE, no other Tamil militant group has filled the void.

All of these cases have garnered different results, and it is important to emphasize that these organizations vary greatly in structure. A decentralized group operating with cells will obviously be less impacted by the loss of a leader than a group with a centralized command structure or a cult of personality.

ISIS itself is an odd entity as it represents both characteristics of a decentralized organization, especially in its origins, as well as a more centralized structure with its own brand of government. According to Audrey Cronin, the best way to describe ISIS is a “pseudo-state led by a conventional army.” As a result, the air strike that maimed Bagdadi and the Special Operations raid that led to the death of Abu Sayyaf only had a limited impact on the organization’s operational capabilities.

As long as ISIS offers an alternative form of governance, however brutal, to the incompetence of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government, its insurgency and ranks of Sunni fighters will only swell. Targeted killing campaigns, whether by special operations or drones, merely serves as the illusion of decisive action. Fueled by territorial gains and the routing of Iraqi forces, ISIS has established a rival government within its conquered territory – collecting trash, taxes, and providing social services. ISIS’s control of territory generates prestige, legitimacy, and revenues to fund its bludgeoning army, as its leadership provides direction and a political narrative. Therefore, analogous to the campaign against the LTTE, there must be a comprehensive and coordinated offensive to both destroy ISIS’s grasp on major urban centers and eliminate its leadership. The body of the organization must be critically weakened for the loss of leadership to bear long-term effects. Otherwise, a new leader will rise to assume the role as we saw demonstrated by al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

And even if all of ISIS’s leadership is captured or killed, if the government in Baghdad cannot prove its ability to govern better than ISIS, this war will wage on. Ultimately, the deaths of leaders or the capture of cities may grab headlines, but the poignant battle for the right to govern, the long, protracted effort that will take place far from the public eye, will be a crucial factor that determines the rise or fall of ISIS.

Photo by US Air Force/ Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/ Public Domain (image was modified)

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