The Effectiveness of Political Assassinations

This is an excellent read:

I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me 20 years ago that America would someday be routinely firing missiles into countries it’s not at war with. For that matter, I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me a few months ago that America would soon be plotting the assassination of an American citizen who lives abroad.

He goes on to discuss Obama's authorization of the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American living in Yemen. He speculates on whether or not this is illegal, but spends more time musing about the effectiveness of assassination, referring to a 2009 paper from Security Studies: "When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation": "She studied 298 attempts, from 1945 through 2004, to weaken or eliminate terrorist groups through 'leadership decapitation' -- eliminating people in senior positions."

From the paper's conclusion:

The data presented in this paper show that decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism strategy. While decapitation is effective in 17 percent of all cases, when compared to the overall rate of organizational decline, decapitated groups have a lower rate of decline than groups that have not had their leaders removed. The findings show that decapitation is more likely to have counterproductive effects in larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations. In these cases decapitation not only has a much lower rate of success, the marginal value is, in fact, negative. The data provide an essential test of decapitation’s value as a counterterrorism policy.

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.

Back to the article:

Particularly ominous are Jordan's findings about groups that, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are religious. The chances that a religious terrorist group will collapse in the wake of a decapitation strategy are 17 percent. Of course, that’s better than zero, but it turns out that the chances of such a group fading away when there's no decapitation are 33 percent. In other words, killing leaders of a religious terrorist group seems to increase the group's chances of survival from 67 percent to 83 percent.

Of course the usual caveat applies: It's hard to disentangle cause and effect. Maybe it's the more formidable terrorist groups that invite decapitation in the first place -- and, needless to say, formidable groups are good at survival. Still, the other interpretation of Jordan’s findings -- that decapitation just doesn't work, and in some cases is counterproductive -- does make sense when you think about it.

For starters, reflect on your personal workplace experience. When an executive leaves a company -- whether through retirement, relocation or death — what happens? Exactly: He or she gets replaced. And about half the time (in my experience, at least) the successor is more capable than the predecessor. There's no reason to think things would work differently in a terrorist organization.

Maybe that's why newspapers keep reporting the death of a "high ranking Al Qaeda lieutenant"; it isn't that we keep killing the same guy, but rather that there's an endless stream of replacements. You're not going to end the terrorism business by putting individual terrorists out of business.

You might as well try to end the personal computer business by killing executives at Apple and Dell. Capitalism being the stubborn thing it is, new executives would fill the void, so long as there was a demand for computers.

Of course, if you did enough killing, you might make the job of computer executive so unattractive that companies had to pay more and more for ever-less-capable executives. But that's one difference between the computer business and the terrorism business. Terrorists aren’t in it for the money to begin with. They have less tangible incentives -- and some of these may be strengthened by targeted killings.

Read the whole thing.

I thought this comment, from former senator Gary Hart, was particularly good.

As a veteran of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Intelligence Services of the U.S. (so-called Church committee), we discovered at least five official plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro with almost demented insistence. None of them worked, though the Diem brothers in Vietnam and Salvador Allende in Chile might argue otherwise. In no case did it work out well for the U.S. or its policy. Indeed, once exposed, as these things inevitably are, the ideals underlying our Constitution and the nation's prestige suffered incalculable damage. The issue is principle versus expediency. Principle always suffers when expediency becomes the rule. We simply cannot continue to sacrifice principle to fear.

Additional commentary from The Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): The Church Commmittee's report on foreign assassination plots.

EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Stratfor Even killing Osama bin Laden himself will not stop the fanatics. Maybe he will be recognized as a martyr and attract more.
I imagine laughter the most deadly weapon.

robertApril 20, 2010 6:41 AM

I notice there it's a big deal if the US Government is planning to assassinate a US citizen but if it's a non-US citizen then it's supposedly OK? Imagine the outcry if other countries had said they now have a policy of assassinating political leaders they believe do harm - and that included those in the US administration.

One law for us, one for them.

ChrisApril 20, 2010 6:50 AM

In other news, U.S. and Iraqi forces yesterday killed Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Lansdowne MikeApril 20, 2010 7:19 AM

But the caveats wrt cause & effect suck the life out of the piece. This tells us nothing. Pity.

uk visaApril 20, 2010 7:20 AM

If the US is serious about winning hearts and minds it should stop this cloak and dagger nonsense (it's never been any good at it) and start listening to and backing Greg Mortenson.

StandfordApril 20, 2010 7:22 AM

"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you."
{-- Eric Hoffer}

_____

So what do Washington politicians fear most ?

Arne BabenhauserheideApril 20, 2010 7:23 AM

Another answer why this doesn’t work is really simple: Consider that you were in a terrorist organization. You work with people in secrecy, but the ones you know are close to you, because they know your most intimate secrets.

Short: You fight alongside friends.

Now someone kills one of your friends.

He shown around in the media and people say how evil he was.

Now imagine not wanting revenge.

If it helps, imagine that the one who got killed was your fatherm brother or beloved one.

If it’s still hard to imagine why killing a leader is counterproductive, try to imagine that someone raped and killed your 14 year old daughter. Then he got celebrated in the media as hero. Would you manage to not start a personal war against him but to calmly go to a lawyer and accept to hear that your daughter incited him to his acts by dressing like a whore?

If this sounds unrelated: It’s the same emotional reaction. Terrorists believe that they fight for a just cause (at least if they aren’t only in it for the money). So any killing just strengthens their will to fight all out.

The only reason why killing a leader could stop the group is that the leader may be the only one whom all inside the group know and who can coordinate it. But naturally he has lieutnants who also know all, and if one of those dies, he gets replaced.

So please fight terrorism in way which works: Making sure that terrorists have no support in the general population. This naturally means that you must not be openly hostile to them.

Ask first “Why do they hate us?”, and then try to change that.

Mike BApril 20, 2010 7:34 AM

Assassinations work only if done competently and consistently. In cases where you have a "one man company" (like Apple Computer) killing that one man will probably collapse the organization especially if there are fragmented underlings who will then fight for power. If there is a rival group with goals that match your own even better as they will simply step into place. If neither of these scenarios apply your task gets a little more dicey as you need to overwhelm your enemy's Continuity of Operation plan which means you'll need to take out the entire upper management org chart. The only people who ever seemed capable of doing this is Israel who after blowing up that wheelchair bound head of Hamas also took out their next two leaders quickly after their appointment which had the effect of dropping a train on their c.2000 intifada and bombing campaign.

The key to Assassination is competence. Just like antibiotics if you fail to successfully complete the full course of killings the problem will not only return it will usually be much worse. Another caveat is that assassination can only deal with threats that come from an organized enemy. Without organization an enemy cannot stage a revolution or pull off complex terror plots, but a lack of leadership won't suddenly caused pissed off people to be less pissed off. For example taking out drug lords doesn't stop the demand for drugs, so the smuggling continues just in a less efficient manner.

Right now the drone strikes are proving incredibly successful in disrupting terrorist operations in Pakistan. The leadership has been denied access to most forms of electronic communication and there is rampant paranoia because it is so easy to drop a dime on someone and cause them to vaporize within a short period of time. The omnipresent drones have literally created a game theory matrix where one move is to kill your opponent with almost no cost. If any one actor in that tribal area feels marginalized they can pass the word and boom, their problem is solved. This makes any sort of human organization almost completely impossible. It might not solve the problem but its a good way to bottle it up.

bobApril 20, 2010 7:38 AM

The Eric Hoffer quote is a nice sound-bite but in the age of people blowing themselves up to get to paradise, it's largely irrelevant.

