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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Attacks Kill 120 and Wound Over 700 This Week Yet Public Outcry Scarce

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The world’s insurgentsia have been unusually active this week with attacks in Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, and Ivory Coast. Interestingly, there has not been much public outcry (if any) in response to any of these attacks in the Western media — certainly not to the extent that the attacks at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris last November received. Nor have these attacks garnered the attention of the Charlie Hebdo attacks before that, despite some being similar in nature, i.e. targeting Western civilians. So, in case you missed it:

Last Monday, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters attacked army and police posts in the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia killing 12 soldiers and seven civilians. Ben Gardane is close to the border with Libya and known for being a hotbed of jihadist recruitment. If the town fell to IS, it could establish another transnational control area like the one they enjoy in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, stabbing attacks by a Hamas member in the Israeli city of Jaffa killed one American and injured twelve others. The American was 28 year old Taylor Force, an MBA student at Vanderbilt University, former Army officer, and West Point graduate. Today, four Israeli security forces members were injured in an attack by Palestinian gunmen at a security checkpoint near the entrance of an Israeli settlement near Hebron in the West Bank. These attacks are part of a surge of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that have resulted in the deaths of 30 Israelis and roughly 180-200 Palestinians that some are calling the “Third Intifada”.

In Iraq, there were two attacks this week by IS using chemical weapons in the Shiite village of Taza, near Kirkuk, a region controlled by Kurdish militias. Reports suggest as many as 600 injured. According to the Department of Defense, IS is using chlorine and mustard gas in its attacks, which it is likely manufacturing itself. Last month, the head of the IS chemical weapons program was captured in a raid by US special operations forces. Additionally, 47 Iraqi soldiers were killed by IS in attacks near the recently liberated city of Ramadi.

In Ivory Coast, an attack most like the Paris attacks occurred. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters attacked a beach resort in the city of Grand Bassam yesterday, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers. Four of the victims were Westerners, including one French and a German national. The beach resort was likely targeted because it is popular amongst Westerners. This is not the first attack by AQIM this year: in January, AQIM-affiliated group al-Murabitun attacked a hotel popular with Westerners in Burkina Faso, killing 30 and wounding 56.

Finally, 37 were killed and dozens more injured in a suicide car bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara yesterday. The Turkish government claims a male and female member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were responsible. The target was a busy bus stop and mostly civilians were killed. In response, Turkey has begun airstrikes on Kurdish militia camps in northern Iraq.

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Protesters in Luxembourg in response the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (Jwh/Wikimedia Commons)

The combined death toll of just these attacks this week is 57 civilians, 61 military, with over 700 wounded.  The civilian deaths are only about half that of the November 2015 Paris attacks, but almost five times as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack. Of course, only a small fraction of the attacks were on Westerners and none were in Europe. After years of violence, one might understand why Westerners would be numb to attacks in the Middle East and perhaps even in Africa, despite these victims also being human beings. But as one Ankara foreign resident pointed out, why do Westerners feel nothing for Turkey?

“It is very easy to look at terror attacks that happen in London, in New York, in Paris and feel pain and sadness for those victims, so why is it not the same for Ankara? Is it because you just don’t realise that Ankara is no different from any of these cities? Is it because you think that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, like Syria, like Iraq, like countries that are in a state of civil war, so therefore it must be the same and because you don’t care about those ones, then why should you care about Turkey? If you don’t believe that these attacks in Ankara affect you, or you can’t feel the same pain you felt during the Paris or London attacks, then maybe you should stop to think why, why is it that you feel like that.”

Perhaps we should take a look at the numbers on the top of this page, take note of our feelings, and think, “why?”