Wasiq Wasiq, an Advisor to Muslims Against Anti-Semitism (MAAS)
With the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan and the imminent rejuvenation of Al-Qaeda, once again vying to be the leader of transnational global jihad after its offshoot, Islamic State (ISIS), threatened to eclipse it half-a-decade ago, it is perhaps time to reconsider what the point was of going after leaders of terrorist organisations.
Leadership is crucial if not essential to any organisation’s formation, survival and—in a minority of cases—collapse. So, when it comes to terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it is no wonder governments and policy makers believe leadership decapitation—through assassination, capture, or supporting their voluntary removal—is one of the most attractive options in tackling the terrorist threat they pose. But, whilst leadership is crucial to the formation of a terrorist organisation, it is not necessarily the case that it is essential for the organisation to endure.
Academics in the field of counter terrorism have studied this particular point for a number of years. US academics Daniel Milton and Brian Price empirically tested how a terrorist organisation’s external relationships condition the impact of leadership decapitation on its longevity. This was achieved by combining two sources of data. The first was data in relation to decapitation strikes against terrorist leaders, and the second data set looked at the characteristics and the end dates of these organisations.
What the authors found was that whilst terrorist organisations can suffer from the loss of a leader and increase the likelihood of failure, the effect of the tactic reduced in efficacy if the organisations were highly networked. This is, of course, quite concerning, particularly in the case of an Al-Qaeda resurgence in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
With the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan that have kept terrorist attacks at bay, what policy tools available that focus less on the leadership of Al-Qaeda, and more on the broader network?
The most readily-available answer is: weakening the Taliban will potentially contribute to weakening Al-Qaeda. But this will not be an easy task. The Taliban have already declared the country as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, opening the door for the Salafi-Jihadi inspired Al-Qaeda to walk right in and pick up where they left off. Furthermore, they have also—by virtue of now having de facto control—potentially become members of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a terrible irony.
The growing strength of the Taliban each day likely means that at some point, neighbouring nations will have little choice but to work with them. Indeed, the most worrying aspect of this is that Al-Qaeda will have “state backing”, which, according to Milton and Price, would suggest that their ability to operate and endure with little perturbation after leaders are taken out is increased.
It was only ten years ago that the former leader of Al-Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on America, Osama bin Laden, was assassinated. This was at a time when the Taliban were out of power and his death did not end Al-Qaeda. Former President of the United States, Barack Obama, in his sombre tone declared, “We got him”, as if this was the beginning of the end. Yet a decade later, we’re still faced with the same threat, if not more serious.
To weaken the Taliban will mean to disrupt its supply chain and ability to trade, as it once did. The British Government appear to be singing the right tune in this regard. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has already stated that to hold the Taliban to account, he would work his international partners to use all means necessary, such as sanctions and holding back the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to do that.
If applied, the impact of these sanctions would have a knock-on effect on Al-Qaeda, albeit not an effect that will be seen immediately. This is perhaps why it is important to get international agreement now on how to deal with the Taliban if we are to design an effective strategy to weaken their network with Al-Qaeda. There are no good outcomes, but with a robust, unified, and timely approach, we could find ourselves in a situation where we are focussing less on nightmares, and more on bad dreams.
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