TERRORISMDo Targeted Killings Weaken Terrorist Groups?

By Max Boot

Published 8 August 2022

Targeted operations by U.S. forces have eliminated notorious leaders of armed extremist groups, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri the latest among them. But how much they disrupt these terrorist organizations is questionable.

It has become a ritual: U.S. intelligence locates a terrorist leader, who is then killed either in an air strike or a special operations raid. The president takes a victory lap, saying, as President Joe Biden did on Monday after the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.” Bipartisan lawmakers applaud while Islamist extremists mourn their “martyr.” Then a new terrorist leader arises and the process starts again.

Going After Kingpins
Do such killings have an impact? Do they make America safer and bring victory in the so-called war on terrorism any closer? For scholars of terrorism, those are very difficult questions to answer.

Some of the other “high-value targets” killed by the U.S. military or the CIA since 2001 are: al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006); al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (2011); Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (2011); Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour (2016); Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah (2018); Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (2019) and his successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (2022); Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani (2020); and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim al-Raymi (2020).

These strikes have disrupted terrorist operations and helped to prevent another 9/11-style attack, but they have hardly brought victory in the more-than-twenty-year war on terrorism any closer. The total number of Islamist militants, after all, is estimated to have grown as much as fourfold since the September 11, 2001, attacks notwithstanding all the losses suffered by the two leading Islamist extremist groups—al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Patterns of Resiliency
Targeted strikes have done the least damage to the large organizations, which can easily replace top leaders. The Iranian Quds Force has not been noticeably slowed by the loss of Soleimani; it continues to carry out terrorist plots, back proxy militias, and to project Iranian influence across the Middle East. Likewise, the Afghan Taliban were not noticeably hindered by the loss of Mansour; five years after his death, they marched into Kabul as the United States ended its twenty-year campaign. Al-Qaeda in Iraq actually grew more powerful after the loss of Zarqawi in 2006; its power only began to recede after the U.S. troop surge in Iraq and the “Anbar Awakening” (when Sunni tribes turned on al-Qaeda) in 2007–08.