Killing Terrorist Leaders Prolonging War on Terror?

Targeting terrorist leadership may be counterproductive.

bin-laden-dead-newspapers

John Arquilla argues that our strategy of targeting terrorist leadership doesn’t work—and may even be counterproductive—in a networked environment.

Remote-controlled weapons, the hot new tools of war, have had the perverse effect of shoring up an old pattern of strategic thought about going after enemy leaders. Wildly popular with the Air Force, there are now more pilots in cubicles than there are in cockpits. Their primary purpose: act swiftly and on the basis of good, timely intelligence to strike with great precision at terrorist leaders. Thus the longstanding strategic concept of counter-leadership targeting — “decapitation” was the less euphemistic term of an earlier era — has been revivified. The problem, though, is that when the principal foe is a network, the importance of any individual leader is low because these organizations are capable of a high degree of self-direction. Drones have played key roles in the killing of about 20 of al Qaeda’s “No. 3s” over the past decade, but in a network everybody is No. 3.

This focus on taking out the leaders of essentially leaderless networks (that is, interconnected cells that are highly self-organizing and at least semi-autonomous) has led to serious difficulties in the field. For example, many intelligence operatives and military servicemembers who plan and conduct drone operations have found that, all too often, the occasional strike from the sky inflicts damage that the networks can work around and quickly repair. In the meantime, the connections that the killed “leader” had are no longer discernible. Which means, in practical terms, that the slow attrition of drone campaigns, though it may hurt the enemy, does even more harm to the counter-terrorists’ store of knowledge about these networks. The more damage done in this slow-paced manner — there have been just over 400 drone strikes over the past decade, an average of 3-4 per month — the less is known. This phenomenon is a curious aspect of “netwar” — the term that my longtime research partner David Ronfeldt and I use to describe how networks fight, and how to fight networks.

[…]

Shortly before leaving office, Leon Panetta reaffirmed the traditional view when he said that loss of leaders had put al Qaeda “on the verge of strategic defeat.” This is outmoded thinking. One need only look to the many fronts on which al Qaeda is operating today — even in Iraq, where we are gone, the terrorists are back, and the country is burning — to see that the global war on terror has morphed into terror’s war on the world. If one side is closer to “strategic defeat” after a decade of this first great war between nations and networks, it is the nations. Networks are simply not dependent on a few key leaders — as even the death of Osama bin Laden has shown.

So, what’s his alternative?

For David Ronfeldt and me, this means operating in concentrated bursts of action, striking networks not at a single “decisive point” — they don’t have such — but rather at several points at once — what we call “swarming.” Far better to go after al Qaeda by doing a lot more surveillance, for longer periods, prior to attacking. Then, when the network node or cell has been sufficiently illuminated, it can be eliminated in a series of simultaneous strikes that give the enemy little or no chance to hide or flee.

This makes sound strategic sense. Interestingly, given the longstanding “war” vs. “law enforcement” debate on counterterrorism, it’s pretty much the approach the FBI takes to organized crime.

Politically, however, this is easier said than done. We’ve been at war a long time and being able to announce “progress” in the form of killed or captured senior leaders is excellent for maintaining troop morale and public support. Ironically, it may contribute to needing to sustain those much longer than would otherwise have been necessary.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    It seems to me that we have enough resources and enough targets to try this theory out. Pick a couple of terrorist cells for the “swarm” approach, while trying the traditional approach on some others, and see which has a better long-term effect.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    We have plenty of drones and plenty of missiles. So, yeah, let’s do a side by side comparison. Let some cells percolate for a while, and coalesce, and then incinerate a few dozen “No. 3’s” at once. (BTW, how does this Arquilla fellow know that we’re not already doing that? Is he actually part of this program? Seems to me that he’s a full-time academic.) Simultaneously, pick off a few No. 3’s or even No. 2’s “individually,” which of course in virtually every instance means with other people too. Then see which approach works better. Or maybe continue with both approaches. Our armed forces and our intelligence community are able to multitask.