Especially wrt a country like USA which presents as almost rabidly Christian but rarely produces anyone actually willing to die for their (religious) beliefs.

Frank Ch. EiglerApril 20, 2010 7:56 AM

"there's an endless stream of replacements"

It's not endless, and the average talent of the replacements will decline, if continuing targeting focuses on the most pernicious gangs.

"You're not going to end the terrorism business by putting individual terrorists out of business."

It's a good start.

Clive RobinsonApril 20, 2010 8:09 AM

Political assassination has been thought of and rejected so many times I'm surprised the current POTUS has been that silly.

You so often hear the question "Why was Hitler never assassinated by the allies?"

The answer is quite instructive (as history generally is) and is worth looking up.

In short the cost for a terrorist organization who do it (IRA and Aiery Neave) is way to expensive.

And for a large government it usually costs to much in terms of support at home. And it removes a "known quantity" and replaces it with an unknown and much more defensive quantity.

Even with Sadam the results where completely counter productive...

aczarnowskiApril 20, 2010 8:36 AM

> The issue is principle versus
> expediency. Principle always
> suffers when expediency becomes
> the rule.

That quote clarified much of what I have been feeling lately on topics like this; the semi-recent national torture analysis being a prime example. It's also why the current DC culture of "not wasting a crisis" scares the crap out of me.

We've been expedient for far too long.

TesserIdApril 20, 2010 9:29 AM

If the goal is to undermine the cohesiveness and direction that a leader provides; then instead of just killing the leader, it would make more sense to understand and attack the manner in which that leader provides cohesiveness and direction.

Sometimes, it seems to make more sense to bring such leaders to trial if only to expose the brainwashing and twisted recruiting techniques they use.

reinkefjApril 20, 2010 9:37 AM

Interesting is the "good for the goose; good for the gander" argument. If terrorists start targeting American political leaders, then I can imagine the moral indignation.

Also, interesting is that "letters of marque and reprisal" WAS acceptable to the dead old white guys and provided for in the Constitution. (Not that they'd do it; they'd just give whoever did do it a "get out of jail free" card.) We don't follow the Constitution about declaring war, the Constitution's implied isolationism, or the dead old white guys' often expressed policy of MYOB.

How's that supposed Chinese curse go? "May you live in interesting times."

kangarooApril 20, 2010 9:51 AM

@robert: I notice there it's a big deal if the US Government is planning to assassinate a US citizen but if it's a non-US citizen then it's supposedly OK?

You have it all backwards. If we assassinate our own citizens, what are the chances we won't assassinate others? How will you convince people, if you don't start with "loving your neighbor," metaphorically speaking? If you beat your own children, what will you do to strangers?

Unix RoninApril 20, 2010 9:51 AM

While the author does have a point, I've often wondered whether, if it were possible to consistently and reliably keep on whacking the entire upper leadership of a given organization more or less as soon as they stepped up to the plate, new volunteers would sooner or later stop stepping up to the plate.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the organization in question wouldn't reform itself as a loose aggregation of peer-to-peer-connected cells with no distinct leadership layer. A more useful goal, I suspect, is to infiltrate or otherwise obtain a source in the leadership levels and use it to "coincidentally" have assets in place to "fortuitously" thwart any major plot before it can come to fruition.

@aczarnowski: I, too, worry about the "never waste a crisis" mentality. To me, policies of using domestic crises for one's own ends to accomplish something the nation would otherwise not accept is tantamount to being in league with the enemy. But then, I've been saying since 9/11 that our government has been doing Al-Qaeda's work for it. As for the continued use of torture hidden behind carefully crafted euphemisms, I consider it despicable. We have known for the best part of a thousand years that _anyone_, if tortured long enough, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear, true or not, just to make the torture stop. It's how the Inquisition got most of their "confessions".

Peter PearsonApril 20, 2010 9:56 AM

About the quote from Robert Wright: "I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me 20 years ago that America would someday be routinely firing missiles into countries it’s not at war with."

That would have been in 1990, in the middle of the Bush I presidency. Robert Wright was 33 years old, and (as best I can tell from cursory study) writing for the New Republic. The Iran-Contra fracas was fresh in everyone's mind, as was the 1989 deposing of Panama's Noriega and the 1983 invasion of Grenada.

And Robert Wright couldn't believe . . . what? More likely, the above quotation is fiction Wright composed for rhetorical effect.

kangarooApril 20, 2010 9:56 AM

@MikeB: This makes any sort of human organization almost completely impossible. It might not solve the problem but its a good way to bottle it up.

The Dirty War scenario, eh? Yes, it works to put off problems -- to delay. If that's your goal (which was a reasonable goal during the Cold War), then it'll work.

But look at S. America now. Every country that was involved in the Dirty War has a government controlled by exactly those elements that atrocities were committed against, except for Chile (for the first time in 15 years).

NCApril 20, 2010 10:03 AM

Or, we could not assassinate people because it is MORALLY ABHORRENT. If the only reason we don't run around the world launching missiles into foreign homes is because it isn't effective (implying that if it was effective, we would keep doing it), then we are truly a depraved society.

BryanApril 20, 2010 10:04 AM

The debate about group declines seems to me to be missing the point. Assassination against terrorist groups is less about trying to eliminate the group and more about disrupting operations. And there is some evidence that it works for that goal. A group which has just lost a high-ranking member is going to spend some time regrouping which otherwise would have been spent planning or executing operations. And sometimes the confusion can lead to opportunities to work against the group.

Recall the case a few years ago when a number of hostages were snatched from the FARC in Columbia. So many FARC leaders had been killed that those who were left were scattered and disorganized, so much so that government agents were able to pose as FARC commanders and trick one set of guerillas into handing over their captives.

Carlo GrazianiApril 20, 2010 10:07 AM

It is noteworthy that the metric for effectiveness of the decapitation campaign is "chance of collapse", not "degradation of effectiveness".

It takes more than suicidal anger to make an effective terrorist group --- witness the cretins who tried to blow up a car at a Scottish airport a couple of years back, and only succeeded in setting themselves on fire and getting kicked in the nuts. A successful and effective terrorist organization absolutely requires technical, management, financial, and operational expertise. It takes time and experience to acquire that expertise. If the campaign targets that expertise, then the replacements, however eager, are likely less competent and effective.

Expecting "collapse" in consequence of a military campaign is naive. The "war" on terrorism is not a military struggle at its core, and those who think of it in classic military terms are envisioning a war that will continue in perpetuity, whether they realize it or not. It is a war of ideas and values, and in consequence of this, development, nation-building, education, and, yes, propaganda, are the war-winning tools. Military aspects, such as drone-based decapitation campaigns, are only holding actions, to degrade the operational abilities of militant groups, while the long political game takes its course. Which is to say, measuring the value of such a military campaign by its chances of winning the war is missing the point.

RoyApril 20, 2010 10:12 AM

Last I heard, there are about 80 countries that are developing or buying military 'drones' (actually, remotely-piloted attack and surveillance aircraft).

I can guess the reaction of hawks and conservatives when other nations decide the USA needs a regime change. How many assassinations will we suffer before we conclude this was a bad idea for us to have taught the world by our own example?

derfApril 20, 2010 10:13 AM

We keep killing them and they keep refilling the position. However, the new guys don't seem to be able to keep their heads down any better than their predecessors.

Imagine if every 4-6 months the US President or the CEO of a huge corporation were killed. The US government or that organization would be in chaos and the quality of that group's work would decline (not that the US government's work quality can go much lower).

Assassination may not cause an organization to disband, but it sure makes it difficult for them to get any work done.

nobodySpecialApril 20, 2010 10:38 AM

>You might as well try to end the personal computer business by killing executives at Apple and Dell.

