Taking out the head of a radical movement doesn't necessarily kill the body
Robert Wright argues that not only is assassination (including by drone) legally and ethically troubling, but there is reason to think that it is counterproductive when deployed against religious terrorist groups. He cites the study of Jenna Jordan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, in the journal “Security Studies.” Jordan did a large-scale study of violent organizations that had been dealt with by the assassination of leaders, and found that such assassinations generally caused the organization actually to last longer than groups that had not suffered such assassinations.
As for the first question Wright raises, of the legal implications of assassinations, such as the one President Obama authorized for American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, they are horrible. Having CIA officers operate the drones makes the attacks a covert operation, which cannot be spoken about publicly by U.S. government officials, and which cannot be investigated by ordinary Americans worried about the direction of their government. The drone assassinations are lawless, and they have killed large numbers of innocent civilians, as Wright notes. For Obama to take out a contract on al-Awlaki diminishes us as a nation. If al-Awlaki is guilty of a crime, he should be brought to justice if possible, and tried, even in absentia. Yemeni authorities should arrest him and extradite him on that basis. For the U.S. to allow 300 al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula guys to draw it into unethical actions and perhaps even into an unwinnable war in Yemen, would be foolish.
Jordan’s study seems to me generally sound, and one can think of lots of supporting evidence. It seems to me that it would be useful to further amplify a distinction that Jordan makes, between highly organized and more inchoate religious organizations, with the latter being more common.
1. I would argue that social movements (as opposed to organizations) are particularly difficult to decapitate. Organizations are characterized by a high degree of integration and are tight systems. Movements are more informally arranged than are organizations, and their flexibility and vagueness can help them withstand attacks on leaders. Charles Tilly defined movements with reference to to campaigns, claim-making repertoires or performances, and the demonstration of qualities such as unity, commitment and numbers.
The Greens in Iran since last summer have been a movement, and it seems obvious that Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as leaders are not all that central to it. The Sadrists in Iraq are a movement, and after a campaign of arrests and assassinations waged against them by the U.S. and British militaries and then the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over years, they continue to survive and reemerged to take some 12 percent of seats in the Iraqi parliament on March 7.
What is often missed about Hamas is that it, too, is a movement. They have gotten up big demonstrations, and waged campaigns, including political campaigns. They aren’t just a terrorist group, and they depend on kinship links and informal networks, not a corporate-style leadership flow chart.
Movements that are embedded (as most are) in a particular population can draw on enormous resources.
Ariel Sharon was convinced by some game theorist who knew nothing about Palestinian Arab society that if he could kill off one-quarter of the Hamas leadership, he could cause the organization to collapse. What I heard was that the original basis for this thesis was risk studies of corporations like IBM, where the models had shown that in case of a catastrophe that took out a quarter of the management, the organization would implode.
So Sharon’s government assiduously assassinated suspected Hamas leaders, killing the spiritual leader of the movement, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, in his wheelchair as he came out of a mosque, along with 17 others, including juveniles. Then titular leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was assassinated. And so on and so forth. But Hamas did not collapse. It won the 2006 Palestine Authority elections, and even when the resulting government was overthrown by the PLO in the West Bank — with U.S. and Israeli help — it proved powerful in Gaza. The Gaza war was another Israeli attempt to destroy Hamas, which failed miserably. Israeli military leaders professed themselves astonished at how little resistance to the invasion Hamas put up, showing that they don’t understand movements. Movements can afford to lie low during attacks, because they have the resources and support to reemerge once the heat is off.
Assassinating movement leaders, as opposed to organization leaders, is usually worse than useless, especially if the movement has a strong social base in a compact population.
On the other hand organizations such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya) in Egypt were effectively defeated by the Egyptian security forces. They arrested some 30,000 militants in the 1990s, and they engaged in running street battles with armed members. Since 1997, these groups have been defeated in the Nile Valley and seldom can pull off even a small attack. The Egyptian government caught a break, because the radicals’ 1997 attack on Western tourists at Luxor produced profound revulsion toward them among almost all Egyptians. The leadership of the Islamic Grouping (whose blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, is in an American penitentiary for involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing) has even renounced violence and now sees the Koran as forbidding terrorism. This leadership had not been systematically killed, however. It was incarcerated in Tura prison.
In this regard, U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida figures in Pakistan must be contrasted to assassinations of Taliban leaders. Al-Qaida is more like an organization, and its leaders seldom have a lot of local support (the Arabs in the northwest of Pakistan are not embedded in a local population that adulates them, but rather live among Pashtuns who have a variety of views of Arab expatriates). There has never been a big al-Qaida demonstration (I mean by al-Qaida Osama Bin Laden’s organization, and don’t consider the Islamic State of Iraq to be actually al-Qaida), because they don’t have the numbers to pull it off.
In contrast, just killing Pashtun insurgent leaders, whether in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, is unlikely to destroy the Taliban, because they are a movement embedded in an often supportive population.
More Related Stories
- 51 killed in massive Oklahoma tornado
- Don't cry climate-change wolf
- My miscarriages made me question being pro-choice
- Why I tried to be a punk
- I'm terrified of the cicada onslaught
- Record tornado devastates Oklahoma
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Apple uses foreign companies to avoid billions in taxes
- Limbaugh: No one willing to impeach the first black president
- SAT's right answers are all wrong
- Tornado reduces Oklahoma City suburb to rubble
- AP: Toll at least 37 dead in Okla. tornado
- Top White House aides knew about IRS probe but didn't tell Obama
- Entire Midwest on tornado warning
- Beware of book blurbs
- Gohmert: IRS would've "probably shot the Boston Tea Party participants"
- Oregon senator proposes appeal to Monsanto Protection Act
- Supreme Court to rule on prayer at government meetings
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Beltway scandal machine breaks, knows nothing about America
- Top GOP official: "Sometimes our party does not value" women "as much"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11