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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.