Why drone strikes on leaders are a good tactic for fighting ISIS, but not all terrorist organizations

A man inspects the damage at the site where a U.S. drone strike killed Maher al-Agal, a leader in the Islamic State militant group, near the village of Khaltan, near Jindayris in northwest Syria, on July 12, 2022. Photo by RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images

This story was updated on August 3, 2022, to reflect the latest news developments. Please, read the updated story here.

Although the news about ISIS has largely disappeared from our TV screens and social media feeds since the extremist group lost any territorial control in Syria and Iraq in 2019, U.S. Central Command and allies continue Operation Inherent Resolve. 

In the last few years, they have conducted numerous special operations and targeted drone attacks, killing and capturing various ISIS leaders, with the latest successful counterterrorism operation announced last week.

On July 12, the U.S. military and intelligence community carried out a precision drone strike outside of Jindayris in northwest Syria, killing a “top five” ISIS leader, Maher al-Agal, who was responsible for aggressively pursuing the development of ISIS networks outside of Iraq and Syria, CENTCOM said

headshot of max abrahms
Max Abrahms, terrorism expert and professor of political science, says that not all terrorist organizations are the same; some might become more violent after a killing of a leader. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“ISIS continues to represent a threat to the U.S. and partners in the region,” said Col. Joe Buccino, a CENTCOM spokesperson. “The removal of these ISIS leaders will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks.”

But is this tactic of targeted killings actually effective?

Max Abrahms, associate professor of political science at Northeastern and the author of “Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History” (2018), says that leadership decapitation has become the cornerstone of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy and took off in frequency under President Barack Obama’s administration for a number of reasons. 

First, big technological advances in drones development made them helpful in identifying potential targets. Modern drones are cheaper and can stay up in the sky for longer, Abrahms says. 

Drone strikes suited the Obama administration very well, Abrahms says, because he opposed so-called boots on the ground engagement of the American troops and the Iraq War.

“On top of that, the terrorism threat has really metastasized and diffused internationally, and it just wouldn’t be possible to deploy large numbers of troops everywhere in the world where there is a major terrorism threat,” Abrahms says. 

Abrahms believes that drone strikes are effective in the case of ISIS but should be used with caution for other terrorist organizations. 

“When you take out the leader of a militant group, it is important to understand what exactly the role was of that leader … before the military pulls the trigger,” Abrahms says. “Paradoxically, oftentimes, the leader of a militant group has a restraining effect on lower level members in the organization.”

In his statistical research, Abrahms finds that targeting leadership often leads a terrorist group to become even more tactically extreme and more likely to engage in attacking civilians.

“However, not all groups are the same,” he says. “Islamic State is a very unusual group because it is maximally extreme.”

Unlike Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, where leaders act as a restraining force of the rank and file, the ISIS leadership actually favors mass casualty attacks against civilians world-wide. Most groups are much more selective about which targets they attack, Abrahms says. 

He thinks that there is marginal utility in taking out the leaders one-by-one because not everyone gets to be promoted to a leader, and ISIS has a finite number of people to choose from.

“There isn’t a big strategic risk taking out a leader of Islamic State,” he says. “It could also act as a deterrent for future leaders knowing that they will be a marked man.”

The ISIS leadership has been of a very poor quality, and it doesn’t know what it takes to achieve long-term political change, Abrahms says. Because it has been so unrestrained and so violent, ISIS elicited the largest counterterrorism coalition.

“And that is why so few Americans are currently worried about the group,” Abrahms says. “Islamic State is now a shadow of itself.”

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