Are Manhunts Worth It?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Members of the U.S. special operations forces are reportedly receiving letters from their leadership warning them about a book that hit shelves today.

Relentless Strike, by Sean Naylor, purports to provide the history of the military’s most elite and secretive units, including Delta Force and SEAL Team 6. An excerpt of the book we ran last week traces the history of what has become one of JSOC’s core missions since September 11: manhunts, of which the bin Laden raid was the marquee success. Per Naylor:

On July 1, 2002, [Donald Rumsfeld] sent a memo to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, titled “Manhunts.” “How do we organize the Department of Defense for manhunts?” the memo asked. The memo reflected a critical moment for Rumsfeld and JSOC, according to Bob Andrews, then the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. “Once he fastened on the manhunt thing, he looked at that as the silver bullet against terrorism,” he said.

And it was Iraq that provided the laboratory, first in the hunts for Saddam Hussein and his sons, and later in the pursuit of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIS. JSOC got Zarqawi in 2006, but a new, more virulent organization evolved. “By 2015, JSOC was back in Iraq, operating from a base in Kurdistan and using signals and human intelligence to locate Islamic State leaders,” Naylor wrote. “The manhunt was on again.”

But what happens if it succeeds?

The evidence that so-called leadership decapitation “works” defeating a terrorist group is mixed—in some cases, the death of a leader can increase the violence of terrorist group as leadership battles emerge or discipline breaks down.

In some cases, it may not matter that much: Mullah Omar “led” a vigorous insurgency in Afghanistan from beyond the grave before the Taliban finally acknowledged he had actually been dead for two years. The well-being of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t clear—he could be incapacitated or even dead, and the uncertainty is itself telling. When rumors of Baghdadi’s death surfaced in May, military analyst Benjamin Runkle pondered the implications—again, mixed:

ISIL is heavily invested in the image of al-Baghdadi as its basis for claiming to be a state and caliphate. Without him, this claim may be discredited, and ISIL would face difficulties attracting the foreign fighters that have both sustained its gains on the battlefield and who pose the greatest threat to America and its allies. Yet depending on who succeeds al-Baghdadi, his death could pose new—and perhaps greater—dangers. ...

In the end, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s condition is less important than the health and vitality of the Obama administration’s broader strategy to defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups exploiting Syria and Iraq’s instability.