Many resources are devoted to finding out why terror groups spring up, how they gain adherents, and how to prevent radicalization in the future. But since so many groups already exist, some researchers are looking at why terror groups die off and which government actions have hastened their demise. The findings may be helpful in formulating effective counterterrorism approaches.
Army Major Bryan Price, who is director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, looks at the effectiveness of getting rid of a group’s key leadership in his report Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism. It doesn’t mean the leader must be killed, but he or she must be removed from the influence of the rest of the group, he notes. Price even found that when the leader changes due to natural causes, it can cause the group to go out of existence or to cease to be a meaningful terrorist threat.“
Leadership succession is difficult for many organizations, but I found it to be especially difficult for terrorist groups,” Price says, because “terrorist groups are violent, clandestine, and values-based organizations that attract and require leaders that have a unique set of leadership characteristics.”
However, as with most situations in life, timing is everything. Price has found that the earlier in a group’s existence that the decapitation occurs, the more likely it is to influence the group’s ending. Says Price: “The longer it takes the state to kill or capture the group’s leader, the more resilient the group actually becomes,” he notes. “So, a group that loses its leader in the first year of its existence, I found to be more than eight times as likely to end than a group that doesn’t lose its leader.”
But the effect of removing a leader diminishes dramatically over time. “Say, after 10 years, this effect is reduced by half. And after 20 years, it’s possible that the loss of the leader may have no effect on the group’s mortality rate or its duration,” explains Price. And even earlier in its existence, he adds that the terror group does not tend to catastrophically collapse; the process could take years.