However you could have done a lot of damage to Apple by assassinating Jonathon Ive.

Exactly where do you stop?
Fidel Castro - fair game, as the major threat to America for the last 40years.

Pakistani nuclear designer - they are our ally but we don't want them to have nukes.

Head designer at Mig/Sukhoi? Well we aren't at war with them now but you never know.

Designers at Airbus? They compete with Boeing - Boeing is vital to our national defense. That was an excuse for using NSA to gain details of an Airbus bid for a contract so Raytheon could under cut it. Why not go a step further?

Who would have thought we would be living in a William Gibson short story already.

Christians?April 20, 2010 10:46 AM

>almost rabidly Christian but rarely
>produces anyone actually willing to die
>their (religious) beliefs.
Unfortunately it does seem to produce a depressing number of Christians who are willing to kill for their religious beliefs.

Not sure if this is just american's naturally outgoing personalities (ie. a murderer is just an extrovert suicide) or their copies of the new testament have some unfortunate typos in the sermon on the mount.

However it does appear that assassinating their original leader doesn't seem to have done anything to deter christians - they seem to be everywhere

BF SkinnerApril 20, 2010 10:57 AM

Assasination as a security control issue.

Feeling annoyed Bruce? Whatever I did I'm sorry and won't do it again.

HMDApril 20, 2010 11:12 AM

As the other commentators have noted, I dont find it surprising that the decapitated groups have continued to exist. In a religiously motivated and loosely organized group, people will not simply walk away the day their leader died.

However, there is much anecdotal evidence that that decapitations have a significant impact on their operational efficiency. Drone operations in Afghan-Pakistan border areas have kept the Talibans from organizing en masse and overrunning the local authorities. The experience and skills that disappear with leaders' elimination are hard and time consuming to replace.

In the wider picture, the overall efficiency of drone operations, as with nearly all protracted military operations is dependent on the local support for the adversary. Civilian casualties and collateral damage fuels this local support and must be weighed in the overall calculus.

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 11:15 AM

Look through the news articles over the past 10 years.

How many times have we killed the #2 or #3 person in some organization?

And the next month we kill the #2 or #3 person again.

And the next month we kill them again.

And again.

The problem is that our military / police / government thinks in a hierarchical fashion. Because the bureaucracy protects them.

People who don't need the protection of the bureaucracy don't form hierarchies.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 11:56 AM

"So maybe the question to ask is whether Americans should be convinced of that — whether assassinating terrorists really helps keep us safe."

Well I'll say one thing that's for sure, given it is a terrorist being assassinated, it sure as shit makes me feel safer and less uncomfortable than the laundry list of theatrics and FUD pouring out of the hemorrhaging billion-dollar budgets of the do-nothing (or worse, do-something) politicos in charge of 'keeping us safe', alongside the equally ridiculous expense (both in dollar signs and life signs) of invading / occupying multiple middle eastern countries for nearly a decade.

Frankly, if both sides focused their murderous intent on those believed to be directly responsible for that intent, tragedies like 9/11 and the dead journalists of late wouldn't have had to happen. Frankly, I say let them assassinate each other all the ding dong day, maybe then the civilian (and privacy-related) casualties of the 'war on terror' can finally take a day off.

Additionally, the hypocritical nonsense vis-a-vis assassination without due process... gimme a break. How is war any different? Oh right... it's sanctioned murder on a *large scale without due process... I seem to forget, as long as you kill thousands of people, it's ok, but as soon as you narrow it down to one or two, it's cold-blooded murder....

Funny how that works. Rather, not funny at all.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 12:04 PM

"Constitution and the nation's prestige suffered incalculable damage. The issue is principle versus expediency. Principle always suffers when expediency becomes the rule. We simply cannot continue to sacrifice principle to fear."

Way to go buddy! Didn't hear that during the torture brigades, the wholesale survellience taps, or strip searches at the airport... but now, thanks to an 'American Cleric' (wow, how perceptions do change from x-mas to spring time) being targeted for possible assassination, some *former senator decides it's time to stop 'sacrificing principle[s] to fear'.

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

WinterApril 20, 2010 12:40 PM

This report fits nicely into an earlier report posted by Bruce that told us that terrorist organizations have the structure of a boys club. Their raison d'etre is to recruit new members.

The most likely cause of decline and dissolution of such boys clubs is disenchantment with the leader. These leaders will always become tyrannical and ineffective over time due to infighting and hierarchical politics.

The best way to invigorate such a club is to eliminate the leader after he is over the top. Which will be exactly the time when he comes into the cross-hairs of the US.

But we already knew that US foreign policy tends to be hugely counterproductive. They were the people who organized, trained, and armed both the Afghan militias and Al Qaida. The US also invented roadside bombs and taught the Afghans how to deploy them.

It almost seems as if the US would be better off without a foreign service.

Winter

IanApril 20, 2010 12:50 PM

@Shane

Sen. Hart has been out of office for more than 20 years - I'm not surprised we haven't heard too much from him, and we're probably only hearing from him now because he was involved in efforts to investigate state assassinations back in the 70s. So in fairness, it's not like he's been going along with all of this and has only now decided this is a bad thing. He might not be the best guy on the planet, but I think he's been pretty consistent on this, even if most of us haven't heard him on it in a while.

I do agree with you in general, though. Torture, assassinations and the wholesale stripping of our civil liberties in the name of "security" are an insult to our national ideals, and I'd like to hear a lot more from our representatives on this.

DogmanatorApril 20, 2010 1:13 PM

@Frank Eigler
Thanks for your opinions, but refuting an academic/thinktank paper generally requires more work than saying "nuh-uh!"

Please support your assertions with verifiable facts, or at least some logical line of reasoning. If the study is flawed, point out the flaws.

GreenSquirrelApril 20, 2010 1:19 PM

On the efficiency argument:

Yes, targetting the more proficient ones will cause a dip in their ability for a while but this wont last for ever. Some very skilled terrorists will survive and pass their knowledge on, combined with knowledge that allows them to remain below the radar enough that they dont get targetted.

The likelihood is that the people assassinated are ones who have made mistakes, gotten sloppy or fallen out of favour so in effect its just culling the weak from the enemy group.

Its almost like natural selection at work.

GreenSquirrelApril 20, 2010 1:20 PM

@ Arne Babenhauserheide at April 20, 2010 7:23 AM

On the whole, well said.

DanielApril 20, 2010 1:21 PM

I find it odd that the drug angle hasn't been discussed more prominently here. This is the same argument the drug lords in Mexico use, i.e "you can't kill us all."


The problem with the underlying paper is that it assumes that the purpose of killing foreign leaders is to make their organizations collapse. I don't believe the point of assassination is any such thing.

Even if we can't kill you all assassination has two noteworthy affects. First, it puts people on notice that they might get killed. This sends a message not only to the enemy but makes it appear as if we are doing something. Security Theater is important.

The second point is that it hinders the enemy organization, even if it doesn't destroy it. Hindering the enemy is a good result, not a bad one. The resulting delay and confusion is a positive result.

I am not addressing the moral argument here. I actually think that assassination is a flawed policy. I just don't think that the claim that it's not an effective policy is persuasive. Assassination is bad because in the long run it undermines the very ideals we claim to fight for: there isn't anything democratic about assassination. But there is no doubt that it works.

NobodySpecialApril 20, 2010 1:26 PM

>It almost seems as if the US would be better off without a foreign service.

