Wasiq Wasiq, an Advisor to Muslims Against Anti-Semitism (MAAS)
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi the former leader of the Islamic State (IS) has been killed in a raid by US Special Forces. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, is reported to have confirmed the leader’s death asserting, “We have removed a major terrorist threat to the world.” Whilst this may appear to be the case, the fact of the matter is that removing a terrorist leader does not necessarily end the group they led. So, why are governments relying on leadership decapitation as a strategy to limit terrorist activities and destroy terrorist groups?
Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi was a 45-year-old Iraqi born national. He assumed the leadership of IS in 2019 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid coordinated by the US under the leadership of the then-President Donald Trump. Abu Ibrahim was groomed for the role of leader and led the group whilst it was under intense military pressure. He has been characterized as a “brutal operator” and served time in Saddam Hussein’s army. He has managed—until recently—to escape the radar of US military and intelligence services. What this demonstrates about IS is that although leadership is essential for the organization to endure, grooming the next generation of leaders is needed to withstand constant attacks.
Leadership decapacitation as a counter-terrorism strategy is popular amongst the public and also a vote winner for political leaders. For example, in 2011 when then-President Barack Obama ordered the targeted killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad Pakistan, this improved his approval ratings by 11 per cent—achieving an overall rating of 57 per cent. Regarding what the public thought about their safety as a result of his killing, 54 per cent of the US public believed they would be safer. It seems that this policy which has questionable efficacy, is viewed by political leaders as a viable interim intervention to tackle terrorist groups. However, forming counter-terrorism policy based on public opinion may not necessarily produce the intended results, which is to end a terrorist group or limit their activities.
There are also other implications as a result of taking out a terrorist leader. For example, retaliatory attacks. After the killing of Bin Laden, only two days later the Taliban went on the offensive, using two suicide bombers to target the Frontier Constabulary paramilitary academy in the northwest of Pakistan, killing 80 people. Whilst it may be normal business for the Taliban to use violence for political ends, this was not the case here. This was rather a symbolic act to demonstrate that although bin Laden is no more, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still committed to the jihadist cause. Furthermore, it was also an opportunity for the Taliban to demonstrate that although they have taken a hit, they are not weakened. Showing any sign of weakness, would severely damage their international reputation both from their allies and enemies.
The attack at the Frontier Constabulary paramilitary academy was not out of character for the Taliban. To understand this, we need to look back at what the Taliban consider as legitimate targets. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former spiritual leader of the Taliban, issued a Code of Conduct for members of the Taliban. He would regularly make public statements emphasizing that targets should be military personal, not innocent civilians. In one statement, Mullah Omar stated: “The mujahedeen have to take every step to protect the lives and wealth of ordinary people.” This served two purposes: to announce rules to engagement in terms of morality and to assist the Taliban in what always was their ultimate goal, to govern territory. Therefore, (overtly) killing civilians is not in their interests if they find themselves lacking public support for their actions and policies. The bottom line is that killing the leader of a terrorist group can lead to attacks that were not foreseen and which are out of character for a terrorist group.
Given these implications from targeted killings of terrorist leaders, the real question that should be asked is, How can governments hit the target whilst also hitting the mark? To answer this question is to rethink what terrorist groups are. Terrorist groups are no longer a motley crew of bandits, but rather sophisticated bureaucratic organizations. IS relied heavily on their foreign recruits who provided them with the knowledge and skills they needed to govern vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. They were able to utilize the black market, criminal gangs, and also tribal leaders to survive and establish themselves as a legitimate resistance force.
Given that terrorist groups have learned from the past, and operate now as organizations, the US government should continue its campaign to target terrorist leaders, but it should not solely rely on it. Rather, governments should also focus on disrupting their supply chains, prevent their own citizens from travelling to terrorist held areas, and tackle and challenge the ideology that underpins the apparent need for these terrorist groups to exist.
What implications will the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi have on counter-terrorism policies, the region in which he operated in, and for IS itself?
For counter-terrorism policy, the death of Abu Ibrahim will serve to fill a knowledge-gap regarding the IS leadership’s operational role. IS are fully aware their leaders are always marked for attack; therefore, it is very likely a cadre is constantly being trained and groomed for the role, with careful succession planning in place. It is here where governments need to insert intelligent policy initiatives. The role of leading a jihadist terrorist organization needs to be the least attractive one for anyone wishing to join a terrorist group. Deterring people from joining may have more of a positive impact than removing someone from the group.
It is entirely possible that Abu Ibrahim’s death will spark further unrest within the region and within IS itself. Retaliatory attacks should be expected to take place against innocent civilians: “successful” attacks of this kind—to add to the recent prison-break attack in Syria—will provide IS with the momentum they need to demonstrate their commitment to the cause and thereby endure. Whilst other members of IS may leave the group following the death, this will not necessarily mean they will disengage from jihad; rather, they may take their skills and resources, acquired while in IS, to other groups.
If you are bitten by a snake and kill it by chopping its head off, it does not mean the consequences from the bite diminish from the death of the snake. Nor does it mean that snakes will not exist. To prevent the threat from snakes, you need to change the environment to remove the safe spaces in which they can reside and from where it is possible for them to bite you. The same principle should also apply to terrorist groups. Decapitating the leader will have a small impact, but it will not have the desired impact if that is all you are doing. Governments need to now think about different targets, not just the leader, in order to hit the mark.
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