But decapitating a terrorist organisation is not proven to result in a lower threat from terrorism.
The reported death of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Al-Qa’ida founder Osama bin Laden, is unlikely to do much to the terrorist threat picture. Still, his removal illustrates the challenging question governments face when they try to understand whether a terrorist campaign has finally come to an end or a terrorist group has been liquidated. Just as security forces seem incapable of entirely accurately predicting or preventing a terrorist group’s rise, they seem unable to derive its demise.
‘Decapitation’ as a strategy for eliminating terrorist groups has never really been proven as an effective method. The most common example in favour of decapitation that is often quoted is the removal of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path in Peru; after his incarceration, the group seemed to wither. However, in most cases the removal of one leader merely contributes to group fracturing and the rise of more radical leaders in their stead. So, rather than confronting a reduced problem, one can end up with an enlarged and angrier one. The repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership, for example, have done little to weaken or de-radicalise the group.
And even when one believes that a terrorist group is being substantially degraded by airstrikes, it is not always clear that the strikes have that effect, or that one can effectively judge what is happening. The Shining Path, for example, may have been deemed decapitated with the loss of its leader, but some of its networks persisted as criminal groups, and only last month Peruvian security forces proudly proclaimed the capture of another senior figure. In such situations it is difficult to judge the degree to which an enduring terrorist group remains a threat.
The conundrum is the result of a number of challenges. There is the reality that people who are part of an ideologically motivated group tend not to forget or discard their ideas, and over time may in fact become more committed to them. Does one think that Ayman Al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will ever forget their extremist ideas? As time passes and the cause they believe in continues to fail to deliver on its promise, believers of this sort may only get more desperate. Or they may believe that the path they are on is a long one and the hardship is to be expected. It appears that in some cases, people move on from these ideas for a variety of reasons mostly to do with their own person experiences. But in the case of senior or core figures in a movement, once they are on the path of violence, they are unlikely to step off.
Additionally, the ideas that motivate terrorist groups tend to be perennial ones embedded in fundamental problems or injustices within societies. And that means that the ideas advanced by such groups and their leaders will always retain some pulling power.
This presents security forces with a complicated dilemma. They may be able to box a leader and their core cadre in, but unable to remove them entirely. And even if they do, someone else may rise up to fill that space. At what point can they judge that they are being effective in containing a group to the point that they can take the pressure off? Reach that conclusion too early, and one risks being exposed to new terrorist attacks; do it too late and one misses an opportunity at resolution and squanders scarce security resources.
Hamza bin Laden’s coronation as a potential Al-Qa’ida boss and now his likely death is merely a reminder of just how meteoric and unpredictable the lives of such terrorists are. It also illustrates the bigger problem in judging when terrorist problems are effectively eliminated. Just like Daesh did not go away with the loss of its caliphate, Al-Qa’ida will not disappear with the loss of its putative crown prince.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Senior Associate Fellow