Hence the old joke - a man is walking down Whitehall (the street in London with all the government offices)
He asks a passer-by "which side is the foreign office on?"
"Oh, ours (brief pause) I think"

GweihirApril 20, 2010 1:31 PM

I find this hardly surprising. The obvious way to bolster terrosist organisations is to try to kill them all.

Terrorists are aleady pissed off at their target. Makeing them ore pissed off hardly helps. And assasinations done by a significantly more powerful enemy always smell of cowardice (which it is) and bullying (which it may be, but usually not, I think) and will not only get the terrorists more support but also new members among those looking for a cause.

I can only conclude that these assasinations are a knee-jerk reaktion of people mad with power, and mad that they do not have full control, but not very intelligent.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 1:35 PM

@Daniel - "I find it odd that the drug angle hasn't been discussed more prominently here. This is the same argument the drug lords in Mexico use, i.e 'you can't kill us all.'"

I'm assuming the 'drug angle' hasn't been used here because it is a counter-example to the premise of the paper / article: think Pablo Escobar. Quite a successful and useful assassination, as I'm sure we'd all agree (unless you are all for killing busloads of civilians).

Secondly, you can't 'kill them all' because in killing drug lords, you're doing nothing to kill demand for the drugs they provide, hence another will take their place to fill the demand.

The success or justification of an assassination need not be measured in how well it serves to destroy the entire underlying organization, sometimes (I'd say usually) it's about simply removing that one particular person.

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 1:39 PM

@Daniel
"Security Theater is important."

No it's not. It only affects the OPINION of people who don't know enough about the situation to have an informed opinion in the first place.

In your example, the drug producers / smugglers / dealers kill more of themselves than we do.

"The second point is that it hinders the enemy organization, even if it doesn't destroy it."

Again, that is hierarchical thinking. The fact is that killing any single person in a drug organization will have no effect on the operations of that organization. Each step has multiple redundancies.

When you're talking about a terrorist organization, the effect is usually the OPPOSITE of what you describe. That is because we tend to injure/kill non-combatants in the process.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 1:42 PM

@Brandioch

"No [security theater]'s not [important]".

That's a pretty broad statement. My door locks are pretty important, in that they prevent every opportuni-snoop from walking into my apartment and taking what they like free of charge, but I could scarcely call my door locks anything but security theater.

BF SkinnerApril 20, 2010 1:49 PM

It's not just an expediancy vs principal argument.

Effectivness is a key element.

Too there is feeling. "I want this guy dead!" which seems to be winning the day. Rachel Maddow said (on Daily Show no less "I'd gladly kill Bin Laden with a spoon"

With killer apes like us? Likely the emotions will most often win.

DanielApril 20, 2010 1:49 PM

Shane.

"No it's not. It only affects the OPINION of people who don't know enough about the situation to have an informed opinion in the first place."

Then what you really want to say is that democracy isn't really important because in a democracy your comment covers 90% of the people in 90% of the situations they might encounter in life.

In a democracy people's opinions DO matter. They are the ONLY thing that matters. No matter how ignorant those opinions happen to be in your eyes.

AndrewApril 20, 2010 1:56 PM

Assassination is a particularly high risk, low value tactic that clouds the nature of the conflict. Napoleon noted that "The moral is to the physical as three to one." Murder, as opposed to operations of war, surrenders the moral high ground to an asymmetric adversary. This can be played back against one with devastating effect, c.f. "Phoenix Project" in Vietnam where VC agents managed to retarget our assassination efforts against nonaligned and neutral local leaders, thereby polarizing in favor of the VC.

I hasten to add that there is nothing at all wrong with attacking one's enemies, even unexpectedly and in places where they feel safe. Disrupting enemy command nodes and killing enemy leaders as a result is a legitimate operation of war, whether accomplished by artillery, attack drones or commandos.

The problem is that slowly killing the leadership does not materially hurt the organization, even when one takes into account the learning curve for new leaders. Like a course of antibiotics taken inconsistently, the surviving leaders become resistant (resilient).

The decision to ambush and kill Admiral Yamamoto in World War II illustrates that there is a line here. In his case, his value as a symbol was far more important than any incidental damage from the loss of his leadership. Japan had lots of admirals to step up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Vengeance

Napoleon also observed that every soldier carries a marshal's baton in his pack. This is particularly true of terrorist and insurgent organizations which are driven by ideology. Killing the leaders merely brings more militant followers to the top.

The obvious solution is to target the factors which lead to ideological militancy, particularly the 'intellectuals' (who formulate the radical ideas) and 'evangelists' (who spread them). However, a policy of openly targeting radical Muslim clerics would probably backfire. Assassination would have to be particularly untraceable. Lightning bolt?

WinterApril 20, 2010 2:15 PM

"The obvious solution is to target the factors which lead to ideological militancy,"

You mean, like, as if, say, admitting these people might have, possibly, some sort of a REASON to hate "us" enough to kill themselves (whomever "us" you mean).

You must be one of them, obviously.

Indeed, when the mains break, you must plug the hole before you can mop up the water. Randomly killing non-operatives does not stop the flood.

These people blow themselves up instead of starting a family and have kids. In general, people tend to prefer the latter over the former.

So finding out why they rather blow themselves up might really help you in preventing new recruits from taking the empty places.

Winter

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 2:50 PM

@Shane
"My door locks are pretty important, in that they prevent every opportuni-snoop from walking into my apartment and taking what they like free of charge, but I could scarcely call my door locks anything but security theater."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security_theater

Locks are effective in that they set a minimum level of skill required to transparently bypass them.

And that minimum level of skill is more skill than the average criminal possesses.

The problem with security theatre is that it does not raise the requirements above the skill of the average attacker. The average attacker will have no difficulty overcoming the "security" of the security theatre.

MarvinApril 20, 2010 2:51 PM

Sigh. Another bogus study along the garbage in - garbage out principle made in order to confirm pre-conceived notions.
You love talking about risks, so ask yourself this: what is the likelihood of a given terrorist leader to die in an assassination? He is probably more likely to die from food poisoning and he knows it. A negligible risk had never deterred anybody from doing anything.
Or, if you like, consider the following policy of dealing with bad behaving kids. Punish them severely only once a year and let them do whatever they want the rest of the time. Do you think this is likely to work?
Assassination is a punishment. It has to be applied consistently and predictably in order for it to work. And when applied correctly it does work. What the West does is to apply it rarely, unpredictably and invariably followed by denunciations and doubts. That would never work.
You need to be a special kind of human being - an intellectual - in order not to understand simple basic facts of human behavior and then invent bogus studies to 'prove' it.

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 2:58 PM

@Daniel
"Then what you really want to say is that democracy isn't really important because in a democracy your comment covers 90% of the people in 90% of the situations they might encounter in life."

You're describing "mob rule".

Not "Democracy".

Yes, there is a difference. Despite both forms being based upon the will of the majority.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 3:13 PM

@Brandioch

"Locks are effective in that they set a minimum level of skill required to transparently bypass them. And that minimum level of skill is more skill than the average criminal possesses."

I would disagree completely, namely because the 'minimum level of skill' required to bypass my lock involves either A) a body weight of more than 20lbs falling toward the door in question, or B) an arm capable of swinging itself or something attached hard enough to break an 1/8" of window pane.

I think we'd both agree that the vast majority of the population possesses one or both of these magical skills.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 3:19 PM

@Shane
Your examples of breaking through the lock or breaking through the window kind of contradict the "transparently" used in my post.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 3:21 PM

@Brandioch

You added the 'transparency' stipulation to my examples, not me :P

In reality, someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my things isn't somehow less malicious if I wasn't blatantly aware of the fact prior to realizing my things were missing.

