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.