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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.