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 3:36 PM

@Shane
"You added the 'transparency' stipulation to my examples, not me :P"

So? It was in my post prior to you claiming that my post was incorrect.

"In reality, someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my things isn't somehow less malicious if I wasn't blatantly aware of the fact prior to realizing my things were missing."

This isn't about you. This is about security. The locks on the door mean that the average criminal will have to make MORE noise and leave MORE traces than if those locks were not there.

In security theatre, that would NOT be the case. The security theatre would be bypassed WITHOUT requiring additional alerts / warnings / etc.

ShaneApril 20, 2010 4:12 PM

@Brandioch

"The locks on the door mean that the average criminal will have to make MORE noise and leave MORE traces than if those locks were not there."

Well, I guess I didn't realize that a lock's true purpose with regards to security was to alert someone as to when it has been compromised.

And here I was thinking that the purpose of a lock on a door was to keep people out.

?

ShaneApril 20, 2010 4:15 PM

My point stands, my door locks are security theater. Their purpose is to make it difficult to enter my home without my permission. The only reason they serve this purpose is because people believe that they are serving it, when in fact, they are not.

Subsequently, my door locks are still useful.

As I'm sure most on this blog would agree, security theater definitely has its uses, and cannot be considered across-the-board ineffectual.

Sure, they can be implemented stupidly and to the detriment of the taxpayer, but the devil is in the details.

JonApril 20, 2010 6:02 PM

@ Carlo:
"It is noteworthy that the metric for effectiveness of the decapitation campaign is "chance of collapse", not "degradation of effectiveness"."

Fair point, except that how on earth would you objectively measure "degradation of effectiveness"? Collapse is a specific effect that is (relatively) easy to measure and comprehend. Thus it is, i think, far more useful than degredation.

Jon

Brandioch ConnerApril 20, 2010 6:29 PM

@Shane
"My point stands, my door locks are security theater."

And yet banks use locks on their doors.

"The only reason they serve this purpose is because people believe that they are serving it, when in fact, they are not."

And yet the criminals have not figured out that the locks on the banks doors are not (as you claim) effective.

Bruce has already covered this in his essays on "attack trees".

paulApril 20, 2010 6:47 PM

Why do most of the commenters seem to be operating on the notion that assassination attacks preclude other kinds of attacks (including propaganda ones) on terrorist organizations? Ideally, it's offense-in-depth.

The bigger operational question becomes whom you want to assassinate -- in movie-plot terms, do you go after 007, M, Q or Moneypenny. The evidence seems to suggest that titular leaders may be fairly easily replaced, but that really good operational expertise is limited.

SparklesApril 20, 2010 7:06 PM

Reminds me of a recent post by STRATFOR.
http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/...

"We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations — including assassinations — achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit."

Filias CupioApril 20, 2010 7:43 PM

Clive Robinson writes:
You so often hear the question "Why was Hitler never assassinated by the allies?" The answer is quite instructive (as history generally is) and is worth looking up.

If I had a time machine and travelled back to 1935 and saw some other time traveller was about to shoot Hitler, I think I'd take the bullet for him.

Killing Hitler wouldn't have prevented the second world war*. It might very well have meant that Germany fought with a competent leader instead. It doesn't take much knowledge of WWII history to spot many major errors Hitler made, largely due to him believing in is own infallibility and ignoring his wiser advisers.

* Killing Hitler in 1923 rather than 1935 might have been another matter - but nobody knew then that he would be important.

DGApril 20, 2010 8:19 PM

http://online.wsj.com/article/...
(Reference to Obama stating 'we are at war', targeting Al-Qaeda leader with drone attacks.)

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/...
(Madison Debates Tuesday August 17, 1787, make versus declare war)

http://www.cbsnews.com/...
(Al-Awlaki has been declared an enemy combatant in a war that was not declared by Congress. Is he subject to the gentle administrations of a Hellfire missile delivered by drone, or is he a criminal?)

Would it be possible for Congress to declare war on a nation not shown as a unique geopolity? In Webster's Dictionary for nation is given as archaic to include Group or Aggregation.

Without the declaration of war, are Al-Qaeda criminals or enemy combatants? The Madison debate on 'make war' shows the distinction between defending from attack and making war. Seems someone trying to blow up a bomb in December or seeking material for radiological weapons are sure signs of a need for defense.

It speaks to either inability or helplessness that in the 8 1/2 years the United States can't successfully finish defending itself. The underlying problem being that war is intended to fought against a geopolity while a guerrilla war is fought within one (or more than one) with no identifiable battlefield, no order of battle.

In the face of the inability to protect the people of the United States in the face of threats not countered by strict Constitutionalism, should be we surprised that the holes left by the founding fathers as escape clauses are exploited?

A state of war exists in the defense from attack, albeit not from invasion. The major shortcoming we see is Congress has not declared war while the last two Presidents have, in repelling a foreign attack that has gone on all too long.

You could note that in the event of a nuclear war the opposing national command authority wouldn't be targeted under the theory that they would be the ones able to halt a nuclear exchange. In guerrilla war leaders are responsible for instigating or enabling 'terrorist' attacks and would be legitimate targets.

While I wouldn't personally endorse Senator Dole's liberal definition of 'weapons of mass destruction', there must be some threshold between criminality and war. Mr. Al-Awlaki appears to have crossed that threshold even as has the United States response to attack crossed the threshold between fighting crime and making war in defense from attack.

There is of course the ancillary question as to whether or not the CIA should be waging armed conflict with drones and missiles, being a civilian agency. Herein lies the perception of assassination.

As to the deterrent factor of going 'case headless', it depends on the efficiency - how readily new leaders can be identified and dispatched. The fear for one stepping up to assume the mantle of leadership, that they will be shortly succeeded by another offset by the perception of meeting rewards in the afterlife for their martyrdom. You'd think the perception of religious righteousness could be addressed by those holding religious authority. Is terrorism in accordance with Islam?

Can it be the 'war on terrorism' is larger than we perceive from the indignation over assassination (the making war by a civilian agency)? It may boil down to whether or not it's winnable, and at what cost. How can hostilities cease and and a peace hold when one side is avowing destruction and religious extremism and is armed with Senator Doles weapons of mass destruction? You want to surrender and convert to Islam? Where's a working middle ground?

JonApril 20, 2010 9:58 PM

@ HMD:
"However, there is much anecdotal evidence that that decapitations have a significant impact on their operational efficiency. Drone operations in Afghan-Pakistan border areas have kept the Talibans from organizing en masse and overrunning the local authorities."

Actually, there is evidence that the drones have enabled exactly that - the overrunning of local authorities.

Prior to the drones being seemingly everywhere, all the time, AQ members were able to congregate and hang out together in a few discrete locations. The the drones came, and that became a Very Dangerous Thing To Do(tm). So they stopped doing it. Instead they're billeted out, one or two in every house. The house owners aren't terribly wild about it, but can't do a lot about it. In a kind of valid Stockholm Syndrome response, it is the drones that are blamed for the imposition, and sympathy and support for AQ is increasing.

Talk about your blow-back. Who'd a-thunk that the enemy would improvise, adapt, and overcome?

JonApril 20, 2010 10:12 PM

@ Kristian:
"Wasn't there a Bruce who discussed computer security?"

The third line from the top of this page reads, in its entirety, "A blog covering security and security technology."

So, yep, Comp Sec is discussed, but that isn't the total universe of "security and security technology" ;)

Jon

Marian KechlibarApril 21, 2010 2:49 AM

My $0.02...

1. "The moral is to the physical as three to one." - well, in Napoleon's time, you didn't have that big differences in the physical.

