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The Foreign Policy Essay: The Islamic State’s War Machine

Austin Long
Sunday, September 28, 2014, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: The recent killing of Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is only one of the most recent U.S. attempts to disrupt Al Qaeda and associated movements by targeting their leaders. Although the Obama administration has aggressively embraced this tactic, arguments persist over whether or not it is succeeding.

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Editor’s Note: The recent killing of Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is only one of the most recent U.S. attempts to disrupt Al Qaeda and associated movements by targeting their leaders. Although the Obama administration has aggressively embraced this tactic, arguments persist over whether or not it is succeeding. Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University, contends that the critical factor that determines whether this tactic will be successful in achieving long-term strategic success is institutionalization: not all terrorist groups are organized equally, and some have procedures and structures in place that enable them to absorb severe losses and continue fighting.


As the Obama administration rolls out its new strategy for combating the Islamic State, it is time to reflect on leadership targeting, one of the major U.S. tactics in combating terrorism. Leadership targeting relies on a combination of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities (e.g., drones, signals intelligence, data fusion) with precision firepower and in some cases highly capable special operations forces to kill or capture the leadership of terrorist organizations. The tactic has had mixed results best characterized as operational success without strategic success. Although literally thousands of terrorists and other militants have been killed or captured, many of the organizations they belonged to continue to pose a threat to the United States and its interests. Policymakers should take stock and reflect on why this tactic has been unable in many instances to achieve decisive effects. The reason is that combat organizations, whether formal armies or well-organized insurgencies, are designed to function despite the loss of leadership. Although some terrorist organizations or insurgencies are destroyed before they develop the necessary traits to survive the loss of leadership, once these organizations reach a critical threshold of institutionalization, leadership targeting is unlikely to defeat them. Long photoNowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Islamic State. Its advance into Iraq has been blunted by a combination of Iraqi and Kurdish forces supported by U.S. airpower, but it remains potent. Indeed, the achievements of the Islamic State over the past three years have been nothing short of remarkable. It has successfully balanced war on multiple fronts against adversaries ranging from the Iraqi and Syrian state security forces to fellow rebels in Syria and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq. As a result, even after the recent reverses in Iraq, the group now has a declared capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa and has de facto control over significant portions of Iraq and Syria. These achievements are all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the Islamic State’s organizational predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), had been targeted for years by a massive campaign to capture or kill its leadership. According to Task Force Black, Mark Urban’s account of the U.S. and U.K. special operations task forces hunting militants in Iraq, AQI lost thousands of mid-level and senior leaders between 2003 and 2009. This included the founding leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006, and then successors Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with the current leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and Abu Ayyub al-Masri in 2010. Yet AQI survived this blistering assault, as well as counterinsurgency operations conducted by coalition and Iraqi troops along with a revolt by Sunni Arab tribes and insurgents against its leadership (often referred to as the “Sunni Awakening”). Although it was pushed underground and to the fringes of Iraq, it nonetheless survived and was eventually revitalized by a combination of the war in Syria and Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq. The Islamic State’s success is thus built on the resilience of AQI. However, AQI was not always the dominant Sunni militant group in Iraq, much less the broader Middle East. As I discuss in more detail in a recent article in the journal Security Studies, in 2004 it was just one of many Sunni groups fighting coalition forces following the 2003 invasion. One of the most powerful groups was the Mujahedin Shura Council based in Fallujah and led by Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi. Janabi’s group effectively repulsed the first U.S. assault on Fallujah in April 2004, but when the U.S. launched a second assault in November of that year, his organization suffered devastating losses and Janabi himself fled to Syria. His group ceased to exist, and the remnants were absorbed by other groups, including AQI. The loss of a charismatic founder and significant numbers of mid-level leaders in one month was sufficient to collapse one powerful militant group; yet even greater losses of leadership across a span of years were unable to destroy another. What explains this wide variation in outcomes from targeting leadership? The explanation cannot be ideology: both adhered to extreme Salafi interpretations of Sunni Islam. Some scholars hypothesize that the age of the group is important for resisting leadership targeting because older groups are more likely to have developed the ability to appoint new leaders. Yet in 2004, both groups were barely a year old as combat organizations, though both Janabi and Zarqawi had prior connections to extremists. The explanation is instead the mundane but critical factor of institutionalization. Institutionalization in this context means that an organization has developed such traits