When Heads Roll

Just in case you were wondering about the implications of beheading, or rather, removing the leadership from an organization.

…this project answers three primary questions: (1) Under what conditions does leadership decapitation result in the dissolution of a terrorist organization?; (2) Does leadership decapitation increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond the baseline rate of collapse for groups over time?; and (3) In cases where decapitation does not result in group collapse, to what extent does it result in organizational degradation and hinder a group’s ability to carry about terrorist attacks?

Those are the questions posed by Jenna Jordan in a 2009 paper. She finds that decapitation’s effects depend on the characteristics of the terrorist organization:

…a group’s age, size, and type are critical in identifying when decapitation will cause the cessation of terrorist activity. As an organization grows in size and age, it is much more likely to withstand the removal of its leadership. Organizational type is also significant in understanding the susceptibility of an organization to decapitation. Ideological organizations are most likely to experience a cessation of activity following the removal of leader, while religious organizations are highly resistant to leadership decapitation.

She also finds that decapitation does not precipitate the collapse of the terrorist organization:

…decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time. Organizations that have not had their leaders removed are more likely to fall apart than those that have undergone a loss of leadership. The marginal utility of decapitation is negative for many groups, particularly for larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations.

In case studies of ETA, Hamas, and FARC, she finds that decapitation did not precipitate any degradation of the terrorist group’s ability to carry out attacks.

Apropos of the present moment, she concludes:

There are important policy implications that can be derived from this study of leadership decapitation. Leadership decapitation seems to be a misguided strategy, particularly given the nature of organizations being currently targeted. The rise of religious and separatist organizations indicates that decapitation will continue to be an ineffective means of reducing terrorist activity. It is essential that policy makers understand when decapitation is unlikely to be successful. Given these conditions, targeting bin Laden and other senior members of al Qaeda, independent of other measures, is not likely to result in organizational collapse. Finally, it is essential that policy makers look at trends in organizational decline. Understanding whether certain types of organizations are more prone to destabilization is an important first step in formulating successful counterterrorism policies.

[UPDATE: See this post at Miller-McCune]

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.