Wright: Assassinations Strengthen Religious Terrorist Groups

Robert Wright argues that not only is assassination (including by drone) legally and ethically troubling, but there is reason to think that it is counterproductive when deployed against religious terrorist groups. He cites the study of Jenna Jordan [pdf], a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, in Security Studies. She did a large-scale study of violent organizations that had been dealt with by the assassination of leaders, and found that such assassinations generally caused the organization actually to last longer than groups that had not suffered such assassinations.

As for the first question Wright raises, of the legal implications of assassinations, such as the one President Obama authorized for American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, they are horrible. Having CIA officers operate the drones makes the attacks a covert operation, which cannot be spoken about publicly by US government officials, and which cannot be investigated by ordinary Americans worried about the direction of their government. The drone assassinations are lawless, and they have killed large numbers of innocent civilians, as Wright notes. For Obama to take out a contract on al-Awlaki diminishes us as a nation. If al-Awlaki is guilty of a crime, he should be brought to justice if possible, and tried, even in absentia. Yemeni authorities should arrest him and extradite him on that basis. For the US to allow 300 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula guys to draw it into unethical actions and perhaps even into an unwinnable war in Yemen, would be foolish.

Jordan’sstudy seems to me generally sound, and one can think of lots of supporting evidence. It seems to me that it would be useful to further amplify a distinction that Jordan makes, between highly organized and more inchoate religious organizations, with the latter being more common.

1. I would argue that social movements (as opposed to organizations) are particularly difficult to decapitate. Organizations are characterized by a high degree of integration and are tight systems. Movements are more informally arranged than are organizations, and their flexibility and vagueness can help them withstand attacks on leaders. Charles Tilly [pdf] defined movements with reference to to campaigns, claim-making repertoires or performances, and the demonstration of qualities such as unity, commitment and numbers.

The Greens in Iran since last summer have been a movement, and it seems obvious that Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as leaders are not all that central to it. The Sadrists in Iraq are a movement, and after a campaign of arrests and assassinations waged against them by the US and British militaries and then the government of PM Nuri al-Maliki over years, they continue to survive and reemerged to take some 12% of seats in the Iraqi parliament on March 7.

What is often missed about Hamas is that it, too, is a movement. They have gotten up big demonstrations, and waged campaigns, including political campaigns. They aren’t just a terrorist group, and they depend on kinship links and informal networks, not a corporate-style leadership flow chart.

Movements that are embedded (as most are) in a particular population can draw on enormous resources.

Ariel Sharon was convinced by some game theorist who knew nothing about Palestinian Arab society that if he could kill off 1/4 of the Hamas leadership, he could cause the organization to collapse. What I heard was that the original basis for this thesis was risk studies of corporations like IBM, where the models had shown that in case of a catastrophe that took out a quarter of the management, the organization would implode.

So Sharon’s government assiduously assassinated suspected Hamas leaders, killing the spiritual leader of the movement, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, in his wheelchair as he came out of a mosque, along with 17 others, including juveniles. Then titular leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was assassinated. And so on and so forth. But Hamas did not collapse. It won the 2006 Palestine Authority elections, and even when the resulting government was overthrown by the PLO in the West Bank– with US and Israeli help– it proved powerful in Gaza. The Gaza War was another Israeli attempt to destroy Hamas, which failed miserably. Israeli military leaders professed themselves astonished at how little resistance to the invasion Hamas put up, showing that they don’t understand movements. Movements can afford to lie low during attacks, because they have the resources and support to reemerge once the heat is off.

Assassinating movement leaders, as opposed to organization leaders, is usually worse than useless, especially if the movement has a strong social base in a compact population.

On the other hand organizations such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya) in Egypt were effectively defeated by the Egyptian security forces. They arrested some 30,000 militants in the 1990s, and they engaged in running street battles with armed members. Since 1997, these groups have been defeated in the Nile Valley and seldom can pull off even a small attack. The Egyptian government caught a break, because the radicals’ 1997 attack on Western tourists at Luxor produced profound revulsion toward them among almost all Egyptians. The leadership of the Islamic Grouping (whose Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, is in an American penitentiary for involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing) has even renounced violence and now sees the Qur’an as forbidding terrorism. This leadership had not been systematically killed, however. It was incarcerated in Tura prison.

In this regard, US drone attacks on al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan must be contrasted to assassinations of Taliban leaders. Al-Qaeda is more like an organization, and its leaders seldom have a lot of local support (the Arabs in the northwest of Pakistan are not embedded in a local population that adulates them, but rather live among Pashtuns who have a variety of views of Arab expatriates). There has never been a big al-Qaeda demonstration (I mean by al-Qaeda Bin Laden’s organization, and don’t consider the Islamic State of Iraq to be actually al-Qaeda), because they don’t have the numbers to pull it off.

In contrast, just killing Pashtun insurgent leaders, whether in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, is unlikely to destroy the Taliban, because they are a movement embedded in an often supportive population.

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12 Responses

  1. Hi Jaun,

    Don’t visit as often given that you are blocked in Iran. Just wanted to comment on your new site design. The grey font is hard on the eyes and the font is too small. Your other basic design was easier to read and scan.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of it’s constitution.”…Thomas Jefferson
    Just a little quote I lifted from the front page of the “information packet” sent by the US District Court for prospective jurors. Seemed appropriate.

  3. I do not think it is the movement/organization distinction that determines whether bombing or assassination is likely to be counterproductive. See Franklin L. Ford “Political Murder”, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1985, and Irving Janis, “Air War and Emotional Stress” New York, NY: McGraw-Hill (copyright RAND), 1951. The former shows that assassination tends to be either endemic tit-for-tat, or else strengthens support for the person who is taken to be a symbol of the group or agenda he led (Henry IV of France, President Kennedy in the US). The Janis book shows that aerial bombing strengthened support for Churchill in Britain, but also for Hitler when Germany was under attack.
    In my opinion, what matters is who can control the political meaning of the force being applied. In Juan’s Egypt example, the government could communicate with its population as drone controllers cannot, and had the Luxor outrage to build upon as grounds for the legitimacy and urgency of its actions.

