Every other week, it seems, U.S. officials disclose that another “key” terror commander has been eliminated — in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc.The list this month includes Muhsin al Fadhli, leader of the Khorasan Group — an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria — and Abu Khalil al-Sudani, a senior figure in al Qaeda in Afghanistan.And yet progress in degrading (let alone eradicating) groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and the Taliban is fiendishly difficult to measure.Is there a key leader whose demise would deal a hammer blow? Does so-called “leadership decapitation” even work as a strategy? Or do Western counterterrorism agencies face an indefinite process of crossing names from a never-diminishing list? Are there just too many groups in too many places to combat as we witness the emergence of a new generation of terrorist leaders whose significance is yet to be grasped?The most important terror figures to have been killed in the last five years include Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric. Both were charismatic figures within al Qaeda. The death of bin Laden in 2011 was symbolically important, a morale-booster to the U.S. after nearly a decade of fruitless searching. Most analysts concur that his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, commands neither the respect nor loyalty that bin Laden did, and al Qaeda is ultimately weaker for that.So killing bin Laden mattered. But in terms of operational control and even strategic direction he was a shadow of his former self when finally tracked down to Abbottabad in Pakistan. His death may even have led to over-confidence that the U.S. was making rapid progress from “degrade” toward “destroy” in its battle against al Qaeda.Months after bin Laden’s death, amid an intensive drone campaign, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he thought “at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.Two years later, Panetta offered a more nuanced verdict: “We have slowed the primary cancer — but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.”The killing of Awlaki in a drone strike in September 2011 deprived al Qaeda of its most effective propagandist. Awlaki was fluent in English and his eloquence in calling on Muslims in the West to join jihad highly influential. But even from beyond the grave, the cleric’s online lectures and sermons have exerted a powerful influence on would-be jihadists, including the Boston bombers.A study by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security finds that almost a quarter of the terror suspects prosecuted in the U.S. in recent years were influenced by Awlaki.Similarly, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 in a U.S. airstrike was legitimately seen at the time as a body-blow to the group he led — al Qaeda in Iraq. But by then he had laid the foundations of a group that would eventually morph into and inspire ISIS.Analysts and historians of terrorism are divided on the effectiveness of “leadership decapitation” — an approach that has been at the heart of the Obama Administration’s policy through the widespread use of armed drones. Max Abrahms, who studies terrorism at Northeastern University, says the aversion to putting boots on the ground and the growing technological prowess of drones has made targeted killings the “cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.”In theory, he says, it ought to work by degrading the quality of a group’s members and thus its threat. But Abrahms told CNN the “strategy has been quite disappointing because the theory behind leadership decapitation overlooks an important point: replacements are seldom more moderate than their former leaders.”In an article to be published in the journal “Terrorism and Political Violence,” Abrahms and economics researcher Jochen Mierau argue that militant groups may become even more extreme by shifting their violence from military to civilian targets. So taking out the leaders of a terror group may actually breed greater mayhem, at least in the short term.
Who to target?
One of the difficulties is knowing who really matters in groups whose governing structures are, at best, opaque. Who is destined from a crowded field to emerge as key leaders? In 2003, few would have bet that Zarqawi would soon bring Iraq to the verge of sectarian war while pumping millions of dollars into al Qaeda’s treasury.
In 2011, no-one imagined that a bland-looking doctoral student in Islamic Studies would three years later declare himself Caliph from a pulpit in Mosul.
Beyond the “sheikhs” and spokesmen, who are the financiers, bomb designers and military planners, the unknown senior operatives? A name that may mean nothing to the outside world could be a crucial figure within al Qaeda or ISIS.
Abu Khalil al-Sudani is one example. Al-Sudani was not a household name, but U.S. officials described him as a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Council and explosives expert, and also “linked to external attack plotting against the United States.” If so, he was a source of expertise and experience that al Qaeda will sorely miss.