As Obama’s presidency has come to an end, commentators have reflected extensively upon his legacy. An often cited moment of Obama’s legacy is the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011. At the time, US approval ratings for Obama’s ability to stem terrorism rose to 69%, before sharply dropping to 42% with the rise of ISIS terror attacks in 2014. Similarly, during her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton repeatedly cited her involvement in the operation as evidence of her solid record on securing America.
The decapitation of terrorist leaders has a long history. Historical examples include the entire first wave of leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany in 1972 and Abimael Guzmán, the leader of Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso)—a left-wing terrorist organisation in Peru in 1992. Yet, the very notion that decapitation of terrorist groups is a generally effective method for improving security remains contested.
A 2009 study of 300 cases of terrorist decapitations concluded that ‘Decapitation is not an effective counterterrorism strategy. Decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond to a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time’. This study also found that smaller and younger groups are more easily destabilised, but religiously inspired terrorist organisations are largely resilient to decapitation given the ideology’s endurance. This, then, would seem to indicate that religious groups such as al-Qaeda would remain resilient to decapitation.
However, a more recent study by Bryan Pryce from 2012 found that although only ‘30% of decapitated groups (40 of 131) ended within two years of losing their leader’, over a longer period of time, ‘Decapitated terrorist groups have a signicantly higher mortality rate than nondecapitated groups’. One such example is the far-left Colombian group FARC, whose leader Alfonso Cano was killed in a 2011 Colombian military operation. FARC now appears to have signed a historic peace agreement with Colombian authorities. Interestingly, this study also found that religious terrorist groups are easier to destroy because of the crucial role played by charismatic religious leaders in promoting the particular religious ideology.
The combined implication from these studies is that the success of decapitation is ultimately dependent upon the particular case. As Pryce argues, this includes the size, ideology, and form of leadership turnover within a particular group, as well as the method of decapitation used. Additionally, ‘the earlier leadership decapitation occurs in a terrorist group’s life cycle, the greater the effect it will have on the group’s mortality rate’.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 54% of Americans believed that it would make the US safer from terrorism, while only 28% feared that it would make the US less safe. In support of this, it has been argued that although revenge for bin Laden’s death was vowed at the time, there have been ‘no centrally directed attacks in the United States since 2011’. Of course, this would exclude lone-wolf attacks inspired by al-Qaeda, such as the Boston marathon bombings.
Yet, others have argued that the killings of bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders have had little effect on reducing the spread of terrorism globally. While the full details of drone strikes are likely to remain classified, a report from Stanford and NYU Law schools concluded that ‘publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best’.
Here, there are two points to consider. First, a proper analysis of Obama’s policies would need to account for any short and long-term ‘side-effects’. For example, some have argued that the ‘Obama administration’s redefinition of “militants” to include any male of military age within the blast area has more likely radicalised a new generation’. Second, a full analysis would also need to weigh up the human rights impacts of drone strikes in and of themselves, much of which remains classified. However, it should be noted here that Osama bin-Laden was not killed by a drone, but by US Special Forces.
Some have also argued that al-Qaeda now appears to be a diminishing threat vis-à-vis ISIS. Yet, not only is this notion itself contested, but it also appears of little comfort given that the former ISIS leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged allegiance to Osama bin-laden. In other words, ISIS is effectively only a further evolution of bin-Laden’s legacy.
At the time of the killing, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated that Osama bin-Laden ‘was a symbol more than anything else right now but... symbols are really important’. Today, it still remains unclear whether the killing did in fact serve more than a symbolic purpose and ultimately, only time will tell whether Obama’s legacy has indeed made the world a safer place. But for now, President-elect Trump has stated that he will continue to use drones ‘to take out terrorists’, as he inherits a drone assassination program with no effective rules.
Shmuel Levin is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.