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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.