Some terrorist groups can survive assassinations

Taking out the head of a radical movement doesn't necessarily kill the body


Juan Cole
April 15, 2010 5:16PM (UTC)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.

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Al-qaida Israel Taliban Terrorism

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