The downside of killing Ayman al-Zawahiri

By now, you’ve surely heard that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul. Emotionally, I was also quite pleased to learn the news of his violent fate. But my research on the effects of taking out militant group leaders raises red flags about the value to U.S. national security. Paradoxically, terrorist groups — even horrible ones like Al Qaeda — may become even more violent when their leaders are killed.

Terrorist groups often act like herds of elephants. I once came across a story about African elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The population of elephants had grown too large for the park to sustain. So, a plan was devised to move them to another reserve. A harness was constructed to airlift the animals by helicopter to the Pilanesburg National Park. But the harness could only handle the juvenile and adult female elephants, so a decision was made to leave the bigger bull elephants at Kruger.

Initially, this solution seemed to work; everything was normal at Kruger. Yet rangers in the Pilanesburg park noticed a strange problem at the elephants’ new home: dead bodies of endangered white rhinoceroses. The rhino killers turned out to be marauding bands of aggressive juvenile male elephants, the very animals that had just been air-lifted from Kruger. Caught on video were the young males knocking down the rhinos, stomping them and goring them to death with their own tusks.In the wild, adult bulls were known to act as models for younger elephants to emulate, keeping them in check. Missing their elders to restrain them, the younger elephants went berserk, lashing out in indiscriminate fits of violent rage. To test this explanation, the rangers constructed a stronger harness to fly in the most senior bulls from Kruger. And almost immediately, the younger elephants fell into line and the rampages stopped.

Most research on the decapitation of terrorist leaders assesses whether it “works” in reducing the lifespan of militant groups or their ability to produce violence. But my studies suggest a more nuanced finding about the effect of decapitation strikes on tactical decision-making. It turns out that militant leaders often restrain the rank-and-file, so taking them out can make their groups even more extreme in their targeting choices. Without the leader communicating which targets to avoid, punishing transgressors and vetting out rogue operatives, they’re freer to act on their own initiative to attack civilians.

Historically, plenty of militant groups have become less restrained upon losing their leaders. In 1954, the British launched “Operation Anvil” to stamp out the Mau-Mau uprising. Capturing their leaders around Nairobi initiated a period of uncoordinated, rudderless violence. The Provisional Irish Republican Army also became more violent after the leaders got arrested in the early 1970s.

When Filipino police assassinated its founder Abdurajak Janjalani in 1998, the Abu Sayyaf group devolved into a movement of bandits that increasingly preyed on private citizens. When the Israel Defense Forces killed al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade leaders during the Second Intifada, the Palestinian terrorist group increased its attacks against Israeli civilians.

When Nigerian police summarily executed its founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, Boko Haram also became more ruthless towards civilians. The Salafist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham also became more extreme after a 2014 attack on its headquarters in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria took out the leadership.

This evidence isn’t just anecdotal. My statistical studies repeatedly find that leadership deficits in militant groups risk empowering lower-level members with even less restraint toward civilians. Of course, some militant leaders are so extreme that their successor can hardly be worse. And, of course, the benefits of justice and deterrence are immeasurable. But we would be unwise to look at Al-Zawahiri’s killing as risk-free.

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