To kill a terrorist
The Atlantic - 09/07/2014
A forthcoming paper from Northeastern University’s Max Abrahms and the University of Michigan’s Philip Potter reports that leadership decapitation may increase civilian casualties. Militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Abrahms and Potter discovered, became “significantly less discriminate in their targeting choices”—in other words, more likely to target civilians—after high-level militants were killed in drone strikes.
“The leadership can actually have a restraining effect on lower-level members,” Abrahms tells me. For example, al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has instructed his rank-and-file to “avoid collateral damage,” and famously split with ISIS in February in part over the group’s ruthlessness. Abrahms speculates that in that sense, decapitation could indirectly and over time shorten the lifespan of a terrorist group, since such organizations usually lose popular support when they inflict high civilian casualties. But that means counterterrorism officials are making a grim calculation: Taking out terrorist leaders may benefit civilians in the long term, but in the short term it only endangers them further.