Baghdadi’s Death Does Not Matter | Opinion
In 1971, Saul Alinsky published a book called Rules for Radicals in which the father of modern community organizing shared lessons he had learned over the years for successful protest. But the problem with Rules for Radicals is that protesters often conclude that protesting isn’t enough. Historically, many social movements have escalated to violence after nonviolence failed.
Michael Collins, for example, determined that “Irish Independence would never be attained by constitutional means” and that “when you’re up against a bully you’ve got to kick him in the guts.” In his memoire, Irgun leader Menachem Begin described the Zionist group’s predicament after nonviolence failed to protect the Yishuv: “What use was there in writing memoranda? What value in speeches? No, there was no other way. If we did not fight we should be destroyed.” When asked why they adopted violence in the 1950s, Algerian nationalists complained that the French had just shrugged off their futile strikes and boycotts. In her autobiography from the American Weather Underground, Susan Stern explained why her radical left-wing group escalated: “As the years have passed, I’ve seen my efforts fail with thousands of others in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The time has come not merely to protest but to fight for what we believe in.” The leader of the Tamil Tigers shared a similar rationale for why his group embraced violence: “The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances…for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness.” The African National Congress released a similar statement in July 1963 about why it ramped up its anti-apartheid tactics: “It can now truly be said that very little, if any, scope exists for the smashing of white supremacy other than by means of mass revolution action, the main content of which is armed resistance leading to victory by military means.” The truth is that some radicals will become rebels, and there are rules for them, too.
My book, Rules for Rebels, starts off where Rules for Radicals ends. It analyzes hundreds of militant groups from all over the world to discern why some succeed and others fail. I come with welcome news for the rebel leader. My research reveals that he possesses a surprising amount of agency over his political destiny. Triumph is possible. But only when he knows what to do. It turns out there’s a science to victory in militant history. But even rebels must follow rules.
Smart militant leaders do three simple things to increase the odds of victory.
The first rule is for the leader to recognize that not all violence is equal for achieving his stated political goals. In fact, smart leaders grasp that some attacks should be carefully avoided because they’re deeply counterproductive for the cause. My research is the first to empirically demonstrate that there’s variation in the political utility of attacks depending on the target. Compared with more selective violence against military and other government targets, indiscriminate violence against civilian targets lowers the likelihood of political success. So the first thing smart militants do is recognize that civilian attacks are a recipe for political failure. You might say that the first rule for rebels is to not use terrorism at all. There’s no consensus over the definition of terrorism. But most scholars define it as attacks against civilian targets in particular. When we talk about terrorism, we mean attacks on civilian targets like schools, markets, movie theaters, rock concerts, soccer games, commercial airplanes, cruise ships, mosques, businesses and apartment buildings unless occupied by military personnel. We’re certainly not talking about blowing the treads off a tank. What matters for the militant leader, though, isn’t how we define terrorism, but that he learns the folly of harming civilians.
The second rule is to actively restrain lower-level members from harming civilians. It doesn’t matter whether the leader understands the futility of terrorism if his members continue to do it. The key is for the leader to centralize the organization, so he can educate fighters to avoid civilians, discipline those who harm civilians and vet out prospective members who seem prone to undermining the cause with terrorism.
And the third rule is for the leader to distance the organization from terrorism whenever wayward subordinates flout his targeting guidelines by attacking civilians. Like CEOs, smart militant leaders know how to brand their organization for maximum appeal when members publicly shame it. In practice, this means denying organizational responsibility when members kill civilians. Or when caught red-handed, apologizing for the terrorist attack and blaming it on rogue fighters to highlight that their grisly methods run counter to the ideals of the group.
When you look scientifically at the history of militant groups, one thing becomes immediately clear about the Islamic State (ISIS): Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one stupid leader. Baghdadi could have written a book called Rules for Rebels to Fail. Indeed, he did the exact opposite of what smart leaders have historically done to achieve their stated political goals.
Baghdadi clearly didn’t understand the most important rule of sparing civilians to reduce the audience costs. Like Antar Zouabri of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and other imbecilic militant leaders throughout world history, Baghdadi failed to appreciate that blowing up innocent people only jeopardizes the cause by turning the population against you and reducing the likelihood of political concessions. This is true, I find, even in hostage settings, where killing even one civilian substantially lowers the odds of governments making any concessions at all to the perpetrators.
To maximize the civilian carnage, Baghdadi also flouted the second rule by decentralizing ISIS’ recruitment and operations. By 2016, he had accepted the “bayat,” or allegiance, of 43 terrorist group affiliates, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Now, they were all fighting under the black banner. Where affiliates didn’t exist to maximize the bloodletting, he appealed to lone wolf terrorists to kill essentially anyone on their wish list.
And Baghdadi broke the third cardinal rule by publicly broadcasting in lurid detail ISIS’ heinous crimes against civilians over social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Rather than denying organizational responsibility for the carnage, he encouraged members to brag about it, leaving no doubt that his group was the baddest one on the block.
This was a terrific strategy for attracting sociopaths to the group, but quickly turned other militant organizations against it, dried up local support and elicited the largest counterterrorism coalition ever assembled, costing his life along with the caliphate. The media fixated on every known foreign fighter to join ISIS, while ignoring the bigger picture that its attrition rate had steadily outstripped its recruitment rate.
Because most militant leaders restrain the rank-and-file, taking them out with drones or other means typically increases the amount of organizational violence against civilians by empowering less strategic lower-level members. But Baghdadi’s death won’t increase the amount of terrorism because he was too dense to recognize its limitations. Baghdadi was like a CEO so incompetent that losing him will have no discernible effect on the firm’s performance.