Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Whack-a-Mole is a Game With No End

The WaPo is reporting that two top leaders of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq were killed in a raid, which is news that does not cause me any anguish. However, I just finished reading a commentary in the New York Times from last week (The Price of Assassination) by Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, which persuasively argues that whacking out the leaders of terrorist groups is futile and maybe even counterproductive.

Wright links to an academic paper (When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation) - a great read - which he summarizes this way:

There’s no way of answering this question with complete confidence, but it turns out there are some relevant and little-known data. They were compiled by Jenna Jordan of the University of Chicago, who published her findings last year in the journal Security Studies. She studied 298 attempts, from 1945 through 2004, to weaken or eliminate terrorist groups through “leadership decapitation” — eliminating people in senior positions.

Her work suggests that decapitation doesn’t lower the life expectancy of the decapitated groups — and, if anything, may have the opposite effect.

That conclusion seems right to me. I've lost track of how many times it was announced that we had just killed the Number Three al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, but it sometimes seemed like we were killing the al-Qaeda S3 (see page 36 of this document if that term is unfamiliar) about every month or two. The Number One guy stays well hidden, of course, and I guess the Number Two is too important to expose himself much, so it's the poor Number Three who has to run operations in the field and ends up catching a missile.

Do all those sudden terminations of senior staff officers degrade al-Qaeda in the end? The numbers seems to say they do not.


Anonymous said...

Oh TSB - I'm glad you posted this. I was watching the news last night and I was wondering if I'm in the early onset of awful forgetfulness. I was sure, VERY sure, I've heard once, twice, many times before that we got the Number #3 Al Qaeda guy. How many #3 do these folks have? Either the guy is resurrected every few months or I'm going nuts. I've also always wondered why it's #3 that gets it every time. Thank you for the kind explanation.

TSB said...

I was at a CENTCOM conference a few years ago when yet another #3 was killed, and the whole room erupted in laughter about one more "S3 (operations chief of staff) of al-Qaeda."

Like the red shirt crewmen on the away teams in old Star Trek episodes, poor #3 is the most likely one to be grabbed by an alien.

AQ seems to have plenty of replacements, however.