  3. Tony W says:

    I disagree, these are not closed systems – it would be nearly impossible to measure the impact of a side-by-side comparison. We have to choose a path and try it for a time, as we have. Perhaps it is time to try a new route, although it’s hard to argue with the record of no US attacks since Bush left office.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    Hmm. I think it’s entirely possible that whacking terrorist leaders isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but counterproductive? Maybe if you take out a bunch of innocents along with the terrorist, but otherwise that’s hard to figure.

  5. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Tony W: although it’s hard to argue with the record of no US attacks since Bush left office.

    No successful attacks. Lots were tried, but in nearly every case, we were spared not because we were smart, but because we were lucky. The attacks failed because the attackers were unlucky, incompetent, or both.

  6. MBunge says:

    1. The whole “let’s wait and then swarm” attitude seems to seriously underestimate both the risk of what these terror networks will be doing while we’re waiting and what the fallout will be when people find out we were waiting while it was happening.

    2. Networks are made up of people and people are not identical cogs. Not all Al Qaeda #3’s have been equally smart, capable and determined. No network can prosper if you regularly lop off some of its more active or talented parts.

    Mike

  7. Jib says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: That is not how it works. The core of self organizing networks are super nodes, individuals that are way more connected than the average person in the network. If the average person knows 3 or 4 other people in the network, the super node knows 30 or 40. If even one super node is left, then the network can re-establish itself very quickly.

    To take out a network you need to take out all the super nodes at once. The network will immediately start re-organizing but without the super nodes, it will take a lot longer to re-establish. And there is a a chance, depending on the topology, that certain sections of the network will never reconnect.

    The issue is not that we should not attack leaders but that we need to hit all the leaders at once. Except we dont know them all. So it is not possible to take out the network in one hit.

    Not that it matters, the remnants of a totally successful strike will immediately form new smaller networks. Small is good for us, they do less damage so it is a victory. The new smaller networks will have there own smaller super nodes and you attack them and so on and so on. The analogy to fighting crime is good. It never ends. Eventually the network may collapse like the IRA did. But there will always be another one that will take its place.

  8. john personna says:

    First of all, let’s discard the war on terror concept, particularly in the preemptive form. If you are drone-killing people who only might mount an attack on Americans, you are bearing all the costs for quantifiable reward. By that I mean an unquantifiable risk is asserted to have been reduced to another unquantifiable level.

    Now, Osama bin Laden attacked the US, and we killed him back. Fair and square.

    He had a structure he was building called “Al Qaeda” which as part of broader goals planned attacks on the US. People who joined Al Qaeda performed some self-identification. We could have made the bar “when you join Al Qaeda, you join a criminal organization at war with the US, and we will fight back.” That would be clean and defensible.

    As I understand it though we defeated the original Al Qaeda, and now fight remnants spread across the world, operating under a great variety of banners. Think of each of those as a separate bee colony.

    The problem with all this swarm war thinking is that it is built on the presumption that we can know which colonies are our enemy, and when they are getting serious, and kill just a few to make things better.

    I don’t think we can ever have that solid understanding from which to decide. Rather, like crime and punishment, a police effort should look for people actually planning and staging for attacks.

  9. john personna says:

    @Jib:

    Also note that our research on swarms assume generic agents with low-level goals. Swarms in nature do not occur because agents have a conscious goal to make war on a distant enemy.

    “Cannibalism, not cooperation, was aligning the swarm”

    Swarm science is current and fascinating, but applications to Al Qaeda is someone’s fantasy, and/or profiteering.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Lots were tried, but in nearly every case, we were spared not because we were smart, but because we were lucky. The attacks failed because the attackers were unlucky, incompetent, or both.

    Apparently all the competent terrorists are dead, or not able to function as they would wish to for fear of being killed. Sounds reasonably smart to me.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I think capture and interrogation is actually the missing component here. Why? Because a serious threat of capture and interrogation forces AQ to severely limit knowledge of the network. If the “super node” mentioned above faces capture and interrogation you can’t risk creating such super nodes since a successful interrogation of same would expose broader swaths of the network. Forcing a more careful approach to information in turn enhances the effect of drone attacks since AQ can’t build as much redundancy into the system.

