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 blog since 2004, and in my monthly newsletter since 1998. I'm a fellow and lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School and a board member of EFF. This personal website expresses the opinions of neither of those organizations.