On May 16th, US Special Forces successfully conducted a raid into Syria and killed a leading member of ISIS – Abu Sayyaf, described as the emir of oil and gas for the terrorist group. Reminiscent of a similar raid in Abbotabad, Pakistan four years earlier in which Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden died, this operation was one of few incursions into Syria: most US military assaults in the region take place in Iraq.
The death of Abu Sayyaf should be seen from two very different perspectives. From one standpoint, special forces ops target specific individuals of importance and, if successful, rarely result in “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian casualties). Few outside the terrorist group mourn the death and communities do not rail and rave against the anonymous “death from above” so prevalent with drone strikes. Furthermore, soldiers in these units put themselves at real risk of injury or death: the same cannot be said for a drone operator in Nevada.
And yet deaths like these are often cited as important victories in the “war on terror”. This belief stems from the theory that “decapitation” (i.e. taking out the leadership of a terrorist or militant group) is a key strategy contributing to the group’s weakness or eventual demise.
This view, in my opinion, is far too optimistic. Yes, the death of a charismatic leader or skilled operative (a bomb maker say) cannot but have a negative effect on a terrorist organization. And yet when we look at Al Qaeda or its affiliates or those inspired by it or groups whose ideology is similar, we have yet to see this strategy lead to the disappearance of one of these groups. This is for two reasons:
a) there always seem to be individuals waiting in the wings to fill sudden vacancies, and
b) many of these groups or small cells of individuals are heavily decentralized and thus not subject to the disastrous effects of losing a leader.
This second point is particularly true when it comes to the small self-organized but inspired groups and individuals who have carried out attacks in the West recently (e.g. Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, Copenhagen and Texas). These people have no need for outside leadership and are not affected by the deaths of senior cadre abroad.
The lesson to be drawn here is that killing terrorists but not undermining and destroying the underlying ideology will not lead to victory. Deaths merely provide opportunities for others to demonstrate their commitment and skillsets. Unchallenged ideology will inspire others to act.
So by all means, let’s see more specialized attacks, but let’s not over exaggerate their importance.