The “silver bullet” option: anti-leadership strategies in the fight against terrorist organisations

The “silver bullet” option: anti-leadership strategies in the fight against terrorist organisations


States threatened by terrorism, from the US to Russia and from Israel to Colombia, have pinned a large part of their hopes of ending violence on the use of surgical attacks on the leaders of the armed groups they confront. The trust placed in such anti-leadership actions, however, may be based more on political need than on solid strategic analysis.


Western nations, faced with an unprecedented growth in terrorist threats, have embarked upon security strategies in which the neutralisation of the top leaders of the groups responsible for violence is becoming paramount. This type of anti-leadership operation has been put forward as the quickest and least costly method to dismantle an insurgent organisation. However, a realistic analysis of the viability and efficiency of this type of action requires that three factors be taken into account. First, it is necessary to weigh up how knocking out an armed group’s leadership will affect its future behaviour. Secondly, it is vital that any attempt to target the leadership of an organisation should be preceded by actions by the security forces aimed at softening up the armed movement as a whole and making its leaders more vulnerable to attack. Finally, it is also necessary to analyse the structure of the terrorist organisation given that the impact of an attack on its leadership will vary, depending on whether the group has a centralised leadership structure or if it is more flexibly organised.


Two and a half years after the attacks of 11 September, the manhunt seems to have become the lynchpin of international anti-terrorist strategies. Thus, the capture of Saddam Hussein has been presented by the Bush administration as a decisive blow that should lead to the break up of the Sunni insurgent movement in Iraq. A similar effect is expected in the case of al-Qaeda should the US efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden prove to be successful. Likewise, the Colombian authorities are banking on the capture of Luis Suárez, “Mono Jojoy”, and other insurgent leaders, to act as a trigger to dismantle the FARC guerrillas. In other words, governments confronting significant terrorist threats seem increasingly convinced that the capture or elimination of terrorist leaders is the quickest and least costly method of curbing violence and guaranteeing the security of their citizens. The question is whether these expectations are based on solid strategic realities, or whether they correspond merely to political perceptions that, sooner or later, will be proved to be wrong.

The tactic of dismantling an insurgent organisation by means of a single “silver bullet” targeted at its leadership is, in fact, a well-tried strategic alternative. In the first decades following the Second World War, British security forces in Palestine and their French counterparts in North Africa tried unsuccessfully to capture the leaders of the Jewish nationalist movements and of the Algerian independence movement, in a vain attempt to quell the anti-colonial revolts they were facing. Somewhat more successfully, the US supported the operation launched by the Bolivian authorities, in the late sixties, to wipe out Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a means of ending the insurgency that was starting up in the Bolivian highlands and of halting the proliferation of left wing guerrillas in Latin America. The Israeli air force strike against the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in 1986, on the other hand, failed in its attempt to leave the Palestinian organisation without a head, when Yasser Arafat miraculously escaped the attack unharmed. A few years later, however, the Peruvian authorities dealt Sendero Luminoso a decisive blow when they captured its leader, Abimael Guzmán, “Presidente Gonzalo”, in September 1992.

This type of anti-leadership operation is very attractive for a number of political and strategic reasons. In principle, getting rid of the leader of an insurgent organisation temporarily prevents the group from carrying out any organized campaign and may even paralyse its operations altogether. At best, a decisive blow like this may demoralise a significant part of the organisation’s members and prompt negotiations for their surrender. Such an outcome is all the more likely when the terrorist leadership is captured alive and is persuaded to cooperate with the authorities. This is what happened in the case of the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), Abdullah Öcalam, “Apo”, who was captured in Kenya by Turkish intelligence agents in December 1998. After being taken back to Turkey, the Kurdish independence leader was persuaded to speak publicly in favour of disarmament. That speech triggered an internal crisis within the PKK that eventually led to the group’s almost total break up.

The main appeal of hitting the leadership of an insurgent organisation is, however, undoubtedly of a political nature. The fight against terrorism involves security forces acting in obscure circumstances, in which battles are invisible and victories not easy to prove. At the same time, the authorities come under the constant pressure of public opinion to deliver tangible results in their efforts to curb violence. This is the reason why governments threatened by a campaign of violent attacks will try to neutralise the leaders of an armed organisation. It is the quickest way to stem their own discredit in the eyes of citizens who are constantly questioning the state’s ability to protect them. The potential for restoring a government’s image is even greater, following certain important arrests, if the authorities have somehow managed to float the idea that the climate of insecurity buffeting citizens has been caused solely by the machinations of a handful of criminal minds. In such cases, public opinion tends to equate the disappearance or arrest of certain terrorist leaders with the end of violence.

