Does the elimination of terrorist leaders always destroy their organisations?

The decapitation strategy of killing Osama Bin Laden has severe limitations.

As news of Osama Bin Laden's death changed from rumour into hard fact, and as celebrations (and relief) started to break out across the world, security analysts and experts began debating the effect that the terrorist's death would have on al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates.

While insurgent sources in Yemen told AFP that President Obama's success was "a catastrophe" for them, others downplayed Bin Laden's importance, the counterinsurgency expert Fredrick Kagan writing that the al-Qaeda leader's demise "does not, however, mark the end of the struggle against al Qaeda itself". Senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic have also warned about possible reprisals.

Past historical experience is also ambiguous about the impact of leadership decapitation. The classic example is the capture of the Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán in Peru in 1992, which led to the subsequent surrender of 6,000 paramilitaries a year later. The terrorist movement, which at its peak controlled much of the countryside and was viewed as a grave threat to the central government, never recovered from these setbacks, splintering into two factions and retreating into the mountainous regions.

However, insurgent activity in Iraq did not peak until early 2007, three years after the capture of Saddam Hussein and a year after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the then head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Research by Dr Andrew Roach of Glasgow University and the economist Paul Omerod suggests that the elimination of terrorist leaders has less of an effect than that of better-connected subordinates. Using network theory to simulate religious dissent in medieval Europe, they found that the most effective control techniques were the targeting of "hubs", individuals who were active in recruiting new members and running networks at a local and regional level.

In the case of the head of al-Qaeda, Roach contends that "Bin Laden's role as a hub was severely limited because of the difficulty he had in using any electronic communication".

John F McCreary, of the chief analysis office of KGS Security and author of the respected NightWatch Newsletter, believes that although a decapitation strategy is good for punishing individual terrorists, it is only one part of the solution. He warns that even small-scale groups usually have replacements lined up in advance, and notes: ''In Afghanistan the US has targeted mid-level insurgent leaders in specific districts, but the districts have never gotten more peaceful after the loss of the latest leader."

McCreary believes that counterterrorist policy should also focus on destroying the support infrastructure that terror groups depend on to supply and to renew themselves. This includes their funding, recruitment, supply lines and local support (the securing of which is also an important element of counterinsurgency theory). In his view, US commanders in Afghanistan need to spend more time on disrupting enemy logistics, especially those from Pakistan, which McCreary calls a "pipeline that the Taliban and their agents tap continuously".

However, even though Bin Laden's death may have little immediate impact on a purely tactical level, it provides justice for his victims in America and the rest of the world. It may also provide a reality check to those looking to imitate him. As Roach points out, "From being a talismanic, elusive fugitive he suddenly looks rather less heroic, and an already very loose-knit organisation loses one of its major unifying factors."

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State