as formal hierarchy, functional specialization, and standard operating procedures. In contrast to Janabi’s organization, which relied heavily on his personal charisma along with traditional tribal ties, Zarqawi’s organization rapidly established all three of these traits. The result was that as AQI leaders were killed or captured, the organization was rapidly and smoothly able to replace them. This is most clearly demonstrated in unclassified analysis of captured AQI records from Anbar province and Ninewah province, as well as interviews with Iraqi security personnel. AQI had a hierarchical system that divided responsibility by increasingly large geographic areas (e.g., sector, province, national) and assigned different “emirs” responsibility for specific functions (e.g., intelligence, administration, media). The organization had standard procedures for accounting, counterintelligence, and other critical functions. The result was that when an AQI leader was killed or captured there was generally a clear successor (one of his subordinates), an administrative emir that could identify that successor, and a procedure for promotion. If the deceased leader had specific skills, then records existed to identify other replacements with those skills (where possible). Although leadership targeting undoubtedly made life dangerous and hard for AQI leaders, it was never able to achieve decisive results. The fact that the decimation of leadership in well-institutionalized combat organizations does not lead to their defeat should not be surprising. In war, leaders at almost all levels are routinely killed, captured, or otherwise incapacitated, and well-institutionalized military organizations are prepared to function despite these losses. As Omer Bartov has described, in World War II, the elite German Grossdeutschland Division lost its entire complement of officers several times during the course of the war. In November 1942, one of its battalions lost its commander and most of his subordinates in a single 20-minute artillery barrage. Despite these losses, the division remained combat effective until almost the end of the war as the well-institutionalized Wehrmacht replaced its leaders. But not all terrorist organizations become institutionalized, and thus some remain vulnerable to leadership targeting. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) has not institutionalized and as a result the loss of key leaders Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud led to fratricidal infighting and eventually the fragmentation of the group into competing factions. Although these factions remain dangerous, as the recent attacks on Karachi’s airport show, the overall threat from the group to both the United States and Pakistan has been reduced. The implications of this analysis for U.S. policymakers are clear. The expectations for achieving decisive effects through leadership targeting against well-institutionalized groups such as the Islamic State are low. Leadership targeting can disrupt and degrade these groups but is unlikely to destroy them. This does not mean that leadership targeting has no value against well-institutionalized organizations—at a minimum it imposes costs as leaders adopt onerous counterintelligence procedures to try to stay alive and at large. At least one AQI leader in 2008 was alleged never to sleep in the same place twice in order to avoid being targeted. Such measures make communication and coordination for attacks much more challenging even if they do not permanently end the threat. However, leadership targeting of poorly-institutionalized groups such as the Pakistani Taliban is much more likely to achieve decisive effects. This suggests that in assessing where to apply scarce assets for leadership targeting, priority should be given to poorly-institutionalized groups rather than well-institutionalized groups. Unfortunately, it is the well-institutionalized groups that are likely to be most threatening, so making these trade-offs will require careful analysis and potentially assuming risk. In addition to examining the group’s level of institutionalization generally, one metric that policymakers and intelligence analysts might investigate is the time it takes for a given organization to replace a killed or captured leader. If the time is short, then the organization is probably quite capable of replacing leaders and leadership targeting is unlikely to achieve decisive results. Conversely, if the time is long, then decisive results are possible, even if achieving them may require more resources. In addition, the analysis argues for more proactive U.S. efforts against militant groups. Effective leadership targeting while a nascent group has not had the ability to institutionalize is likely to collapse the group. Yet there is risk in this approach as well, as determining which nascent group actually poses a threat to the United States and its interests is extraordinarily challenging. Failure to identify a group that will become a threat in time will result in a missed opportunity to destroy it, while misidentifying a group that would not have posed a threat at best results in the squandering of resources. At worst, as David Kilcullen has noted, such a misidentification risks creating a threat where none existed. While evaluating these trade-offs is challenging, doing so will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. leadership targeting and counterterrorism generally. There is a place for what the Israelis term “mowing the grass” (targeting leaders to disrupt and suppress an organization despite knowing those leaders will be replaced), but policymakers should recognize when operations are metaphorical lawn care and when they are likely to be decisive. Absent this sort of analysis, leadership targeting can become the easy answer to hard problems even though it is not likely to produce victory.


Austin Long is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He was a civilian analyst and adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq in 2007-2008 and in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013.

Austin Long is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of multiple studies on nuclear strategy.

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