At the same time, however, the limitations on freedom and the economic costs involved in any anti-terrorist campaign lead inevitably to a drop in government popularity. This can only be countered if the authorities are able to show visible results in the fight to bring those responsible for violence to justice. Furthermore, a series of successful hits against the leaders of a group responsible for violence is the best way to show that the trouble and costs involved in the government’s security efforts are worthwhile. In Colombia, this line of thinking is making the Uribe administration give top priority to the capture of FARC leaders, to demonstrate to its public opinion that the increase in defence and security spending is producing results. This policy was temporarily successful in January, following the arrest of Ricardo Palmera, “Simon Trinidad”, one of the most sought after leaders of the Colombian guerrillas.

In this respect, it can be said that in the fight against terrorism governments are tending to give these anti-leadership operations the same sort of political significance as is bestowed on full-scale battles in conventional warfare. They are highly symbolic operations whose successful outcome serves to justify the sacrifices the people are asked to make in the name of increased military spending. It also allows governments to give the impression that a victorious end to the conflict is in sight. Undoubtedly, the political dimension of this policy of neutralising insurgent leaders also has a considerable strategic impact. One of the keys to the success of any anti-terrorist campaign is the credit bestowed on governments by their citizens. In this respect, the capturing or neutralizing of leaders of an armed organisation has an enormous capacity to transform the popularity of a government, gradually boosting public belief in its effectiveness in maintaining order.

The problem, as the reputed British academic Michael Howard has pointed out, in an article published in Foreign Affairs shortly after 9/11, is that the fight against terrorism has a logic that is qualitatively different from the dynamics of a conventional armed conflict. In particular, counter-insurgency operations are subject to strong tensions between the strategic requirements that must be met to succeed in the fight against the terrorists and the political needs that must be heeded to guarantee the survival of the government in office. The security forces must therefore operate covertly to increase their chances of success, while governments must make their efforts visible to show people that practical measures to guarantee order are being taken. Likewise, intelligence operations require a long time to achieve optimum results, whereas political leaders need quick results to satisfy public opinion. This same contradiction between strategy and politics crops up again in evaluating the pros and cons of anti-leadership operations.

In fact, the decision to promote actions to neutralize a top terrorist leader tends to overlook the high costs and risks involved in such a strategic gamble. To begin with, in most of these cases, the development of an anti-leadership operation requires a high investment of resources –intelligence systems, means of transport and special forces- over a prolonged period of time. Such an effort is not justified when the chances of success are slim. If the available means are limited, it is particularly difficult to justify an investment in an operation that is unlikely to be a success, especially when those resources could be set aside to achieve less spectacular but more profitable results in the development of an anti-terrorist campaign. Furthermore, the setting up of an operation to wipe out the leadership of an armed organisation always entails enormous risks. Such actions are prone to be total failures. The best example of the potentially catastrophic outcome is the fiasco of the US intervention in Somalia. After a series of failed attempts to capture the Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid in 1993, Washington’s special forces were trapped in an ambush in which 18 US soldiers were killed. It forced the Clinton administration to withdraw its troops from the Horn of Africa.

In any case, the biggest risk involved in anti-leadership operations is the enormous frustration that is generated if the hopes of achieving the total defeat of insurgents through an action of this kind are not met. In fact, even when an operation to smash the leadership of an insurgent operation is a tactical success, it does not necessarily follow that such an operation will bring a strategic victory over the terrorists of the kind desired by both governments and people. To put it another way, by capturing or eliminating some of the armed group’s leaders, an end to violence is not necessarily guaranteed. The fight against the Chechen nationalist guerrillas is a case in point. Their leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was killed by Russian armed forces in 1995. This blow did not, however, prevent the separatist movement from fighting on and carrying out spectacular actions both within the Caucasian republic and elsewhere on Russian territory.

