News | May 4, 2023

Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations

By Larry D. Miller Joint Force Quarterly 109

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Larry D. Miller, Ph.D., directs The Inquiry Project for Communication Research, Cable Creek Publishing, and is a Faculty Instructor, Department of Distance Education, at the U.S. Army War College.
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Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations
By Jenna Jordan
Stanford University Press, 2019
272 pp. $39.95
ISBN: 9781503608245
Reviewed by Larry D. Miller

Leadership decapitation has become increasingly popular as an efficient, economical, and effective counterterrorism option for advancing U.S. interests when dealing with organizations willing to kill civilians in pursuit of political ends. But does the removal of violent nonstate leaders actually yield demonstrably favorable results beyond the obvious: execution or apprehension of a target? Does it, in fact, weaken or bring about the demise of terrorist organizations? In Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations, Jenna Jordan addresses such questions by offering a complex and nuanced discussion of the ways that leadership decapitation affects terrorist organizations and insurgencies that kill civilians.

Ineffective leadership decapitation is that which does not weaken or meaningfully diminish the operational capacity of the decapitated organization. Through analysis and evidence-based argument, Jordan convincingly demonstrates that “leadership targeting has been largely ineffective” in weakening and destabilizing terrorist organizations and often results in increased radicalization and terrorism. Jordan acknowledges, nevertheless, that leadership decapitation is likely to remain a viable policy option—albeit an option largely absent evidence-based guidance for predicting outcomes, until now. Jordan’s analysis and research indicate that anticipating, indeed predicting, outcomes following decapitation is possible. Her detailed research report warrants judicious consideration by senior government and military officials who recommend decapitations and those who authorize them.

Jordan offers the context, theory, data, extensive statistical analyses, and multiple case studies necessary to understand (1) if and when eliminating high-value terrorist leaders reduces terrorism and weakens terrorist organizations, (2) under what circumstances decapitation is unlikely to produce the result intended, and (3) which variables warrant judicious consideration when decapitation is both feasible and consistent with policy goals. The book opens with a well-crafted introduction that defines essential terms, presents her argument and method, summarizes decapitation research, and acknowledges the limitations of leadership decapitation. Following a crisp review of relevant leadership literature, Jordan persuasively argues that organizational resilience accounts for and predicts the impact of decapitation.

Resilient terrorist organizations—though they may be shocked, angered, or inconvenienced by the loss of a leader—do not make good targets for leadership decapitation if the goal is to reduce future threats and weaken the organization. As Jordan explains, resilient organizations benefit from a bureaucratic structure that maintains normative rules and expectations, communal support, and access to essential resources (money, recruits, information, intelligence, and security). Resilient organizations also tend to have a strong anchoring ideology or belief structure that is endemic among adherents and peripheral supporters. Jordan advances this theory of organizational resilience as a way to account for variations in organizational response once the leader has been eliminated through death or capture.

To assess relevant hypotheses, Jordan assembled a database of 1,276 instances of leadership targeting that occurred worldwide between 1970 and 2016. Among the findings: (1) the successful removal of top leadership generates a greater reduction in terrorist activity than does the elimination of the upper echelon of leadership; (2) within the first year following decapitation, Islamist groups are nearly three (2.87) times more likely than non-Islamist groups to renew terrorist attacks; (3) Islamist groups targeted for decapitation are “more likely to increase [terrorist] activity than non-decapitated groups”; and (4) on balance the data indicate that whereas decapitation sometimes works as a counterterrorism tool, it is unlikely to have much effect “against organizations such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hamas.”

Jordan presents three highly informative, readable, and detailed case studies of organizations that use terror for political ends: Hamas, the Shining Path, and al Qaeda. Each case study demonstrates the utility of her application of organizational resilience theory to leadership targeting and decapitation. The Hamas case study (chapter 5) explores how its leadership has survived 81 targeting incidents and how a well-structured bureaucracy, delivery of social services, and community support insulate Hamas from organizational demise following leadership decapitation. The Shining Path case study (chapter 6) explores the ways that group dynamics contributed to the demise of the left-wing Peruvian communist insurgency. Although two of the Shining Path’s leaders (Abimael Guzman and, later, Oscar Durand) were forcibly removed, Jordan maintains that the demise of the Shining Path can be traced to bureaucratic deficiencies and the attendant loss of community support rather than primarily to leadership decapitation. The al Qaeda case study (chapter 7) is primarily a consideration of religious ideology and organizational resilience. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, predictions were rampant that his death foreshadowed the end of al Qaeda’s operational capability. In part, that expectation never materialized because, Jordan argues, al Qaeda morphed into a meta-organization operating through autonomous groups bound by a common ideology and shared goals. Thus, al Qaeda is not a single unified terrorist organization but, rather, a system of loose affiliates each with functional bureaucracies, communal support, and deep adherence to Islamist principles and teachings.

Leadership Decapitation is as challenging as it is informative. The book is comprehensively packed, highly detailed, and supported by multivariate analyses, transition matrices, time series analyses, extensive chapter notes, and a substantial bibliography. Jordan’s book will appeal to two modestly overlapping audiences: data analysts and quantitative researchers who study terror, and senior defense officials and joint force leaders who necessarily deal with it in the real world. Scholars and others familiar with sophisticated statistical modeling and analyses will find the work stimulating, insightful, and informative; yet, generally, that audience lacks the authority to shape counterterrorism policy and/or target terrorist leaders. Conversely, those who shape policy and are positioned to authorize lethal decisions may be skeptical of numerical data and analyses that appear to fly in the face of common sense and post-9/11 practice. Notwithstanding receptivity and accessibility issues, Jordan’s book is an original and valuable contribution to understanding how terrorist organizations and insurgencies survive following the death or capture of senior leadership. JFQ