International Security

What Happens When Terrorist Leaders Are Killed?

May 3 '11

bq. The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism lists leadership targeting as the first of four priorities of action. Although leadership removal has been a common strategy for many governments dealing with terrorism, there has been almost no empirical research on the success of these programs. What is the effect on a terrorist group when its leader is removed? Does the group become more violent, out of a desire for vengeance, or does it commit fewer atrocities? This study looks at eight well-known terrorist groups that have survived multiple leadership transitions. The groups selected (Basque Homeland and Freedom, Hamas, Hezbollah, Irish Republican Army, Palestine Liberation Organization, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Red Brigades, Sendero Luminoso) represent a broad geographic area, a wide spectrum of ideologies, and a diverse array of organizational structures. Leadership data were compiled from open-source records by the author, and the Global Terrorism Database was used for attack information. The resulting cross-sectional time series dataset consists of over 2,800 group-months from 1970 to 2008. The dataset was analyzed using linear regression on logged dependent variables: the number of attacks, victims, and casualties-per-attack in the months following a leadership turnover. This study finds that leadership transition generally causes a noticeable and statistically significant increase in attacks and casualties for the months immediately afterward.

The paper, by Matthew Dickenson, is here.  He is an undergraduate recently graduated from the University of Houston (update: and will be a graduate student in political science at Duke in the fall). “Here”:http://tmc.local/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Dickenson20111.pdf is a poster (pdf) about this research.  “Here”:http://yspr.wordpress.com/ is his blog (see especially “this post”:http://yspr.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/effects-of-killing-bin-laden-pt-1/).