  12. Jib says:

    @john personna: I dont think John Arquilla means that kind of swarm. I think he is just talking about collecting evidence and hitting as many parts of the network as we can at once.

    I think we are already doing what Arquilla is talking about. We run operations all the time against multiple targets. The only targets that get publicity are the big ones. I think this is more about the way the stories are feed to the press and the way the press reports them than an accurate reflection of how we fight terrorist networks.

    But Arquilla is at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School so he knows a lot more about what we are doing than I do. I dont know though if his intended audience is inside the military or outside, the politicians and media.

  13. Jib says:

    @michael reynolds: Super nodes always form in self organizing networks. To stop them from forming, you have to have a level of control over the network that by definition means it is not a self organizing network. What you have then is an hierarchical organization and we are very good at killing those.

  14. Pharoah Narim says:

    There were 7K killed in terrorism attacks last year WORLDWIDE. 50% of those are in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen which are really ethnic p!$$!ng matches instead of global terrorism. Is this similar to the War on the Rich?

  15. rudderpedals says:

    Have time for fiction? Daniel Suarez weaves a fast paced tale of autonomous killing drones, discussion and exposition of swarming vs targeted strategies, and plausible “dark government” conspiracy into his recent novel “Kill Decision”. It’s a quick fun read.

  16. john personna says:

    @Jib:

    OK, fine. He’s leveraging off low-level swarm trendiness to make a different argument about high-level, networked, autonomous, rational agents.

    Does this argument still assume too much uniformity?

    When an organization calls itself “Al Qaeda in Indonesia” how much should we care? Is the branding they choose really the same as self-selection as a threat directly to American citizens?

  17. john personna says:

    (I worry that by making the bar for “threat” too low, we might just amplify the negative feedback, with little reward. That is, some movement in country X might be wholly internal, but by bombing them we remind them, and their families, that they are at war with the US.)

  18. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    So, then, would I be safe in assuming that you’re not a Bell Curve kind of guy ???

  19. Barry says:

    “We’ve been at war a long time and being able to announce “progress” in the form of killed or captured senior leaders is excellent for maintaining troop morale and public support. ”

    Troop morale? You mean the third-tour guys looking at the ground for landmines/the hills for snipers in Afghanistan are impressed with the forty-second ‘#3 leader’ of Al Qaida being killed?

  20. Barry says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: “No successful attacks. Lots were tried, but in nearly every case, we were spared not because we were smart, but because we were lucky. The attacks failed because the attackers were unlucky, incompetent, or both. ”

    I would ask if you have proof, but why bother?

  21. anjin-san says:

    @ Barry

    No need. Jenos would probably be far happier if there was a successful terrorist attack. It would damage Obama, and that is the holy grail of his little world.

  22. Dazedandconfused says:

    Sounds like a computer programmer trying to analyse war in Waziristan.

    There was a more interesting approach on FP (I think) some time ago, that the more of the “OG” (urban gang term) we take out, the more young, dumb, “true believers” you get in leadership. The best fighters tend to be the most radical. This creates a condition wherein there is no one to negotiate with. No one with enough suck to enforce a treaty or truce, and fewer still willing to try.

    This was in relation to one of the few strikes we have done there in 2013. We took out Nazir, IIRC.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mullah_Nazir

    Story goes he had a truce with the Paki Army going and was one of the few who could keep one, but was also doing everything he could to help the Afghan Talibs with arms.

  23. swbarnes2 says:

    @john personna:

    That is, some movement in country X might be wholly internal, but by bombing them we remind them, and their families, that they are at war with the US.

    Wait, you want to target children for death, and you think this will disincentivize people to attack Americans?

    When 3000 Americans died in on September 11, is that what you claim Americans, as a group did? Or did Americans as a group get crazy bloodthirsty, and talk about turning villages of poor people to glass? Why do you think other humans will respond so completely differently than American humans did?

  24. Dave Schuler says:

    “Counter-productive” is overstating things a bit. Unproductive, I’ll buy.