Modern weaponry creates need to ... revise ... this quote. To a large extent, the horrendous massacres of the World War I were caused by the unwillingness of the staff to take into account how much have machine guns altered the above mentioned equation.

2. A substitute for your killed executive may be more capable, but lacks the experience. If someone droned Bruce Schneier tomorrow, I doubt that Counterpath could survive well, even if some of his talented students took his place. 20-30 years experience simply counts a lot.

This does not involve only executives...

It has been noted by the CIA (?) that in Iraq, from the tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of insurgents, only between 50-100 were capable of manufacturing reliable detonators for IEDs. Experts of EODs were actually often able to determine which guy wired which IED based on the tiny remnants of the detonator. Loss of each such expert (prison, killing or just defection) can't be easily replaced; the expert knowledge is scarce.

NickApril 21, 2010 3:23 AM

One of the best things that can happen to a terrorist/"liberation" organisation, from the point of view of its opponents, is for its leader(s) to get old. Look at examples such as Yasser Arafat or the leaders of the Irish Republican Army. As 30-year-olds powered by testosterone, they were happy to be outsiders. When they get to 50 or 55, their "politician" side comes out: they want to come in from the cold and get their hands on some of that money which governments tend to have (it's been claimed that Arafat syphoned off the better part of a billion dollars), plus some of the power too. These guys are little different from the politicians you find in a democracy: arrogant, pretty sure of themselves, keen on exercising power. So it's plausible that by bringing in a fresh hothead every few years you just keep the violence going.

GreenSquirrelApril 21, 2010 3:49 AM

Ref ongoing debate:

Are door locks security theatre?

Personally I dont think so. They are not theatre in the manner that making people take their shoes off at an airport is.

I agree that not all locks count as a "security feature" and some are trivially easy to bypass but they all provide an element of privacy and make it impossible for anything short of a skilfull attacker to bypass without leaving evidence.

I think it would be worth everyone reviewing what they think of as security theatre before we fall into the fallacy of everything being theatre.

Can we all agree that Security Theatre is an overt demonstration of "doing something" that fails to improve security in any measurable way but seeks to make people think "something is being done?"

Or is there a better way to describe it?

GreenSquirrelApril 21, 2010 4:07 AM

@ Marian Kechlibar at April 21, 2010 2:49 AM

"Modern weaponry creates need to ... revise ... this quote. To a large extent, the horrendous massacres of the World War I were caused by the unwillingness of the staff to take into account how much have machine guns altered the above mentioned equation."

My understanding of Napoleons quote might be wrong, but the horrors of WWI were the result of leaders forgetting the moral issue of conflict and relying on the physical.

I had assumed Napoleon was talking about the need to win the war across the board not just by strength of arms - which again was the problem in WWI, physical ran roughshod over the moral victory and left the seeds of the Holocaust in place.

"A substitute for your killed executive may be more capable, but lacks the experience. If someone droned Bruce Schneier tomorrow, I doubt that Counterpath could survive well, even if some of his talented students took his place. 20-30 years experience simply counts a lot."

Very true, but there are significant differences when it comes to targetting terrorist leaders:

1 - the very good ones are also going to be good at avoiding the strikes, assassination attempts will normally end up targetting the ones who are messing up and become vulnerable.

2 - It assumes that intelligence on who is actually the highly skilled leader / bomb maker etc is 100% accurate otherwise we are just acting as an extension of terrorist power struggles.

3 - Expert knowledge is indeed scarce but as long as a few bomb makers survive the attacks will continue. In Northern Ireland for example, there were very few actually competent bombers but they were heavily protected and the people delivering the bombs were normally foot soldiers who didnt mind suffering for the cause. Without an almost magical level of intelligence you might get some of the skilled bombers but mostly you would be picking off the mid tier.

4 - Terrorist recruitment is very likely to increase. Nothing serves as a rallying call to a community like the perception of gross injustice being carried out against them by an outsider. No amount of PR / PsyOps can counter the street talk that the evil [Americans/Brits/French/whoever] killed poor [Johnny/Seamus/Fahid/whoever] by mistake and that they are indiscriminantly targetting the community. This is what insurgent leaders rely on to get fresh blood in.

5 - Our assumption of the leaders impact might be wrong (Hitler is an oft used example) and in reality there is a more competent leader in the background waiting for a chance to take over. This has happened througout history so there is no reason to assume that (for example) UBL doesnt have a very highly skilled and motivated subordinate who, in the event UBL was removed, wouldnt increase the operational effectiveness of AQ. There is no reason to be sure that the leadership they have is their best possible one.

6 - as Nick and others have mentioned, Old people sometimes calm down their revolutionary fire and decide peace is a better option (Gerry Adams / Martin McGuinness / Ian Paisley are good examples). If you kill them before they can bring their organisations off a war footing, you prevent this and ensure the leadership is always full of revolutionary fervour. Is this really a good thing?

All of that aside, even if it were effective is doing the right thing less important than winning? Victory at all costs is often more costly than people realise. King Pyrrhus of Epirus might have a thing or two to say on that topic.

ChirolApril 21, 2010 9:31 AM

"For starters, reflect on your personal workplace experience. When an executive leaves a company -- whether through retirement, relocation or death — what happens? Exactly: He or she gets replaced. And about half the time (in my experience, at least) the successor is more capable than the predecessor. There's no reason to think things would work differently in a terrorist organization."

This is faulty logic. Unlike legitimate and legal professions, there are a limited number of terrorists. Moreover, even fewer have years of combat experience and training as well as a good network of contacts. As veterans die off and are assassinated, the organization is degraded.

SeanApril 21, 2010 9:54 AM

Heh, we've definitely entered the "Age of Empire", assassination soon to be an acceptable method of regime change. Anyone care to join "The Assassin's Guild"?

Stewart DeanApril 21, 2010 10:26 AM

It seems to me, as a free-thinker who sees power and imperialism as
an endless sinkhole that has bankrupted and destroyed every country
that has reached for them down through the annals of history, that the whole business of being the
world's policeman (repeat after me 1000 times, "We are not
imperialists, we are just helping the world") is utterly thankless
and even pisses those we "help" off...which is putting it
mildly. To say nothing of a) how expensive all those forces and war
toys are and b) how, if you have them, you'll end up using them..and
using them in more and more condign ways...now habeas corpus is
shredded, our communications are monitored and torture is just plain normal, etc. etc. Even Obama, our great hope, loves that absolute power.
Mmmmm, good.

Brandioch ConnerApril 21, 2010 11:19 AM

@GreenSquirrel
"Can we all agree that Security Theatre is an overt demonstration of "doing something" that fails to improve security in any measurable way but seeks to make people think "something is being done?"

Or is there a better way to describe it?"

How about combining it with Bruce's other work on "attack trees".

If the action taken does not close the identified attack avenue OR if it does not close an easier (more likely) attack avenue, then it is "security theatre".

Example of the first case: Taking your (clothing item) shoes off at the airport is security theatre because it does not prevent explosives being carried in your (clothing item) underwear.

Example of the second case: Putting bars on a window that is right next to a door without a lock.

A FinnApril 21, 2010 12:30 PM

Filias Cupio:
"Killing Hitler in 1923 rather than 1935 might have been another matter - but nobody knew then that he would be important."

That might have given Stalin a free reign.
As a Finn I consider this important.

Besides I don't think it would have solved the problems due to the Treaty of Versailles.

Perhaps FDR should have been assassinated instead (in 1943 or 1944), leading to a stronger leader who wouldn't have honoured the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact at Yalta Conference?

@Stewart Dean:
"World police" is justifiable and just.
"Police, judge, jury and the executioner" is not.
That is, the UN should be involved.

