Targeting leaders may not curb terror

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The Israeli assassins caught Abu Jihad in his study. They left the chief strategist of the Palestinian uprising with 170 bullets in his body. Over the next two decades, however, the movement only grew stronger, and Israel bled even more.
It's called "decapitation," and a missile strike in Pakistan has raised the question anew: Would eliminating Osama bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahri deal a mortal blow to the al-Qaeda terror network?
"Decapitation just fuels the movement itself," says Jenna Jordan, a University of Chicago scholar who has closely studied the historical record of such anti-terrorist tactics.
"I think that is the lesson of the Israeli efforts over the years," says Brian Jenkins, veteran terrorism analyst with the RAND Corp. research firm.
But, he quickly adds, "that doesn't mean you don't do it."
The Jan. 13 missile strike on a remote Pakistani border village showed again that the U.S. government is still trying to do it.
The early-morning attack, reportedly aimed at al-Zawahri, killed 13 villagers and possibly a few second-rank al-Qaeda operatives - but not the bin Laden lieutenant. Its immediate impact could be seen in the streets of Pakistani cities, where thousands rallied, chanting "Death to America," in support of al-Qaeda's "jihad," or holy war.
By Thursday, bin Laden's voice was being broadcast throughout the Muslim world, threatening a new terror strike against America.
"The Pakistan case, where you have all those people killed, that's the kind of 'bad press' that keeps a movement going," said Jordan, whose 2004 study reviewed 72 international cases, stretching back almost a century, in which militant movements' leaders were targeted and killed.
In most cases, she found, the movements carried on - particularly if they were religion-based, like al-Qaeda. Only one in five violent religious groups collapsed when their leaders were eliminated, she determined.
"Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," said Richard A. Clarke, who was White House counterterrorism coordinator in 1998, when U.S. missiles were fired at suspected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in a failed effort to kill its leaders.
  • Turkey's Kurdish separatist group PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1999 after leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured, but renounced it in 2004. Its attacks have increased in recent months.
  • The entire leadership of Spain's Basque separatist group ETA was arrested in 1992, but ETA bombings and assassinations soon resumed.
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