    Whether it’s counter-productive depends on the structure of social interactions and the obligation of vengeance in the societies where we’re killing people. That’s too thorny a topic for a blog comments section.

  25. al-Ameda says:

    So if we stopped killing terrorists then they would be available to plan and execute more attacks, right? Bad idea. Class dismissed.

  26. swbarnes2 says:

    @al-Ameda:

    So if we stopped killing terrorists then they would be available to plan and execute more attacks, right? Bad idea. Class dismissed.

    Terrorists don’t drop out of the sky. They are ordinary people who have reasons for doing what they do. Sometimes, that reason is because Americans killed their family. We could consider not making family killing our policy, then there would be fewer terrorists and sympathizers.

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @swbarnes2:

    Oh baloney.

    We actively aided the Afghan people in ejecting the Soviet occupation and their next act was to impose a religious tyranny and team up with Al Qaeda to murder Americans.

    This notion that our misdeeds create terrorists excludes little factors like ideology, religious fanaticism, a hunger for power and influence, even simple economic need. It’s a blame-America-first hair shirt approach that simply does not fit the facts.

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Barry:

    I would ask if you have proof, but why bother?

    Not to stick up for Jenos but, 2 words: “Underwear bomber.”

    @swbarnes2:

    Wait, you want to target children for death, and you think this will disincentivize people to attack Americans?

    Oh c’moff it, that is the exact opposite of what you quoted him saying.

    @swbarnes2:

    Terrorists don’t drop out of the sky. They are ordinary people who have reasons for doing what they do.

    This is true. What he is saying is “Once they have sworn “Death to America!” it is time to kill them. What you are saying is “Don’t take them to the point where they swear “Death to America!” Somehow or other, I don’t think he would disagree.

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s a blame-America-first hair shirt approach that simply does not fit the facts.

    Ahhh yes…. America is blameless, we have never killed an innocent child, destroyed a house or country, or stolen a national pride…

    A pox on all your houses.

  29. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    As I remember it, the terrorists were spoiled Saudi kids, children of our allies.

    The Taliban very foolishly stepped up to defend bin Laden and his bunch, converting non-state action to state sanctioned. Thus they deserved their fall.

    But I don’t remember any native Afghans or Taliban being involved in planning or attacks on the US beforehand.

  30. john personna says:

    “The hijackers in the September 11 attacks were 19 men affiliated with al-Qaeda, and 15 of the 19 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Others were from Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE. ”

    Interesting, isn’t it, that “the war on terror” has never targeted those countries, not even the occasional drone strike.

  31. anjin-san says:

    Not to stick up for Jenos but, 2 words: “Underwear bomber.”

    Underwear bomber < "lots were tried"

  32. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Oh puh-leeze. Did I at any time say we were blameless? I’m saying the notion that we are somehow solely responsible through our misdeeds for terrorists doesn’t hold up in light of facts. It’s contrafactual, it’s illogical and denies the complex humanity of our opponents. They aren’t our puppets, they have their own complex motivations.

  33. CB says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Thats also a pretty unfair and distorted history of the Afghan civil war. Contrary to popular belief, we did not actually ‘build’ AQ.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    That makes my point. We had committed no great crime against Saudi Arabia or the Saudi people that somehow caused (read: justified) 911.

    People are complicated and have complex motives. Reducing it to American action = Terrorist reaction does not fit the facts.

  35. swbarnes2 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We actively aided the Afghan people in ejecting the Soviet occupation and their next act was to impose a religious tyranny and team up with Al Qaeda to murder Americans.

    It’s a country of mostly dirt poor farmers, and you are saying they are all responsible for the Taliban running their government?

    This notion that our misdeeds create terrorists excludes little factors like ideology, religious fanaticism, a hunger for power and influence, even simple economic need.

    Right, and being bombed by Christians does wonders for getting them to change their religious ideology. And their economic status.

    And what better way to gain power and influence than to convince a bunch of angry, mourning people to do something about the people who bombed their children?

