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CIAO Focus, July 2012: U.S. Drone Strikes in the War on Terror

Targeting militant leaders is central to many states' national security strategies, but does it work? What should policymakers expect when government armed forces kill or capture militant leaders? Is leadership decapitation more likely to succeed or fail under certain conditions? These questions have never been more pressing than since the May 2011 killing of al- Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

In recent years, a scholarly consensus has emerged that leadership decapitation rarely helps states to achieve their goals. This conventional wisdom, however, is largely anecdotal; beyond a few well-known cases—in
particular, the Israeli experience—there has been little systematic study about whether removing militant leaders helps or hinders efforts to degrade and defeat militant organizations.

An analysis of leadership targeting in ninety counterinsurgencies since the 1970s suggests that removing militant leaders is neither ineffective nor counterproductive. Quite the opposite: on average, leadership decapitation (1) increases the chances of a rapid end to insurgencies; (2) enhances the probability of a government victory; (3) reduces the intensity of violent conflict; and (4) decreases the number of insurgent attacks. Killing or capturing high-value targets is far from a magic bullet, but states do it because it weakens insurgencies—in short, because it works.

--Patrick B. Johnston
  Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

From the CIAO Database:

Leadership Decapitation and the End of Terrorist Groups

The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation in Combating Insurgencies

Washington's Phantom War: The Effects of the U.S. Drone Program in Pakistan

The Use of Combat Drones in Current Conflict: A Legal Issue or a Political Problem?

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula through the Framework of
International Humanitarian Law

Accuracy of the U.S. Drone Campaign:
The Views of a Pakistani General


Outside Sources: *

Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.  (Pew Research Center)

The Year of the Drone (New America Foundation)

How effective are US drone strikes? (Al Jazeera Video)

The Secret War (PBS Frontline Video)

Inside America's Drone HQ (BBC News)

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.