Do Targeted Killings Weaken Terrorist Groups?

As for the Islamic State, the death of Baghdadi and Qurayshi was more a symptom than a cause of the organization’s decline. Both losses occurred after its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria had been largely destroyed in combined arms operations involving tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and Syrian Kurd forces backed by U.S. firepower, intelligence, and other enablers.

In part, American commentators and officials are victims of their own imprecise terminology. They tend to lump together all Islamist militant organization as “terrorists” (a pejorative term), whereas groups such as the Islamic State and the Taliban should more accurately be described as guerrillas or even quasi-conventional armies. The Quds Force is sui generis as a branch of the Iranian government; it is a kind of Shiite extremist version of the CIA or the U.S. Special Operations Command. Just as armies and intelligence agencies can regularly replace lost leaders, so too can these extremist organizations.

A Weaker Al-Qaeda but Threats Remain
The loss of leaders hurts more for purely terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, which are much smaller and less bureaucratic and, therefore, more reliant on charismatic leadership. Their followers are typically numbered in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands. The death of bin Laden was particularly important because he was such a famous symbol of jihadism. The United States was lucky that his successor was as uncharismatic and low-profile as Zawahiri. It is no coincidence that since Zawahiri took charge in 2011, al-Qaeda has faded as a global brand, while the Islamic State (led during its rapid expansion beginning in 2013 by the charismatic al-Baghdadi) has risen in importance.

Even though it can take a long time to kill terrorist kingpins (eleven years elapsed between the deaths of bin Laden and Zawahiri), the investment is worthwhile because the act of hunting them down reduces their operational effectiveness. Bin Laden and Zawahiri had to spend their time in hiding, communicating largely by courier. That slowed down al-Qaeda operations and made it easier to disrupt their plots. Al-Qaeda’s central organization is likely to splinter even more after Zawahiri’s death, since there is no well-known leader to take his place. Al-Qaeda’s reputed number three, former Egyptian colonel Saif al-Adel, is believed to reside in Iran and therefore is considered suspect by many of its adherents, all Sunni extremists.

But do not mistake victories over Islamist terrorist organizations with victory over militant Islam. The war on terrorism will not be won with targeted strikes on leadership. That will require political and economic reforms to address popular grievances and create more responsive governance in Muslim-majority countries. As Americans learned at high cost in Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring about those fundamental changes is beyond U.S. power.

Max Boot is Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at CFR. This article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).