    The world is full of poor Muslims who wish they had a little more power in the world, but the vast majority of them aren’t acting to harm us. You can’t say that their religion and their poverty make terrorism their destiny.

    Let’s say that in the upcoming weeks, it is reported that someone beats up the two Steubenville boys. Would your first thoughts be “Oh, I bet it’s going to turn out that they were poor and very religious”? Or “I bet they were angry about what happened to the rape victim”? Surely the second explanation would at least cross your mind. Why can’t you even consider that people in other countries might be motivated the same way?

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    What he is saying is “Once they have sworn “Death to America!” it is time to kill them. What you are saying is “Don’t take them to the point where they swear “Death to America!” Somehow or other, I don’t think he would disagree.

    I’m not going to imagine that people agree with me just because I think it’s sensible. That’s deluded. What I see is a hell of a lot of resistance to even considering that maybe American hurt towards others is causing others to want to hurt us. No one is willing to admit that it’s even a factor. They all bewail how so many Americans went off the deep end after 9/11, leading America into stupid policy after stupid policy in rage and grief and fear, but they can’t seem to imagine that other humans might behave the same way under similar circumstances.

  36. Dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We actively aided the Afghan people in ejecting the Soviet occupation and their next act was to impose a religious tyranny and team up with Al Qaeda to murder Americans.

    This notion that our misdeeds create terrorists excludes little factors like ideology, religious fanaticism, a hunger for power and influence, even simple economic need. It’s a blame-America-first hair shirt approach that simply does not fit the facts.

    There is a lot wrong woven into this, I’ll try to unpack it.

    “The Afghan people” assumes there is a coherent group that can be labeled “Afghans”. This has never really existed. Their allegiance is to family, tribe, clan, and somewhere about 10 steps below that (if at all) “Afghanistan”, a colonial designation crafted out of nearly pure fantasy.

    Next, the Taliban did not exist when we helped some tribes get rid of the Soviets. Many of those tribes were displaced. A great place to see this story (which extends much deeper) is the wiki page for Massud, the guy that was assassinated on 9/11 by AQ. Rohrbacker may be an asshole, but he knows a lot about Afghanistan.

    You have conflated the Taliban and AQ. There are no scholars that I know of who will state that OBL clued Mullah Omar in on 9/11. Need to know op, and he didn’t use any Afghans or talibs for it. On the other hand, there are a lot who will say they are sure he did not. OBL gave a speech of apology at Tora Bora over the radio. This is supported in an account “The Oral History of the Taliban” as well. They have a code about defending guests. May seem quaint to us, but those codes are serious business to them, as the were to “us” in the middle ages.

  37. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    And so what we have in Afghanistan is a proxy war, the very worst kind of war, in which we hope the target of our aggression somehow communicates back to the source.

  38. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Barry: Apparently you don’t remember the Underwear Bomber and the Times Square Bomber, just to name two examples. In both cases, they were undetected until their attacks failed, due to their incompetence — the bomber sweated his bomb into ineffectiveness, and the Times Square bomber was incompetent.

    If they’d been more competent, we’d have lost several hundred people, at least, and a lot of property damage. And they sure as hell weren’t detected and foiled by any kind of law enforcement or intelligence efforts.

  39. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @michael reynolds: I think capture and interrogation is actually the missing component here.

    Obama isn’t interested in capturing and interrogating the enemy, just killing them. The mission against Bin Laden was a shoot-on-sight, don’t even bother to try to take him alive.

    Prisoners are legal problems Obama doesn’t want to deal with. Interrogate them? They have to be granted Constitutional rights. And then tried in a civilian court, with all the rules that cover that. Too much of a headache. Easier to just kill them.

    As we have been doing since Obama took office.

  40. michael reynolds says:

    @swbarnes2: @Dazedandconfused:

    No, I am not conflating the Taliban and AQ. I didn’t feel the need to write a treatise on it, I assumed we were all aware of the underlying facts.