HJohnApril 21, 2010 1:11 PM

@Clive: "Even with Sadam the results where completely counter productive..."
_________

I think the Saddam situation perhaps makes an even better example that the Hitler analogy. Since Hitler is, right left and in-between, nearly universally synonymous with evil, most can say things like "if Hitler were assassinated" without much argument, save for the common "but we didn't know then." But people on both sides don't really argue much about the reasoning given him as basically an incarnation of evil.

Saddam provides a pretty realistic example of how assassinations could be counterproductive (even though he wasn't assassinated). Without discussing the pros and cons of deposing him, except to say I acknowledge good arguments on both sides, at the time he was deposed Saddam had racked up a body count of, according to the NY Times, 800,000, which didn't even include the 300,000 Kurds that were gassed. Even so, despite there being a documented history of nearly 1.1 million corpses know about, there was quite a backlash over deposing him. So, while it is easy to say Hitler could/should have been stopped to save 6 million, it is hard to overestimate what the backlash would have been before the Holocaust based on recent history.

I find the hindsight bias disparity on both fascinating and depressing, to be honest.

Again, my point is not pro or con, or to defend or criticize. I make an honest effort not to get too political here. It is a great example of how political assassinations are likely counterproductive however you slice it. If there was severe backlash for deposing a tyrant (Saddam) AFTER a 1.1 million corpse count, imagine the backlash for deposing a tyrrant-to-be (Hitler) BEFORE a corpse count.

In other words, damned if you do damned if you don't.

Of course, I also asked the question: what if you are wrong about someone? (and even if you aren't, if you prevent something such as a holocaust, how in the world could it ever be proven that you saved a million lives or so?)

anonymousApril 21, 2010 1:51 PM

HJohn: "there was severe backlash for deposing a tyrant (Saddam) AFTER a 1.1 million corpse count"

There was a good reason for the backlash. He wasn't killing them anymore (at least not that much) and governments killing people isn't usually a good idea. Like we saw, he was the guy keeping the country together and the terrorists out (dictators don't like them).
Maybe he could have been forced to guide the country to democracy and then resign and flee somewhere with some serious cash. He might have got away with the murders (although private entrepreneurs would have soon surfaced to fix that or the Iraqi government could have backed out on the deal after some time), but many lives would have been saved.

HJohnApril 21, 2010 2:16 PM

@anonymous: "There was a good reason for the backlash. He wasn't killing them anymore (at least not that much) and governments killing people isn't usually a good idea. "
______________

I'm trying to avoid the topic of whether deposing him was right or wrong. But he was still killing and torturing people. That's a documented fact, not an argument I'm making one way or another.

In a nutshell, point I'm trying to make is this: If people are not moved to support deposing Saddam based on what he has done (the 1.1 million he killed and those he is continuing to kill), they are unlikely to be moved to support assassinating someone based on what they haven't done.

I think that is a fair, non-partisan conclusion.

dragonfrogApril 21, 2010 2:55 PM

Well, off the top of my head, I can think of one religious organization that it's almost impossible to imagine its having survived without the assassination of their leader - the Christian religion(s).

On second thought, please don't off the top of my head - I'm still using it, and I'm not even the leader of my own housecats.

HJohnApril 21, 2010 3:25 PM

@dragonfrog at April 21, 2010 2:55 PM

Not sure what that has to do with this post, but "offing the tops of heads" isn't something typically associated with Christian leaders. Google Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg if you want to find a threat to discuss the topic.

If you'd like to discuss political assassinations, you're in the right place. I've argued using Hitler and Saddams as real world "what if" and "after the fact" analogies, and my conclusion is that they are a no-win proposition.

Marian KechlibarApril 22, 2010 2:19 AM

@GreenSquirrel at April 21, 2010 4:07 AM

Thank you for addressing my points with a very thoughtful analysis. I feel compelled to answer with some counter-points of mine :-)

WWI: This is definitely the field where reasonable people can disagree. My overall impression of the trench warfare is as a situation where humans were put against machinery which outpowered them, and, as a result, the commanders relied on discipline, patriotism and sometimes executions to make the troops climb the trench once more and try once more a human-wave attack. These seem to be instruments of morale to me; but this is probably not the right place where to discuss the Great War... alas.

1+3 - It is harder nowadays to avoid decapitating strikes than during the Troubles. The surveillance technology has developed a lot. Nevertheless, some of the highly valued experts will certainly survive. But I am not trying to claim that assassinations of experts is a war-winning strategy in itself. It is rather part of an overall war of attrition.

2 - Now this is a very serious flaw of the entire targeted killing design. Killing innocent people, even accidentally, is always a major propaganda coup for the adversary, a good recruiting tool, and ammunition for the media weapon. This can be only solved by very good surveillance before the strike, including HUMINT skilled in local culture. I am not sure whether any army currently has the resources (let alone the knowledge) to execute such actions without droning some school or wedding from time to time.

4 - Terrorism recruiting is a complicated matter, at least David Kilcullen argues so in the "Accidental Guerilla" book. I trust him, because he spent a lot of time studying ongoing and historical insurgencies. His basic motto is that no one wants to be the last to die for a lost cause. I can't see any simple connection between death of an insurgent commander and increase of recruitment. It probably depends on the culture (does it worship martyrdom or is it an alien concept?), on the tactical situation... Loss of a leader can be demoralizing in some conditions.

5 - True about highly hierarchical organizations in order-loving countries, such as was the Nazi party in Germany. But in chaotic terrains like FATA and Afghanistan, where the local tribesmen (Pashtun) value their personal freedom highly, a more competent leader would not probably wait in shadow of a less competent too long; he would break off and create his own group, only loosely affiliated to the main organization, but practically working independently.

6 - True enough. But it depends on demographics. If there is a strong youth bulge, the young hotheads will probably not be content with their ageing leaders and their softening, and will create another, more radical organization (see Hamas in Gaza, with its very high population growth). If there is population transition, such as in Ireland, the young will be less numerous than the old warriors, and will respect them more.

7 - Entirely true. In case of the USA, it can't be militarily defeated, but it can well go bankrupt by combination of too high public spending (both war and social) and an economic recession.

Russell CokerApril 22, 2010 4:09 AM

Frank suggested that if you kill enough "terrorist" leaders then the quality will decline.

I suspect that if terrorist leaders are never killed then the ones that become the senior leaders will be the best at negotiating with other terrorists - which would be a good thing if you want to try and negotiate a cease-fire or have them transition to a legitimate form of government (like Sinn Fein).

If however leaders are killed routinely then you will end up with leaders who have no personal fear of death (IE ones that will launch particularly savage and audacious attacks) and leaders who are very defensive and therefore difficult to track and intercept. By killing leaders whenever possible you may select for more effective leadership.

As "terrorists" comprise a small portion of the population it seems that any strategy which involves killing some of them while offending more of the general population is not going to do any good. Giving the "terrorists" a fair trial and demonstrating that you are better than them seems like a better option.

Some people make analogies to corporate executives, if a small portion of executives were killed then it probably wouldn't change anything - there are lots of people who want the significant rewards of an executive position. I suspect however that if someone started killing middle-management then it could rapidly make a difference. Probably most people who would risk their life for an executive salary would quit if asked to take a similar risk for middle-management income.

I suspect that the lower levels of terrorist organisations may have a good number of people who are less committed. There's no doubting the commitment of suicide-bombers, but the people who recruit and instruct them are less committed and can possibly be convinced to try other careers.

Russell CokerApril 22, 2010 4:55 AM

NC: Good point about being a depraved society if the only reason why we don't do bad things is because it doesn't work. But please note that most people who use the "it doesn't work" argument are trying to convince depraved people.