  4. Of course there is enormous truth in what you’re saying, the problem being the mindset that might listen with a relative open-mind to your/her arguement, and to recognize when they are dealing with a social movement.

    Not so much cynically, but as simple observations: 1) people hear what they want to hear, and 2) people tend to achieve power in organizations through enormous focus on the acquisition of power and their own importance.

    Hence, the mere thought there is NOT some other Big-Cheese out there pulling the levers, as they themselves do, does not square with experience: they have always had and will always have rival personalities to contend with. They are not inclined to either see or give much thought to leadership arising spontaneous from Little People, who you would argue are essentially motivating themselves. After all, how could that possibly be? To accept this perpspective would invalidate their worldview and diminish their extraordinary sense of self-importance (which is often rather tender point to begin with).

  5. I’ve just read the comments on the Wright article and they provide a disturbing picture of a society where a substantial percentage of the presumably well-educated persons (Times readers) who should have some idea of the Constitution and the notion that government-authorized assassinations are antithetic to it apparently have no difficulty at all in accepting the idea that such assassinations are OK. And sadly not a single member of the administration has tendered his or her resignation over the matter. If we keep this up we will indeed be fighting a “War” forever – and we will no longer be a society living under the Rule of Law. What happened to the country I used to think I lived in?

  6. “If al-Awlaki is guilty of a crime, he should be brought to justice if possible, and tried, even in absentia. Yemeni authorities should arrest him and extradite him on that basis.”
    It is unclear if this is the author’s opinion or that of the reviewer. Nevertheless, it assumes an efficacy of the international legal system that is dubious at best. If justifiability of action consists of process alone, regardless of effect, then by all means, follow current legal standards and proceed with encouragement of local incarceration, extradition, etc. But if desired outcome has any influence upon process, then targeted assassinations must be considered a viable option.
    The only argument for domestic trial in absentia is for a charge of treason (see US Code at 18 U.S.C. § 2381). However, the efficacy of a conviction and death sentence is mitigated by the inability of extradition.
    Understandably, many may bristle at outcome-justified processes, but, given an appreciation for the motivation of those in question (ie. Awlaki) and for the lack of opportunity for incarceration/rehabilitation, that indicates a problem with the system, not a problem with the outcome.

    • @ Jude

      “but, given an appreciation for the motivation of those in question (ie. Awlaki) …”

      What is Alwaki’s motivation? How do you know?

      At any rate, if criticising, even urging violent overthrow of the US government by its citizens has become a crime (wasn’t last time I looked) necessitating ‘outcome based justice’, the backwoods of Montana etc could be crawling with outcomes waiting to happen, if you know what I mean.

    • You miss a vital option that would achieve your outcome. If the USA accepts the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and all the other international law bodies it hasn’t recognised, America will find it much easier to obtain international cooperation to go after people like Awlaki, and it will gain additional mechanisms by which to prosecute them. The humiliation foreign governments experience for being seen as America’s puppet when opposing terrorists will be diminished, so other nations will be more likely to exercise their universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity to prosecute terrorists or hand them over to the tribunals.
      The respect that the USA would get for this simply cannot be understated, although I doubt a majority of Americans would go for it once Fox goes berserk. Its true that many, many claims will be brought against America, but it will do as much to take America off the Imperial path as anything else, and think American democracy will be much better for it. I think it would make Obama worthy of his Nobel Peace Prize, and force a revolution in the way America conducts war, if it continues to conduct it at all.

  7. Obama’s assassination program, if wish to speak of “outcome-justified process,” is, as Juan explained, not justified by the outcome. People suffering the consequences are responding as Americans would to an invader killing people in their neighborhoods at random from the sky, especially if their children were often being killed as they played in the street – except that all those fanatics that “hate us for our freedoms” are considerably more patient and understanding under this abuse than Americans are.

    The American who think the 9/11 hijackers were the worst people in the world are perfectly content to act the same way all over the world, justifying their actions and their equal contempt for the lives of the innocent using the same “outcome-justified” rationalizations that the 9/11 hijackers did. The difference is that the 9/11 hijacker mentality is generally abhorred in the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, whereas it is national policy and the public consensus in the United States.

    I look forward to American Christians, in particular, giving some attention to what Jesus had to say about the speck in the eyes of the Taliban and the log in their own, but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. imho, The problem for NATO-American leaders is: by what metric(s) do they measure “success” = the benefits -vs- the costs in blood and treasure of their military occupation of Afghanistan? Most sanguine analysts would agree that the death -from- above drone & special op ground assassination programmes don’t really make the West’s occupation troops Over There (or their own, civilian populations Over Here) any “more safe” = success ~ the metric rhetoric is hollow, without any real meaning ~ indeed, as the great Russian General Zhukov pointed out as the principle reason for his victory over the supposedly invincible Germans : great soldiers are more than mere assassins. again, imho, By adopting “assassination” without moral hazard as a military means (to an indeterminate political end) all the NATO-American leaders have succeeded in doing is having their enemies (and their modus operandi) become their teachers.

  9. […] Aquí distinguen, a la hora de matar al líder, entre organizaciones y movimientos. Al Qaeda sería una organización. Los talibanes, un movimiento. (En este artículo, el corresponsal del New York Times en África del este dice precisamente que las organizaciones criminales en muchos países de África dependen de su jefe; sin él, desaparecen.) La adivinanza es saber en qué momento funciona el asesinato del cabecilla. […]

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