    No, I’m not denying that some people can be motivated to terrorism by our blowing up their homes. I’m saying that’s not what happened. We did not blow up Mr. Bin Laden’s home. We didn’t blow up Zawahiri’s home. Nor did Mullah Omar have any particular personal reason to hate us. None of the major AQ figures and none of the major Taliban figures had their homes blown up. Nor did the Afghan people – of whatever tribe — have their homes blown up prior to 911. So your hair shirt narrative simply does not fit the historical facts.

    As a simple matter of what should be generally agreed facts, we have not had more trouble with terrorism since we started the drone war, we’ve had less. Now, I don’t know quite how you can manage the time travel necessary to make the drone war responsible for the terror attacks that preceded it, but I’d love to invest in the technology.

    American Drones = Anti-American Terrorism is simply an unfounded theory. You cannot show any evidence that proves your premise. If you can, why don’t you do so instead of wasting your time trying to cast me as a child-killing monster? Show me where our actions can be directly blamed for terrorist attacks on the US.

    What’s happening here is a replay of the propaganda liberals (again: my people) practiced in the aftermath of Vietnam. It’s not sufficient to deal in facts, it has to be inflated into some huge world-class paradigm-shattering, reality-altering Moral Lesson Which Must Determine Our Policy From This Day Forth! It requires villains who aren’t merely stupid or reckless but profoundly, undeniably evil and, always, American. It always has to be 100% our fault. We have to be 100% wrong. We have to be 100% responsible.

    Can we be 40% wrong? No, to even suggest that we are only 40% wrong would be criminal, heartless, foul and murderous! How dare anyone suggest that we were even partly right in any small way ever? Oh, the perfidy!

    This is the kind of absolutist thinking, the kind of propagandistic twisting of reality, the knee-jerk blame-America mentality that saddled us with eight years of Richard Nixon and eight years of Ronald Reagan.

    I’m suggesting that rather than go down the rabbit hole of moral posturing, complete with the usual narcissism and subtle racism that accompany these spasms of self-centered self-hatred, we should try to deal rationally with the issues raised. Tell the truth, but the whole, nuanced truth, not the narrative that makes you feel righteous. The American people will not tolerate leadership by a party they feel has lost faith in America and that insists on casting us as the great satans of world history. Truth, even the dirty truth, but not propaganda.

  41. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    No, it is not a proxy war. We are killing bad guys in places where no legal mechanism exists to get at them.

    It’s very simple really. If we find a terrorist in the UK we call Mi5. We don’t drop a Hellfire on him. And before someone wheels out the inevitable, “Yeah, ’cause they’re white,” b.s., I would note that if we were to find a terrorist in Muslim Turkey we would also not drop a Hellfire on him, we would call up the National Intelligence Organization and they would pick him up or conveniently air mail him to a place where we could pick him up.

    Where the rule of law is enforced, we don’t blow people up. Where there is no law or competent government authority, we blow them up. We use law when there is law, and where is no law we use force.

  42. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    How many bad guys, terrorists successful or intercepted, are natives of Afghanistan?

    Again, the Taliban made the critical mistake of shielding bin Laden, but to my knowledge the Taliban or government of Afghanistan never launched an attack on the US.

    That critical mistake made them a proxy.

  43. john personna says:

    Or, to put it directly, why did defeating the Taliban not end terrorism?

    Because they weren’t driving it.

    They were a proxy target.

  44. anjin-san says:

    One thing we should keep in mind is that we are in the business of killing people. We have been longer than any of us have been around. Does anybody think that is going to change? Drones might be new and spooky, but dead is dead. Tomahawk, B-2, Special Ops team – it does not really matter how the deceased gets there.

    Unless someone can figure out how to get us out of the killing business, I submit that drones kill less innocents than most other methods available to us, and we are not risking the lives of elite troops in the process.

    Should we make every effort to be sure innocents are spared? Of course. Should we stop going after people who have declared war on us? Of course not. I am a big fan of soft power, and we should be using it as much as possible in this conflict. Of course that is made more difficult when conservatives insist on demonizing more or less all Muslims.

  45. Dazedandconfused says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I must ask why I was included in that reply. I’m not justifying anything.