Security Studies Review Paper: Matthew Melino (2013) Decapitation: A Long-Term Counterterrorism Strategy (SAIS Europe Journal)
Melino's excellent commentary focuses on US leadership decapitation policy effectiveness, esp. al-Qaeda & Co. targeted killings. He notes the achievements and failures, and gives recommendations.
Overall, a well-articulated commentary by Melino. He focuses on the effectiveness of the U.S. leadership decapitation policy since 2003 and until December 2013. The emphasis is on targeted killings of Islamist militant organizations – al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Melino essentially notes the short-term successful achievements of the policy. However, he also believes the policy cannot be successful and achieve its long-term goals of completely destroying the terrorist organizations without any ground policy (not just airstrikes) – a counter-insurgency policy to win the hearts and minds of the society.
Contributing Reviewer(s): Shahaf Rabi
Original review publication date: 06 September 2020
Details of the Reviewed Article
Title: Decapitation: A Long-Term Counterterrorism Strategy?
By: Matthew Melino
Publication: SAIS Europe Journal
Published: December 2013
Notes, insights & remarks:
After the 2003 publication of the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, leadership decapitation policy became a prominent aspect of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.
The policy’s rational/hypothesis: Leaders determine their organizational goals and strategy. They frame the grievances to mobilize people and set the course of action (including forms of political violence). Hence, killing them is expected to eventually disband the terrorist organization.
The U.S. has since killed key leadership figures. Yet Islamist militant organizations such as al-Qaeda, kept spreading. The groups survived, adapted, and some evidence suggests they even grew stronger in some forms.
Thus the doubt if leadership decapitation “is truly an effective long-term strategy”.
Melino distinguishes between the policy’s short-term and long-term aims and measurements of effectiveness. He notes the short-term ones are basically successful, but highly doubts/considers failing the long-term ones:
(1) Elimination of the charismatic leadership figure, which is key in any terrorist organization. By depriving the group its charismatic leader, the group loses a key figure who was able to inspire and mobilize people, properly organize and command the members, as well as fix internal strife.
(2) The process of leadership succession invites intra-organizational conflicts. The fights might be over who replaces the leadership role, but also because different leaders might generate different goals and/or alter the strategy in pursuing the goals.
Melino offers examples to illustrate cases both of the above happened (not included here).
Reviewer's note: Any research and analysis must keep in mind the specific organizational characteristics, like structure and culture, especially with regards to leadership succession aspects. For example, the currently available scholarship suggests the more bureaucratic the group, etc., the less likely leadership decapitation is to disrupt it. As such, “short term success” might very well vary in terms of time periods for different organizations. Similarly, charismatic leaders might be a lot less valuable once the group is an old and long existing one.
(1) Melino states that drone strikes fuel and “legitimize extremist rhetoric”, make killed leaders depicted as martyrs, help publicize the group, increases recruitment and radicalization, and also leads to revenge-attacks.
(2) Once there are civilian casualties, the U.S. is seen as the enemy and it increases the support for the local insurgency groups.
Reviewer's note: I can’t recall if there are solid empirical findings that the recruitment actually increases (but it’s overall reasonable). Also, some scholars would argue that revenge-attacks overall hurt militant organizations from achieving their political goals (e.g. Max Abrahms).
Melino thus perceives the leadership decapitation policy as ineffective as of itself. It fails to “defeat the group’s source of strength – its message.” He calls policymakers to realize that the message, the powerful ideology, of groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates require to add aspects of counter-insurgency policies. To beat the insurgency is to disconnect “the strong religious ideology and societal ties” between the locals and the terrorist groups. He believes this will lead to the organizational collapse that leadership decapitation fails to achieve.
He argues the U.S needs to be an active player on the ground on top of using the leadership decapitation policy. The U.S. needs to win the hearts and minds of the local population. In particular, the U.S.’s “message should […] highlight the disconnect between the society’s religious ideals and the increasingly violent and extreme actions of terrorist groups.” If this is done, Melino believes that such separation between “the terrorists [and] their support base will ultimately leave the group isolated and vulnerable to collapse.”