Stop Ranking Terrorists

Evan Kohlmann has been at the center of a huge controversy since arguing earlier in the week that, despite Pentagon claims, Abu Azzam al-Iraqi was most likely not Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s number one deputy. He advises those who wish to avoid such meaningless debates to “steer clear of misleading and irrelevant hierarchical representations of non-hierarchical terrorist groups.”

His colleague, Douglas Farah, goes one further:

It seems to me there is a lesson here we have not learned in Iraq and with al Qaeda. In largely non-hierarchical structures, where highly-trained individuals are running small cells with interchangeable responsibilities and tasks, the loss of an individual is likely to matter less. The same is true in U.S. Special Forces and other elite units. What would damage the organization more than taking out a field commander would be to eliminate someone with a specific skill set, such as bomb-making, communications and internet expertise or document forgery, that would be hard and time consuming to replace.

Both strike me as about right. Killing top terrorist leaders is still a very good idea–there has to be some reason they are in that position to begin with–but is unlikely to be decisive.

This, of course, cuts both ways. While it’s silly for the Pentagon to continue to hype killing off “the X highest ranking member” of terrorist groups, it’s also absurd for anti-war critics to continually point out that we haven’t caught Osama bin Laden yet.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Terrorism, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. Anderson says:

    This, of course, cuts both ways. While it’s silly for the Pentagon to continue to hype killing off “the X highest ranking member” of terrorist groups, it’s also absurd for anti-war critics to continually point out that we haven’t caught Osama bin Laden yet.

    A dazzling non sequitur, sir. We are not trying to catch Osama because he leads a terrorist organization. We are trying (?) to catch him because he’s the m—–f—– who killed almost 3,000 Americans on 9/11/2001. Not to mention the victims of the Cole and embassy bombings.

    I do agree with the gist of the post, and can imagine terrorist captains joshing about which of them will be proclaimed “# 2” or whatever when the infidels finally get them.




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  2. Eddie Thomas says:

    “A dazzling non sequitur, sir.”

    OT: Why do some people like to end their retorts with “sir” (or “mam” for female bloggers)? Does a zinger have more zing if it sounds like it is being delivered by someone from the 19th century?




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  3. James Joyner says:

    They’re related in that catching OBL will have little measurable impact on stopping al Qaeda. Zarquawi’s gang is butchering innocents by the hundreds as well.




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  4. Anderson says:

    Actually, Eddie, my hope was that “sir” indicated my disagreement didn’t imply a lack of respect for James. I see that didn’t have quite the clarity I wished.

    As for James’s comment, did anyone ever seriously say that catching OBL would shut down al Qaeda, or end the war on terror, or restore the Jedi Order and bring truth and justice to the galaxy? Not that I recall, and if so, then they were wrong. Seems a bit of a straw man to me.




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  5. McGehee says:

    We are not trying to catch Osama because he leads a terrorist organization.

    Actually, yes we are. 9/11 was the catalyst event, but terrorism is the focus.

    ‘Cause, if we had been serious about fighting terrorists before 9/11, maybe 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.




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  6. T. Jaxon says:

    They’re related in that catching OBL will have little measurable impact on stopping al Qaeda. Zarquawi’s gang is butchering innocents by the hundreds as well.

    I would like to think that catching OBL would have an enormous impact in a number of areas. Such a huge success could be pointed to as ‘real progress’ in the War on Terror. The American public’s growing unease with the circus in Iraq would fade, for a while. The unreasonable anti-war folks would have a nice plate of crow to eat…all that chewing might keep them quiet for a while.

    That’s just domestic. OBL has been the boogeyman of the United States for four years (or much more depending on how you count it)…and terrorists in Al-Queda have to be motivated by the fact that their potential leader can’t be found by the most powerful nation on the face of the planet. Some of them might be de-motivated if the head of their organization was taken down. At the very least their recruitment propaganda would take a hit. As would the finances of Al-Queda.




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  7. Anderson says:

    We are not trying to catch Osama because he leads a terrorist organization.

    Actually, yes we are. 9/11 was the catalyst event, but terrorism is the focus.

    Hm. So if Osama renounced terror and set up shop weaving daisy chains on a hill in Ohio, we’d let bygones be bygones? I think not.




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  8. Overworked says:

    I get the argument about not ranking these guys, but I gotta tell you, guys like Kohlman who pass themselves off as experts on terrorism and go out of their way to criticize those doing the real work of finding, capturing, and killing these guys when they don’t even have access to sensitive intelligence information just really tick me off.




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  9. Herb says:

    Don’t these armchair war experts, Generals, and terrorist experts really get you PO’s with all their expertise and solutions about everything relating to the war on terrorism?




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  10. ken says:

    In over forty years of occupying the West Bank and Gaza territories the Israelis finally learned the arithmetic of resistance.

    Their intelligence agency would first identify by name the terrorists in a given area. Let’s say they counted ten of them.

    The assassination squads would go in and kill two of them.

    Now the Israelis thought they had reduced the problem and were left with only 8 terrorists in that area.

    But in the arithmetic of resistance those two deaths led to the recruitment of four replacements.

    So not Israel has twelve enemies to deal with instead of the ten they had before the kill two of them.

    We all knew that the exact same thing would happen when Bush went to war on Iraq. The Bush war keeps multiplying our enemies instead of reducing them.

    Are we going to wait forty years before we have a leader brave enough to bring our soldiers home?

    What a waste.




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  11. Herb says:

    Ken:

    You are a broken record. The Israelis got a good handle on the Palestinian terrorists and keep them in their place. Look at HAMMAS leaders, they were knocked one by one until their leader did not want to be known. Now, when they do anything, their so called leaders run like jackrabbits.

    Are you married to Cindy Sheehan, sure looks like it. If not, you sure do sound like her with your anti Bush rhetoric and Anti American BS




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  12. McGehee says:

    So if Osama renounced terror and set up shop weaving daisy chains on a hill in Ohio, we’d let bygones be bygones?

    I give this strawman a 6 out of 10. C’mon, Anderson — I know you can do better.




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