Targeting terrorist leaders still a viable option

Targeting terrorist leaders still a viable option

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has apparently resurfaced alive after he was rumoured to have been killed in a recent United States-led air strike.

However, the terrorist organisation which he heads released only a voice recording of his latest rants but no pictures, an indication that he may have been wounded in the attack.

Yet, even if his survival is proven beyond doubt, "Caliph Ibrahim" - as he likes to be called - knows that it's only a matter of time before another missile delivered from a US drone or airplane seeks to end his existence.

The assassination of individual terrorist leaders is now central to many states' national security strategies. What was once an exceptional and highly unusual tactic is now commonplace.

But does the strategy of killing terrorist leaders - referred to in Western intelligence circles as "decapitation" - actually work?

Does it produce the required results, namely a drastic reduction in terrorist activity?

The answers are by no means conclusive, although the arguments for and against targeting individual terrorists are more evenly balanced than people assume them to be.

Attempts to assassinate leaders are as old as humanity. The reigns of many kings and emperors ended suddenly by poison-laced food, knives or a bullet.

But in the modern context of fighting terrorism, it was Israel which pioneered the decapitation strategy from the late 1960s, and particularly since the 1972 massacre of its sportsmen attending the Munich Olympic Games, when a distinct Israeli intelligence unit was created for this purpose.

Most of the world's governments - the US' included - initially shunned this Israeli tactic.

All their objections conveniently disappeared after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, when attacks against terrorist leaders not only proliferated, but were also incorporated into America's military strategy.

Precise statistics about the volume and success rates of such operations are not easy to come by.

The best effort in this regard was made by political scientist Patrick Johnston of the Rand Corporation, a big American think-tank.

He identified about 110 direct assassination attempts against top terrorist leaders in the decade after the Sept 11 attacks, and calculated that around 40 per cent of these were successful.

At first sight, not a bad score card, at least in purely military terms.

Still, one has to factor in the reality that, for each recorded assassination strike against a terrorist leader, many more were aborted at an early stage, so the statistics are an understatement.

Nor do the figures convey the sheer magnitude of the effort required from governments.

Literally thousands of intelligence analysts in key countries around the world do nothing but follow every step of such "high-value targets", piecing together the tiniest scraps of information about where top terrorists may be hiding, guessing where they may be going next and distinguishing between the decoy "doubles" and their real human targets.

Intelligence chiefs also have to make sure that they have the necessary firepower near their intended targets on an almost continuous basis, since an opportunity to kill a terrorist leader may suddenly present itself for a few minutes, and then disappear for years to come.

All decapitation strategies are far from cheap: They require substantial human and financial investment and divert considerable intelligence resources.

Yet curiously for a strategy which is both expensive and often commands public attention, there is no consensus on whether it actually works. Most academics argue that the strategy is at best irrelevant, at worse counterproductive in fighting terrorism.

In the aftermath of the assassination of their leaders, terrorist organisations are prone to retaliate, and that only fuels a more vicious spiral of violence.

That was what happened in 1996, when Israel assassinated Yahya Ayyash, the chief bomb-maker for Hamas also known as "The Engineer".

The Palestinian organisation staged four retaliatory bombings on buses in Israel, in which more than 50 civilians died.

Assassinating top terrorists, critics argue, creates new "heroes" and "martyrs" and actually aids terrorist organisations in their recruitment.

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