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A Brief History of Decapitation

The 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, eventually leading to the end of its existence.

Decapitation strategies, which involve specifically targeting and eliminating terrorist leaders, have long been recognized as an effective approach to countering terrorism. This method predates the post-9/11 era and is particularly associated with the United States and Israel. Throughout history, it has been implemented in different ways. During the 1970s and 1980s, West Germany apprehended key members of the Red Army Faction. An important event occurred in 1992 with the arrest of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path in Peru. International efforts include the elimination of Fathi Shaqaqi, the leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement, in Malta in 1995, as well as the apprehension of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, in Kenya in 1999.

The 21st century witnessed an escalation in such operations, specifically regarding Islamic terrorists. In 2002, a US drone strike in Yemen eliminated six al-Qaeda operatives, including the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, Abu Ali al-Harithi. This was followed by the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011. Later that year, Anwar al-Awlaki, a key al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, was also eliminated. The trend continued with the 2019 operation against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, in Syria, and the 2020 drone strike in Yemen that killed Qasim al-Raymi, the al-Qaeda leader of the Arabian Peninsula. As well as the July 2022 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the last officially confirmed leader of al-Qaeda. Similar developments have been observed in recent days, specifically the killing of the deputy leader of Hamas’s political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, and six other high-ranking members in Lebanon and the elimination of two members of the pro-Iranian coalition Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq.

Is Leadership Decapitation an Effective Counterterrorism Strategy?

In a 2009 study, Jenna Jordan examined 300 cases of leadership decapitation and concluded that apprehending or eliminating key terrorist leaders is not a universally effective strategy for countering terrorism. She discovered that this method achieved a success rate of only 17%, with religious terrorist organizations frequently exhibiting higher levels of resilience in comparison to nationalist groups. However, Jordan’s research faced criticism for treating decapitation as a short-term strategy and setting a strict two-year time frame for a group’s dismantlement to be considered a success.

In contrast, in 2012, counterterrorism expert Bryan Price put up an alternative perspective. He contended that religious terrorist organizations are, indeed, more susceptible to decapitation tactics compared to nationalist groups. Price underscored the essential role of leaders in determining the objectives and tactics of terrorist organizations, which commonly adhere to a set of values, operate secretly, and employ violence, often with an established chain of command. He observed that the charismatic characteristics of these leaders, in addition to the challenge of finding suitable replacements for their ideology and persona, make decapitation a highly effective strategy.

For instance, after Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda took nearly two months to appoint Ayman al-Zawahiri as the new leader, a delay seen as unusual for the group. Post al-Zawahiri’s death, the de facto leader, Sail al-Adel, has not been officially declared as emir.

In contrast, criminal organizations such as drug cartels, which share the characteristics of being clandestine and violent, fundamentally differ in that their primary motivation is financial gain rather than being guided by values or ideas. Their leaders place less emphasis on charisma and instead prioritize operational and logistical expertise. The US counterdrug policy has historically employed decapitation strategies, although with limited efficacy. Pablo Escobar’s assassination in 1993 did not bring about the cessation of the cocaine trade, for instance. According to a 2010 report by US Customs and Border Protection, specifically focusing on apprehending cartel leaders had minimal influence on the drug trade.

However, this does not undermine the efficacy of decapitation strategies when used against specific terrorist organizations, especially those with religious motivations. The removal of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, for example, resulted in a shift within al-Qaeda from a hierarchical organization to a more decentralized structure, characterized by the presence of multiple affiliated groups. The hesitance to formally acknowledge al-Adel as a current leader comes from complex political, theological, and operational difficulties. Al-Qaeda’s current leadership is noted to be operating in a more isolated manner, as observed by terrorism analysts.

According to Boaz Ganor, a counterterrorism specialist, focusing on the leaders of terrorist groups reduces their ability to carry out operations and forces them to allocate resources to protect their leaders instead of carrying out attacks. This was apparent in al-Qaeda’s decreased capacity to carry out large-scale attacks after the events of 9/11.

According to Steven David, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, decapitation is also a deterrent, particularly for individuals who plan terrorist acts. This viewpoint was evident during a meeting in January 2002 between Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and leaders of the Palestinian National Authority, during which the Palestinians requested an end to Israel’s policy of targeted killings.

Can Counterterrorism Efforts Inadvertently Lead to More Violence?

Boaz Ganor, coined the term “boomerang effect” to refer to a scenario in which an assault on a terrorist group triggers a retaliatory action against the government and its citizens. This concept is exemplified by the diverse reactions to specific measures taken against terrorist leaders.

An example of this is the targeted killing of Yahya Ayyash, also known as “the Engineer” who was the chief bombmaker of Hamas. This operation, which is believed to have been carried out by Shin Bet, had significant consequences. It resulted in a total of four incidents of suicide bombings in early 1996, resulting in the fatalities of 78 Israelis. Nevertheless, not all specific actions provoke such a reaction. Following the assassination of Fathi Shaqaqi, there was no immediate and direct act of retaliation against Israel.

The existence of this variability suggests that the occurrence of the “boomerang effect” cannot be reliably predicted as a result of specific counterterrorism measures. Although there have been cases where immediate retaliation has occurred in response to such actions, there have also been instances where no subsequent terrorist attacks have occurred following the targeted killing or arrest of a leader. It is crucial to keep in mind that the main goal of terrorist organizations is to execute acts of terrorism, irrespective of whether they are in retaliation to particular counterterrorism measures.

Is it Legal and Moral?

The most important aspect of decapitation as a measure is probably the dimension of morality and legality. This approach prompts significant inquiries concerning how to handle terrorists, who might not adhere to traditional norms of warfare but are still participants in combat. It must be taken into account that terrorists are combats, regardless of whether they wear uniforms or not. As Professor Steven David claims, according to the international laws governing war and armed conflict, combatants are considered legitimate targets subject to attack. Consequently, if a state finds itself in a conflict with an adversary using non-traditional warfare methods, it may consider using decapitation measures as a means of protecting itself.

However, the execution of these measures necessitates constant compliance with legal and ethical principles. These actions must be grounded in explicit and precise standards, guaranteeing their usage solely when there is unquestionable evidence that the subject presents an immediate danger to the safety of the public. This approach reconciles the imperative of efficient counterterrorism with the principles of international law and ethical behavior, guaranteeing that actions are warranted and commensurate with the level of threat.

Is it a Fit-All Solution?

Decapitation strategies in counterterrorism include both long-term policies and situation-specific tactics. Their efficacy depends on the particular circumstances of each case. If we establish success as the prompt and thorough dismantling of a terrorist organization, then the strategy of decapitation can be regarded as rarely effective. Nevertheless, by embracing a more comprehensive viewpoint, as proposed by Bryan Price, we can acknowledge that the apprehension or elimination of terrorist leaders frequently hinders the operations of their respective groups.

Seth Jones and Martin Libicki, prominent scholars in the field, argue in their 2008 study that the success of a counterterrorism strategy depends on the goals of the terrorist organization. They suggest that groups with narrower objectives might be co-opted into the political process, potentially reducing their reliance on violence. However, for organizations with broader or more extreme goals, such as imposing a global jihad or the destruction of a state, these non-violent approaches are less likely to be effective.

Jones and Libicki highlight the importance of employing a wide range of strategies in counterterrorism, including diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions, law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and military intervention. Policymakers should tailor their strategies to align with the specific terrorist organization. Groups like al-Qaeda and Hamas, due to their resistance to negotiation or political solutions, compel policymakers to prioritize methods like decapitation within the scope of counterterrorism strategies. Nevertheless, the importance of a thorough strategy that considers all available policy instruments remains necessary.

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