Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.

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3 thoughts on “Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

  1. This is a very thoughtful piece. It’s difficult to assess whether the death of Bin Laden has had a significant effect because counterfactual analysis is inherently unprovable. I think we can, in the case of Admiral Yamamoto, find evidence where decapitation likely had a significant impact. From an ethical perspective, I think it makes more sense to kill leaders of groups (including theorists) rather than their foot soldiers, who may have been found themselves on the battlefield due to personal circumstances rather than zeal or personal desire. Thank you for the great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with your assessment that killing leaders is more ethical than foot soldiers and quite enjoyed your blog on that topic. However, I am not sure how ethical it is to kill leaders in the company of unaffiliated civilians, or routinely kill people with no confirmation the target was present, which seems to be the case too often.

      Additionally, if killing a leader creates a more violent group or separatist movement, I find it difficult to see a net positive. I think that when it comes to side effects of counterterrorism programs, more research is necessary to make helpful, data-driven correlations. Thanks for reading and your insightful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Reflections on 2016: The Year’s Most Popular Posts | Insurgentsia

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