All this does not mean that anti-leadership operations are always doomed to failure. The question to be determined is under what conditions they are realistic strategies and when they are unrealisable or simply irrelevant. In this respect, the experience of history would seem to underline the importance of a minimum of three conditions which must be met to best determine the strategic value of actions of this type. To start with, the chances of an anti-leadership operation being successful depend on how an action of such a nature is calculated to affect the political-military behaviour of the armed group in question. Neutralizing the leadership of a terrorist movement may well, in effect, encourage the group to disarm and give up the struggle, but it could equally well set off a process of radicalisation that would make the organisation even more violent and unpredictable. In this respect, the history of the German Red Army Fraction (RAF) provides a telling example. At the beginning of the 1970s, the arrests of the organisation’s founding leaders brought about the emergence of a new leadership that would later carry out the most spectacular actions attributed to this group. The kidnap and murder of Hans-Martin Schleyer, the chief of the German Employers’ Union and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane that was ordered to fly to Mogadishu are two examples. Consequently, the chances of success of an anti-leadership operation must be carefully weighed, taking into account whether the action would lead to a reduction in the terrorists’ long-term operative capacity, or whether it might bring about an irreversible radicalisation.

Furthermore, the viability of an action against the leadership of a terrorist group is closely related to how strong the armed movement is as a whole. In point of fact, the operational security of the leaders of a clandestine movement depends on the networks of the middle cadres that transmit the orders from above to the rank-and-file militants and direct operations on the ground. It is these subordinate leaders who control the day-to-day operational matters of a terrorist campaign, while the top leaders remain in secure places. The leadership of an insurgent movement, therefore, will become vulnerable only in as far as the middle cadres of the armed group are weakened by the pressure put upon them by the security forces. Furthermore, it is from these subordinate ranks that the group’s new leaders will be found to replace those who fall in armed combat. Therefore, the weaker the middle cadres of the organisation, the greater is the difficulty to find replacements for the group’s top leaders and the more devastating are the effects of a successful anti-leadership operation upon the armed movement in general. A very significant example of how the weakening of an organisation’s middle cadres leads to the fall of its top leaders is the operation which led to the death of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drugs trafficker, who was at the same time head of the Medellín Cartel and top leader of the terrorist group, Los Extraditables. Bogotá’s security forces, in fact, only found Escobar after a long campaign aimed at dismantling the middle-ranking networks of the criminal conglomerate he headed.

Finally, the results of a blow against the leadership of a terrorist group are closely related to the nature of the organisation confronted. Insurgent groups with highly centralised leaderships and a strictly hierarchical structure thus seem to be more vulnerable to actions against its leadership than those armed organisations that are less strictly disciplined and based on looser networks. Two of the most successful anti-leadership operations in the history of the fight against terrorism –the above mentioned arrests of Öcalam, the leader of the Turkish PKK, and of Guzmán, the leader of Sendero Luminoso– were in fact carried out against groups whose leaders enjoyed a marked personality cult and whose Maoist ideology was indicative of a very centralised organisation. When the leadership of a terrorist group is shared and the personal sway of individual leaders is less relevant, it is unlikely that the capture of a few people at the top will lead to the break up of the organisation. The action of the Spanish and French security forces against Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Bidart (France) in 1992, which resulted in the arrest of the entire leadership of the Basque independence group, is a good example of this. The blow served to curb ETA’s terrorist campaign only temporarily. Subsequently, the group managed to reorganise with a new leadership in place and resumed its violence.


Having said all this, it cannot now be overlooked that the uncertainties surrounding anti-leadership operations make them far too risky an option on which to pin an anti-terrorist strategy exclusively. In a way, what can be said to lie behind the emphasis now being placed on the pursuit of “arch-terrorists”, such as Osama Bin Laden, is a re-run of the “Tsushima complex”, which defined the strategy of the Japanese Empire during the Second World War. In this conflict, Japanese strategists sought total victory by means of a single battle against the US Navy, similar to the defeat they inflicted on the Russian Empire at the battle of Tsushima in 1905. Tokyo obviously failed because the global nature of the conflict made it impossible to resolve in a single decisive battle. In the same way, the Bush administration and other western governments faced by serious terrorist threats seem to look on these anti-leadership operations as magic formulae to put an end to a form of violence that is ever increasing in scope. The trouble is that the strategic logic of terrorism is closer to the slow, imperceptible wearing down tactics than it is to the spectacular and decisive clash. The promise of definitive victories over a political violence that is on the increase can only lead overwhelming frustration.

Román D. Ortiz is professor and researcher at the CEDE, Faculty of Economics at the Universidad de Los Andes (Bogotá)