As I read Stratfor’s assessment of the “fallout” from Awlaki’s death, along with Gregory Johnsen’s latest post explaining why, coming from the perspective of a Yemen scholar*, he doesn’t think Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing will be that useful for either the US or Yemen, I’ve been thinking about the impact of eliminating terrorist leadership. No doubt, this is partially spurred on as well by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s book Counterstrike, which I am in the midst of reading, as a key theme of that book is the over-emphasis by the Bush administration on the capture-or-kill strategy as the only method of quashing al-Qaeda.
Throughout all this, I am reminded of Audrey Kurth Cronin’s chapter “How terrorist campaigns end” in Horgan and Bjorgo’s Leaving Terrorism Behind. (Cronin now has a book out on the subject, appropriately titled How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns.)
Cronin argues that there are “at least seven broad explanations or critical elements in the decline and ending of terrorist groups in the modern era,” which include:
- The capture or killing of the leader
- Failure to transition to the next generation
- Achievement of the group’s aims
- Transition to a legitimate political process
- Undermining of popular support
- Transitioning from terrorism to other forms of violence
A handy table in the chapter provides examples of each, while acknowledging that the categories may overlap. Interestingly enough, the ones in the capture/kill column tend to not be the groups one immediately conjures up when thinking about terrorism: Shining Path, Real IRA, and Aum Shinrikyo. No, the bigger ones tend to fall into other categories, like the Provisional IRA and the PLO in the transition to a legitimate political process, or Abu Sayyaf’s transition toward criminality.
While noting that the capture or killing of a leader produces mixed results based on a wide number of factors, Cronin also points out that “the event normally provides critical insight into the depth and nature of the group’s popular support and usually represents a turning point.” Later, Cronin argues that for counter-terrorism, killing a leader “can sometimes backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and perhaps the creation of a martyr who attracts new members to the organization (or even subsequent organizations),” while also eliminating the possibility of essentially shaming the leader and the group through public arrest and trial.
There’s several things to think about as this pertains to al-Qaeda and Awlaki, but here’s a few rough thoughts:
- Unlike what could happen with the Taliban, I don’t see the US allowing al-Qaeda to transition to a legitimate political organization (and it’s sure going to try its hardest to prevent al-Qaeda from achieving its goals). The focus is going to remain the capture-or-kill strategy, with the war-of-ideas backup that is going to push for undermining popular support, while hoping al-Qaeda can’t make the jump to the next generation. (I’ll take “al-Qaeda is irrelevant because of the Arab Spring” for 400, Alex.)
- AQAP could transition to another form of violence, just as al-Qaeda in Iraq largely transitioned to insurgency. I don’t really see that happening, but it could; I’m not sure if would have that much of an effect on US policies towards AQAP or Yemen.
- Just as killing a leader offers crucial insight into a group’s popular support, so killing a leader offers crucial insight into his effect on the organization. While AQAP’s English-language propaganda is likely to take a hit, I think we are going to see through AQAP’s continuing operations just how tangential Awlaki was to the overall movement. To put it another way, Johnsen is right in pointing out that Nasir al-Wihayshi - the leader of AQAP, and bin Laden’s former secretary - didn’t need Awlaki to make him want to attack the US, and he didn’t need Awlaki’s “terrorist expertise” to make the attacks happen.
- While killing Awlaki could backfire - it will undoubtedly make him a martyr - on the whole it’s probably better for the US that he’s gone, even if he’s not that important overall. It’s true that, as I said before, his death might provide his words a new platform. It’s also true that he would have been of greater intelligence value if he could have been taken alive, and probably greater propaganda value as well. He’s no longer able to directly influence potential terrorists through personal communication, though, and he was certainly a threat to the US.
On the whole, it’s important to remember that Awlaki is but one page in the story. As Cronin writes:
Understanding how terrorist campaigns meet their demise is important not only so as to recognize classic patterns of ending when they appear, but also to formulate and adapt intelligent policies that push them towards the end. Policies that fail to understand the lifespans of groups, that treat them as if they were immortal, are destined to prolong the dynamics of terrorist campaigns.
In a sense, we made Awlaki “immortal” (or at least infamous) to such a degree that we needed to then eliminate him. Moving on past his death is probably the best way to make the most of it.
* Johnsen makes an important distinction in his post about the differences between “legal scholars, al-Qaeda watchers, and observers of Yemen.” Their views are going to be different, a fact that is too often skimmed over, both in the media and by this blog.
- thoughtsonyemen posted this