Leadership decapitation is one means of combating violent non-state actors. However, the fact that the leader of a terrorist or insurgent organization being fought can be killed doesn’t mean that he should be. One obvious example is when a group’s leader is incompetent. In such a situation, it may make sense to target his deputies, but leave him in place to continue blundering. Other situations may also arise where targeting a group’s leadership does not make sense. Is the case of Abu Yahya al Libi (who is reportedly dead, but whose demise remains unconfirmed) one such situation?
Australian analyst Leah Farrall strongly answered yes in a provocative blog entry that has garnered much attention. Her argument is summarized well in the following passage:
I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu. And yes, given his teachings I do note a certain irony in this, but sadly, it’s true. What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately.
Farrall’s entry touched off a days-long debate on Twitter, primarily between her and American analyst Will McCants, over whether al Libi should be seen as a moderating force in al Qaeda in a way that matters. Before I turn to my own thoughts on the debate, let me say that I think it was an excellent model of argument within this sphere. Competitive analysis is important, and it is generally best when conducted in the open, as this has been. Further, the exchange has been respectful and collegial, something that is atypical for today’s debates. That being said, I rather decisively come down in McCants’s corner.
It is important to note what this debate is not about. It is not about the drones program writ large. I have serious reservations about drones as strategy for reasons similar to those articulated by Bill Roggio in a recent Threat Matrix entry. Judging from McCants’s Twitter feed, he also appears to have problems with the U.S.’s over-reliance on drones. Farrall’s argument is more specific than a general critique of the U.S.’s drones policy: she argues that al Libi’s death will make the world more dangerous because he will be lost as a “moderating force within a far more virulent current.”
The first problem I have with Farrall’s argument is that it means we have an enemy whom we cannot fight because eliminating him from the battlefield is too dangerous. If you follow the logic of her argument, it is not only too dangerous to kill al Libi (or someone similarly situated) but even to arrest him. After all, if al Libi were imprisoned, he would still be eliminated from al Qaeda’s ranks and hence unable to serve as a moderating force.
The second problem is that, contrary to Farrall’s argument, a strategic opponent actually seems far more dangerous than an indiscriminate opponent. Note that in her quote above, she poses these as two ends of the spectrum: “Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately.” I think this is an accurate assessment of two means that al Qaeda could employ in its fight against the U.S. and others. One of McCants’s major objections to Farrall’s argument is that al Libi’s ends weren’t limited. Farrall doesn’t dispute the point that al Libi would continue to threaten the U.S., but argues that we’ll be worse off if al Qaeda slips from its current strategic posture to one that is more indiscriminate (i.e. with less limited means).
Let’s leave aside McCants’s various arguments that al Libi was not actually a moderating force, and assume for the sake of this argument that he did in fact serve as one in the way that Farrall claims. When your opponent is a violent non-state actor, and thus an opponent of necessarily limited resources, its ability to act strategically is precisely what makes it dangerous. One overarching argument I made in Bin Laden’s Legacy is that one of the reasons our approach to combating al Qaeda has often been lacking is the assumption that the jihadi group is not a strategic actor. A strategic actor is able to spread its brand into new theaters. A strategic actor is able to garner public sympathy. A strategic actor is able to coordinate its actions in a way that will drive up its opponent’s expenses.
An indiscriminate actor will be less effective than a strategic one in the medium to long term, though it may cause horrifying damage in the short term. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is one example of an actor who allowed its own excesses and bloodthirstiness to get the better of it. Though it was seen as the “dominant organization of influence” in the Anbar province in August 2006, AQI overplayed its hand. The well known–and hugely successful–Anbar Awakening was a response to an actor that employed largely indiscriminate violence. Beyond the context of Iraq, one of al Qaeda’s biggest weaknesses, which has lost it a good deal of popular support, has been the large amount of Muslim blood that it shed. Indeed, we know from the Abbottabad documents that Osama bin Laden recognized this weakness. He wanted to address it in part because doing so would make his organization more efficient at killing Americans.
One can, and should, have numerous questions about our current counterterrorism strategies. And as I stated at the outset, in some cases it will be more strategic to leave a violent non-state actor’s leadership in place when fighting it. But al Libi does not appear to be that case; and al Qaeda appears to be more rather than less dangerous when it operates strategically rather than indiscriminately.