The Strategy of Targeting al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

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.

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12 Responses to The Strategy of Targeting al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

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  5. TJM says:

    “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.”

    Upon further reflection, I think this is incorrect. I don’t think the logical conclusion of Farrall’s argument is that al-Libi should have been and forever remained untouchable. She argued that (assuming he is dead) he should not have been killed because he was a moderating force. That can change. His influence on the organization can become less significant. Other moderates can gain influence. More radicals players can be killed off first. For example, if there is a moderate actor, and the next 3 likely replacements for him are dangerous nutjobs, then it may be wise to kill/capture the 3 nutjobs first. Once those 3 are eliminated, then it may make sense to kill/capture the guy whom we think to be moderate.

    Either way, what is the significance of having an enemy (an individual) whom we cannot fight, aside from it just sounding scary? We were/are not fighting al-Libi. We are fighting his organization. If the best way to degrade his organization is to let him remain in a position of power, while we kill off underlings, then why is that problematic?

  6. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says:

    Tim:

    The main problem with your response is the very unusual definition of “moderate” being employed in this discussion. I might agree with your argument (and Leah Farrall’s) if al Libi were “moderate” in a way that could temper the threat that al Qaeda posed to the United States: for example, if he favored attacking “the near enemy” rather than continuing to target the U.S., or if he wanted to negotiate in a manner that suggested we could see an actual cessation of al Qaeda’s violence. But al Libi was not moderate in a way that suggested he would pose less of a threat to the U.S. I think Will McCants gets this point right: “It’s true that Libi is a very influential voice in al Qaeda and that he might be able to take al Qaeda in a less violent direction if he moderated his positions. But there was nothing in his career to suggest he would moderate al Qaeda’s 1998 targeting guidance for Western countries.”

    Rather, it appears that Farrall argued that al Libi was moderate in the sense that he might avoid wanton brutality in the process of continuing to try to execute large strikes against the West. To that extent, her critique is different in nature from, for example, the critiques that have been advanced of the Israeli assassination of Ahmad Yassin. (Omar Ashour’s “Hamas and the Prospects of De-Radicalization” in Mulaj’s Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics is a good example of one such argument.) So I agree with your statement: “If the best way to degrade his organization is to let him remain in a position of power, while we kill off underlings, then why is that problematic?” That would, in fact, not be problematic. The problem is that this was not the situation we faced with al Libi — and that if Farrall is right that he makes al Qaeda more strategic, then I believe that would make it harder and not easier to degrade the organization.

    This brings me to your critique, asking “what is the significance of having an enemy (an individual) whom we cannot fight, aside from it just sounding scary?”The reason is largely contained in what I fleshed out above: he isn’t “moderate” in a way that is strategically helpful to the U.S. Thus, Farrall’s paradigm would cause us to leave in place an influential and effective al Qaeda leader, one with ambitions of undertaking large-scale attacks against the U.S. in what he sees as an existential conflict (see pages 7-11 of this study on al Libi that I produced back in 2008). If there were a strategic advantage to not targeting him, then you’re right, it’s not “scary” to say he should not be targeted. But if the reason not to immobilize an effective terrorist leader yields no strategic advantage, it becomes more problematic.

  7. zenpundit says:

    “Rather, it appears that Farrall argued that al Libi was moderate in the sense that he might avoid wanton brutality in the process of continuing to try to execute large strikes against the West.”

    So, if I am understanding this thread correctly, Daveed, Will, Leah and Tim concur that al-Libi was “operationally moderate” and not “ideologically moderate”. Is this correct?

    If so, the question I have would be what has greater weight in AQ’s mental-model framework for interpreting it’s jihad and setting strategic Ends – theological-ideological drivers or drivers related to preserving and extending organizational capabilities to wage jihad (i.e. a terror-insurgency irregular force)?

    If it is the former, we wish to remove only the operationally competent planners and organizers and try to push AQ into a pressure cooker where military setbacks and escalating internal ideological disputes splinter AQ the way the Algerian Islamist rebels disintegrated. If it is the latter, we should remove the most militant figures likely to inspire or cajole the operators toward maximalist/apocalyptic strategic goals. Worst outcome would seem to be having AQ be escalating it’s ideological militancy while also becoming more operationally competent and it would seem that stopping drone use or targeting each kind of AQ leader equally could both lead to that nasty result.

    So, perhaps we should make a strategic choice here ourselves?

    • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says:

      Mark:

      I don’t think the agreement is quite what you make it out to be.

      The main point where there was no agreement is that al Libi was (is?) “operationally moderate” in a way that mattered strategically. Both Will McCants and I argue that al Libi still wanted to carry out large-scale attacks against the West, which can’t really be described as “operationally moderate.” My understanding of Leah Farrall’s argument is that she thinks al Libi could constrain al Qaeda’s younger generation from indiscriminate violence, and in that sense would have a moderating influence on al Qaeda. McCants disagrees with Farrall on this point, writing that “even for ops in the Muslim world, he was more of a hardliner than other members of the senior leadership like Atiyya.”

      My post didn’t side with either McCants or Farrall on the question of whether al Libi could serve as a moderating force in some ways. It simply made the point that if Farrall was right and he would push al Qaeda to operate “strategically rather than indiscriminately,” that would probably make al Qaeda more rather than less dangerous from a U.S./Western perspective.

      I agree with you that there will (or should) be strategic choices similar to those you outline. But I think our conceptions of al Libi within this debate don’t really align with your portrayal.

      • zenpundit says:

        Gracias Daveed, I was obviously unclear on how everyone was characterizing al-Libi.

        “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.”

        This was a good point. Scarcity forces choice and making choices is a central aspect of making strategy – American resources are at times a wretched excess that permits a bureaucratic papering over differences when choice and focus would be more suitable.

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  9. TJM says:

    Daveed,

    Thanks for that detailed response. That allowed me to better understand your stance. Your final two sentences address my primary concern: the reasoning underlying your concern that we have a specific individual whom we may not be able to fight (at the moment). The sentence in the original post that caught my attention was your statement that Leah’s argument “means we have an enemy whom we cannot fight because eliminating him from the battlefield is too dangerous.” In isolation, that sounds like a misguided concern. But, I suppose if I had reread your first paragraph, then it would have been clear that your argument is more nuanced. Thanks, also for the added links in your comment. That’s good material to print for a weekend of nerding out.

  10. Ty Mayfield says:

    Great post and one that I’ve returned to a few times. As you pointed out, the decision to kill someone is much different than the methodology employed to complete the act. Conor Friedersdorf has a solid post up at The Atlantic this week on the drone debate and argues for an immediate stop to “droning” terrorists. It’s not because it doesn’t work, it’s because the net result is negative, it produces more enemies of the state than it can ever possibly eliminate. This is a compelling argument and one that is worth a read. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/what-bushs-iraq-war-and-obamas-drone-strikes-have-in-common/258533/

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