Terrorist groups are most likely to die off when their leaders are removed, but the timing and circumstance of the change are important factors.
Many resources are devoted to finding out why terror groups spring up, how they gain adherents, and how to prevent radicalization in the future. But since so many groups already exist, some researchers are looking at why terror groups die off and which government actions have hastened their demise. The findings may be helpful in formulating effective counterterrorism approaches.
Army Major Bryan Price, who is director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, looks at the effectiveness of getting rid of a group’s key leadership in his report Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism. It doesn’t mean the leader must be killed, but he or she must be removed from the influence of the rest of the group, he notes. Price even found that when the leader changes due to natural causes, it can cause the group to go out of existence or to cease to be a meaningful terrorist threat.“
Leadership succession is difficult for many organizations, but I found it to be especially difficult for terrorist groups,” Price says, because “terrorist groups are violent, clandestine, and values-based organizations that attract and require leaders that have a unique set of leadership characteristics.”
However, as with most situations in life, timing is everything. Price has found that the earlier in a group’s existence that the decapitation occurs, the more likely it is to influence the group’s ending. Says Price: “The longer it takes the state to kill or capture the group’s leader, the more resilient the group actually becomes,” he notes. “So, a group that loses its leader in the first year of its existence, I found to be more than eight times as likely to end than a group that doesn’t lose its leader.”
But the effect of removing a leader diminishes dramatically over time. “Say, after 10 years, this effect is reduced by half. And after 20 years, it’s possible that the loss of the leader may have no effect on the group’s mortality rate or its duration,” explains Price. And even earlier in its existence, he adds that the terror group does not tend to catastrophically collapse; the process could take years.
Price is not the first to examine the question of what causes terrorist groups to collapse, fade away, or cease to be violent. Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp. and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, has also studied the issue working with Rand’s Martin C. Libicki.
Their major findings indicated that since 1968, there have been two major reasons for the defeat of terrorist groups: the terrorists either adopted nonviolent tactics and joined the political process or local police arrested or killed key members of the group.
To reach their conclusions, which were issued in a report a few years ago, Jones and Libicki analyzed nearly 40 years of terrorist group demises. Specifically, they took a look at 648 total groups that were active at some point between 1968 and 2006; 268 ended during that period. Another 136 groups splintered, and 244 remained active.
Forty-three percent of the groups ended through nonviolent/political means, according to the researchers. In assessing that approach, it’s important to note that most of the groups that ended because of political settlements had relatively narrow policy goals. Often a peace agreement precipitated the group’s decision to stop using terror tactics; one example is The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement between the Irish Republican Army and the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.
Of course, this approach also entails governments negotiating with current or former terrorists; the frequency with which that happened surprised Jones. “[It] happened more than I think I had anticipated.”
Some groups have goals that would never allow them to join the political process, such as al Qaeda, which the reports noted aims for a “pan-Islamic caliphate.”
When there is no way for the group to join the political process, then Jones and Libicki found that the best bet in ending the group was to remove its leadership.
Jones and Libicki also found that the effect of removing a group’s leader was most pronounced when the removal was caused by the actions of local police or intelligence. “We found very few cases when terrorist groups ended that they ended because of outside government, direct outside government involvement. So they were generally defeated by the countries within which they operated,” Jones says.
Jones adds that this may be in part because local governments have better information and more control of security forces in the area and more at stake than outside forces. He says that this finding suggests “that when the U.S. conducts activities, counterterrorist activities overseas, that it must…rely on the local government.”
Jones notes that when a country allows a terrorist group to use its territory as a base of operations for attacks on other countries, the host country’s government may not be motivated to help capture or kill the group’s leadership. An example is Pakistan, which appears to allow Lashkar-e-Taiba to exist within Pakistan and use its location to launch attacks on India. “[W]orking through local governments ends up being problematic when they’re not interested in targeting a terrorist group or when they can’t. So that’s kind of the downside if you’re trying to rely on somebody else to do it,” Jones says.
Other notable findings from this research were that 10 percent of terrorist groups ended because they achieved their objectives, and religiously based or motivated terrorist groups took longer to end but were less likely to achieve their goals.
Only seven percent of groups were defeated by military force. The report recommended moving away from a U.S. military approach against al Qaeda and keeping increased focus on more local policing and intelligence, with cooperation of the FBI and CIA.
Jones and Libicki also found that whether a state was a democracy or not didn’t seem to matter. They found “that democratic states were not more likely to defeat terrorist groups,” says Jones. He added that there was no evidence that economic improvements helped to end terror groups.