Why killing terrorist leaders doesn't necessarily wipe out their organizations

Sunday, 06 August 2017, 12:30:01 AM. Targeted killings of terrorist leaders remains a centerpiece U.S. counterterrorism strategy. But does the killing of a terrorist leader such as Islamic State's Abu Bakr Baghdadi make a difference?

Amid recent speculation about the fate of leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, U.S. officials were quick to say they had no idea whether Baghdadi was dead or alive.

Defense Secretary , nevertheless, told reporters the deaths of such extremist leaders inevitably represent substantial blows against the groups.

“To take out leaders of these kind of organizations always has an organizational impact,” Mattis said during a July 14 news conference. “It has an impact. … It always does in war.”

Killing leaders of terrorist groups has been a centerpiece of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy at least since President George W. Bush launched the “war on terror” in 2001.

The number of military strikes against terrorist leaders increased and expanded under President Obama’s administration with the killing of both senior and junior terrorist leaders in places including Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq. leader Osama bin Laden, for example, was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011.

Analysts don’t expect the policy of targeting militant leaders to change under the Trump administration.

But many analysts also say that while removing leaders may hurt militant groups, there are numerous examples of new leadership taking charge and continuing their missions. In some instances, analysts said, killing terrorist leaders fueled even more violence.

“The prevailing wisdom has been for a long time that taking out terrorist leaders helps to destabilize their groups,” said Jenna Jordan, assistant professor of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, who is writing a book on the subject. “But it's unlikely to diminish a large terrorist group's activities in the long run.”

Many analysts say that even if Baghdadi were dead, Islamic State has shown an ability over the years to turn to different leaders and maintain a mission of extremism and sectarianism in Iraq and Syria.

Several groups have remained potent enough to recruit members and carry out attacks, experts said.

In Somalia and parts of Kenya, for instance, the , an Al Qaeda-linked extremist group, carried out attacks killing scores of people in 2016 despite having been hit by government strikes that resulted in a weakened leadership.

On Friday, the U.S. military confirmed that an airstrike killed Ali Mohamed Hussein, a high-level commander from the extremist group blamed for planning attacks in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

Al Qaeda has lost key leaders besides Bin Laden over the years. In 2006, the leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a targeted U.S. strike. This year, a U.S. drone strike killed the second-ranking Al Qaeda official in Syria, Abu Khayr Masri.

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