Attacking the Hydra: Leadership Targeting and the Resilience of al-Shabaab

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Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


On May 1st, 2011 President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed following a global search for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks that lasted nearly 10 years. In his official statement, Obama recalled that “shortly after taking office, [he] directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of [the] war against al Qaeda.” Bin Laden was far from an isolated case—attacking high value targets such as leaders or technical experts of terrorist organizations has been a central part of the United States counterterrorism policy since the 9/11 attacks pushed terrorism to the forefront of the national security discourse. For example, the first National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism (NSCT), a document prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003, states that “the terrorist leadership provides the overall direction and strategy that links all these factors and thereby breathes life into a terror campaign […] the loss of the leadership can cause any organizations to collapse.” The high rate of attacks on high value targets in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia demonstrate that this aspect of the overall strategy has continued to be relevant. Recently, Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned US aircraft targeted and killed a senior al-Shabaab member in charge of its elite Amniyat network, responsible for intelligence activities as well as attacks for the organization.

The prevalence of drone strikes and special operations attacks on these high value targets would lead one to assume that this has proven to be an effective tool in the global War on Terror. However, there is significant disagreement within the scholarly community on the strategic value of high value target eliminations. While social network analysis is predicated on the assumption that finding the right high value targets can lead to successful disruption of terrorist activities, much of the research on so-called leadership decapitation has found it to be ineffective at best, or counterproductive at worst. In order to expand the knowledge on this topic, my research question is: What factors explain the variation in organizational resilience of terrorist groups following successful decapitation strikes?