Carlo Graziani: If you have a war zone then lots of people get technical expertise, there are lots of people ready to train them. Remember that OBL was trained by the CIA. Now if you killed the people with the expertise AND created conditions that prevented others from gaining such expertise - then you would probably end up with much the same result as if you just prevented people from gaining the expertise.

nobodySpecial: ROFL. Fidel Castro was no threat, apart from letting the USSR place some missiles in Cuba (which he couldn't refuse given that Soviet support was needed to supply oil and other essential commodities) he showed no signs of wanting to anything other than rule Cuba.

Marian KechlibarApril 22, 2010 5:25 AM

@Posted by: Russell Coker at April 22, 2010 4:09 AM

The selection of leaders who are more savage, brutal and have less fear of death is logical. But such leaders are often less competent, not more, when it comes to the objectives of the insurgency.

Most, if not all, insurgencies strive to dominate some territory and drive the prevailing power (either occupier, or a local government) out. Body count is only a side effect.

For survival of the insurgency, support or at least not-outright-hostility of the local population is an absolute necessity.

Ruthless and cruel insurgent leaders will probably not just kill the enemy, but also commit atrocities over the more reluctant civilians in the area, as shown by FLN in Algeria and Islamic State in Iraq in Al-Anbar province.

If, under such situation, can the prevailing power present itself as less rabid and evil, it may get the population on its side, and diminish the insurgency's operating space. Even a few masked informers/traitors (pick your words) can seriously damage an insurgency which faces a technically more equipped enemy.

Russell CokerApril 22, 2010 5:33 AM

HJohn: There are a variety of claims about how many people Saddam killed. But the claims about the number of needless deaths as a direct result of the US invasion are more reliable.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/...

According to research published in Lancet in the period until July 2006 the invasion of Iraq caused about 655,000 excess civilian deaths (half of them women and children). Presumably that number is a lot higher nowadays. It seems quite plausible that the US invasion is responsible for considerably more Iraqi deaths than Saddam.

Of course this is all entirely unrelated to assassination as Saddam was not assassinated. He was captured after his country was invaded, he was tried, and then he was sentenced to death. Also immediately prior to being captured as far as is known he was not associated with any insurgency, so it's not as if capturing him had much direct effect on what happened. I suspect that in terms of propaganda imprisoning him for life would have been a better option.

Marian KechlibarApril 22, 2010 7:00 AM

Russell:

Saddam was definitely a political goner after 2003, but the question is still interesting for his sons Uday and especially heir-designated Qusay. Who were killed in combat, not by judicial hanging.

HJohnApril 22, 2010 8:25 AM

@Russell: "Of course this is all entirely unrelated to assassination as Saddam was not assassinated. "
__________

It's true that he wasn't assassinated, he was deposed. However, the relationship is with backlash. I don't think it is a leap to say that if there is backlash for deposing a leader AFTER the mass murder of 1.1 million, there is likely to backlash for assassinating a leader before such murders.

I don't that in that context it is unrelated.

I'm going to leave the oft-quoted 655,000 number aside since I never intended this to be a debate about Iraq, I just believed it to be a good illustrator of backlash.

Clive RobinsonApril 22, 2010 8:36 AM

@ HJohn,

"In other words, damned if you do damned if you don't."

Yes but where's the tipping point ;)

From my limited study of history I would err on the side that says assassination is "the more expensive" option, and achieves considerably less than you would hope, and is almost always counter productive.

Or to put it another way the best intel is normally humint, and the closer a source is to a leader the better the intel. Now getting a source close to a leader is a long involved and expensive process at the best of times. Chop the leader out and your investment in the source is more than likely to be flushed.

Then there is the question of president if you as a leader put a price on the head of your opponents leader you are also saying it's ok for others to put a price on your head. That is what you do to your opponent, you also do unto yourself. Or as the Bible put it "Do unto others...".

With regards to Sadam cutting back on the numbers of people he was killing, this is actually not that unexpected, it's called "Making a name for yourself" or "making your mark". The harder and more brutally you enter the political ring as a dictator in general the less problems you have and the less people you have to kill down the line especially when you bring "good times" for everybody else.

There is that interesting moral question under a dictator of what do you get/lose by opposition to them. You might be morally opposed but if they have also raised your standard of life to a much greater amount than it would otherwise have been... Then also if you know with what amounts to certainty that your lot under a new "dictator" will be a whole lot worse (they only had to look across the border to Iran)...

Not wishing to ruffle feathers, there where two stabilizing influences in the middle east Iraq and Israel. The dynamic between the two was what kept others well away from the ring side. Unfortunately those who should have know better decided to change the dynamic, it took the pressure off and all the nasties crawled out into the light of day...

It would be nice to say that it was an "unexpected result" however it was not the first example of it's type, think of what happened after Tito in Yugoslavia, and that mess we are still trying to tidy up...

Strong secular leaders bring stability and in general peace (all be it at the point of a loaded gun), weak or non-secular leaders bring opportunity thus multi facet conflict and invariably death amongst the bystanders innocent or otherwise in the hail of crossfire.

It really does not overly matter if people believe or not if Saddam was "assassinated" or that he was deposed by an invading government who then imposed a pseudo government onto the country and they in turn executed Saddam. What matters is the end result and to be honest it's not been good for either the invaders or those who call Iraq their home.

HJohnApril 22, 2010 9:09 AM

@Clive Robinson at April 22, 2010 8:36 AM

Iraq and Saddam are a topic that can keep good and honorable people debating for a very long time.

I've tried not to debate the topic since it gets too political, but when reading your comment I will say something about myself that falls on boths sides. The thought of Saddam gassing children made me yearn for justice for him and liberation for his people, and I dared to believe the perhaps our Iraqi brothers and sisters may have a future that was not under brutal despotism. However, in retrospect, that seems to have been uninformed wishful thinking. I suspect I'm not alone in that.

No matter how good the intentions or had bad those you are trying to help have it, there is a lesson to be learned about this, whether we call it assassinating or deposing, is we cannot underestimate what useful propoganda it will make for our enemies.

What one does is important, but how others perceive it is important as well.

CraigApril 22, 2010 12:15 PM

From a security perspective, on the whole you must believe what the statistics, numbers and history show, even though your heart will make you believe the opposite.

AnonApril 23, 2010 5:22 AM

The title is a misnomer. Is it political - or strategic assasinations? Hard to decide but I doubt the US would ever do political assasinations.

Btw really impressive job with the fog machines in Smolensk. Very discreet and hard to prove. Russian weathermaking technology rules.

Hans BetaMay 5, 2010 7:35 AM

Mr. Schneier, you appear the most competent when you're addressing computer security issues--otherwise, not so much.

SeegrasMay 15, 2010 7:32 AM

Actually, Political Assassinations fail consistently to achieve any goal which might be associated with "more freedom", including democracy.

It consistently produces more tyrants and less civil rights.

The assassination of King Louis XVIII lead to the Directoire and finally the tyrant Napoleon. Or read the list of roman emperors assassinated -- there's always an equally bad one to follow, and if not, that one surely gets murdered by a bad one.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin lead to war-mongers taking office (yes, that one achieved its goal: because the goal was "less freedom" to begin with). The same goes with some of those assassinations the CIA did in south america.

And so it goes troughout history. If you don't have a fascist or prohibitionist agenda, political assassination is sure to backfire.

LeoMay 17, 2010 1:02 PM

Another analogy may be organized crime; the mafia demonstrated over the last 20 years that it's management trainee program was conspicuously bad.

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