Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 02/2012

How Terrorist Leaders End: Implications for the Future of the Struggle with al-Qaeda

Kacper Rękawek

September 2011

The Polish Institute of International Affairs


Following Osama bin Laden’s death, the debate between security policy practitioners and experts over the next steps in the campaign against al-Qaeda gained new momentum. The author of the paper argues that the search for the optimal strategy in this struggle ought to include a careful examination of the past evidence of the impact exerted by a change at the helm of the most prominent terrorist organisations. Out of a wide range of scenarios that resulted in such a switch with respect to U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), only a handful are likely to play out in case of al-Qeada. While arguably less spectacular than successfully hunting down of the members of al-Qaeda’s top brass, a more effective approach could consist of disrupting the suspected line of succession of the organisation. The analysis is supplemented by a detailed dataset of the known instances of a change in the leadership ranks of the FTOs.