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Attacking Physical ISIS, Killing the Leader, Missing the Ideology

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s death is a big blow to ISIS and marks the end of a terrifying era that witnessed the massacre of thousands of innocent people, most of them Muslims, according to a 2017 Global Terrorism Database by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. ISIS posed a potent, existential security nightmare to many countries from South Asia to West Africa with an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters joining their fold. Burkina Faso, Ghana’s immediate northern neighbor is one example of how a country reels and retrogresses because of militancy.

It is, however, worth identifying that the end of the ISIS era, is the beginning of another. As a student of terrorism studies, I struggle to find evidence that killing leaders is an effective way to dismantle terrorist organizations. Two features give terror organization’s impeccable organizational resilience and make groups such as ISIS able to withstand a senior officer’s death, according to research by Jenna Jordan, a Georgia Tech Professor and a leading expert on terrorism. Leadership decapitation or the killing or capturing of the leaders of terrorist organizations has become a core feature of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Though this strategy might weaken terrorist organizations and reduce the threat they pose, these groups are still able to operate effectively in the shadows. The killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, did not end al-Qaida. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in June 2006, did not end terrorism in Iraq, it complicated it. The capture on October 5, 2012, of Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader in Libya did not end terrorism in Libya. The killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi in June 2012, then al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, in Pakistan in a drone strike, did not end terrorism in Pakistan. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric linked to several terrorist plots in the West was also killed in 2011.

These examples illustrate the frequency with which the United States has targeted terrorist leaders and operatives over the past few years, specifically through the use of drone strikes. Despite these and other instances of successful targeting, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups remain irrepressible. A terrorist group’s ability to withstand attacks is a function of two factors: communal support and bureaucratization.

Terror Groups need a steady stream of recruits and a pool of potential new leaders. Support among civilians in areas in which the groups primarily operate also makes them more stable, by broadening support networks and helping them to safely retrench when needed. Leaders are usually killed in or near communities that support them, resulting in those communities rallying behind the terrorist group and against whoever did the killing. The more a terrorist group resembles a corporate organizational chart often with administrative, payroll and logistical staff, the more stable it is, and better able to handle a leader’s death. Just like any other bureaucracy, such groups have delineated hierarchies, internal rules, and divisions of responsibility. That clarity means it is easy to replace a leader with a deputy. It also makes the organization stable.

It is an incontrovertible fact that the face of terrorism has changed and continues to change by the day. They ran in a cell format and have splinter affiliates. One leader killed doesn’t mean much. Terror groups now easily re-group, rebrand and re-appoint a leader. Bruce Hoffman, Director of the RAND Corporation’s Washington Office, states that the new terrorism “represents a very different and potentially far more lethal threat than the more familiar traditional terrorist groups. Nothing less than a sea-change in our thinking about terrorism and the policies required to counter it will be required.”

In a 2001 article, “Is the New Terrorism Really New?: An Analysis of the New Paradigm for Terrorism”, Thomas Copeland noted that the new terrorism exhibits characteristics that contrast with traditional terrorism. First, terrorist groups are more likely to form networks, rather than hierarchies or cells; this is particularly true of the groups emerging from decentralized radical Islamic movements organized around charismatic clerics. These networks are transnational, amorphous and diffuse, permitting the groups to engage in a wider range of activities, to consider new strategies like cyber warfare, and to come together for one-time operations like 9/11.

The fight should be against an ideology, not just the individuals. Terrorism is no longer a western affair, it is global. We are all at risk hence, the need for every Ghanaian to be vigilant, alert and to report suspicious activities in their neighborhoods to the appropriate authorities. This also raises the issue of hybridity in tackling the terrorist threat; giving equal attention to other ways of fighting terrorism such as poverty alleviation, employment, well-functioning justice system, rather than the traditional military methods we are very much accustomed to.

Source: Adib Saani

Executive Director, Jatikay Centre for Human Security & Peace Building


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