The U.S. spent nearly a decade hunting for the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. A U.S. Navy SEAL team killed him in the spring of 2011, and President Barack Obama declared that his death marked “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s efforts to defeat al-Qaeda.“ Even so, he said: “There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.” The experience teaches that Baghdadi’s apprehension could take a while—and that his group can survive it.
Historically, four main factors have helped determine whether and when removing a leader—referred to as “decapitation”—has worked to end a group, explains Audrey Kurth Cronin, the author of How Terrorism Ends. “They’ve been hierarchically structured. They’ve been characterized by a personality. They’ve been on average younger than other groups. And they’ve lacked a viable successor,” she told me. The approach largely worked, for example, in the cases of Peru’s Shining Path, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, and Italy’s Red Brigades. “There are lots of cases where groups did end with the decapitation of a leader, but at least in the broad historical picture, it happens more often when you’re able to capture a leader and then undermine his legitimacy—very, very difficult when it comes to Islamist groups, because the question of where exactly to put someone in prison is extremely vexed.”
Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and affiliated groups have proved more complicated.
In bin Laden’s case, “he was always on the radar, always part of the effort” against al-Qaeda, Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst involved in tracking al-Qaeda, told me. Documents recovered from his compound following his death show that, even in hiding, he continued to give direction and advice to the group. By the time he died, however, the group had evolved and spread to numerous countries, and it proved resilient after that symbolic blow.
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So resilient, in fact, that its leadership in Iraq—which had declared allegiance to bin Laden in 2004 but always charted somewhat of an independent path—laid the foundation for what would become ISIS. Al-Qaeda in Iraq survived the death of its own leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006, ultimately morphing and reconstituting itself years later as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, under Baghdadi’s leadership.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. pursued a strategy of targeting operational ranks of ISIS leadership while it pursued Baghdadi himself. In January 2018, the Iraqi counterterrorism analyst Hisham al-Hashimi told The Guardian that Baghdadi was the last of the group’s 43 main leaders still standing, and that mid-level commanders had to keep changing positions as their cohorts kept getting killed.
That effort itself has likely limited Baghdadi’s effectiveness as a leader. Staying underground, scampering between safe houses, and avoiding the use of communications equipment makes it difficult to organize and inspire. In a group notorious for its exploitation of modern communication methods, Baghdadi reportedly has had limited access to them, for fear of giving his location away, and reportedly nearly did so several times. Yet one of the Islamic State’s key attributes has been its commitment to “leaderless jihad”—in essence, the tactic of allowing loosely connected followers to wage attacks independently of one another. Adherents could, and did, wage attacks in Baghdadi’s name without ever hearing much of what he had to say.