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US must kill and capture terrorist leaders as soon as possible. It works.

Killing or capturing leaders of terrorist groups increases the chances these groups will collapse. In spite of what some politicians see as short-term political and diplomatic costs, my findings suggest targeted killings are an effective counterterrorism strategy in the long run.

By Bryan C. Price / July 18, 2012

US-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical Islamist websites. Mr. al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen as part of a targeted US drone strike. Op-ed contributor Bryan Price says: 'It has been said that terrorism will never end, but that terrorists groups do. Getting rid of their leadership makes them end sooner...'

SITE Intelligence Group/AP/File


Cambridge, Mass.

The United States made killing and capturing terrorist leaders a key focus of its counterterrorism strategy following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In addition to getting Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s number one counterterrorism priority upon taking office, his administration has netted scores of other high-profile leaders, including Al Qaeda leaders Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan.

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The latter successes are direct results of a greatly expanded drone program. According to the New America Foundation, Mr. Obama has launched more than six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan than his predecessor.

But does this “leadership decapitation” work? Does it enhance the security of the states that use it?

Debate over this controversial tactic is growing and currently playing out on the national stage, with critics of these targeted killings just as vocal as supporters.

Critics argue that targeted killings do little to prevent future attacks. Some claim that they may increase recruitment, harden terrorists’ resolve, and trigger retaliatory attacks. Still others highlight the moral and ethical concerns of collateral damage and killing terrorist leaders without due process, especially American citizens such as al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has also recently come under fire after details of its approval process for drone strikes leaked to the press. Some have argued the process is too informal and lacking in oversight.

Conversely, supporters claim that targeting killings reduce the terrorist group’s operational capability by eliminating its most highly skilled members and forcing the group to divert time and resources to protect its leaders. They allege removing leadership causes intra-organizational turmoil and deters others from assuming power. While there are no silver bullets in counterterrorism tactics, killing or capturing leaders can, in some cases, even trigger organizational collapse.

New evidence suggests that killing or capturing terrorist leaders significantly increases terrorist-group mortality rates. In other words, groups stripped of a leader end much faster than those groups whose leaders remain alive and in place.

The evidence is based on research from my dissertation at Stanford University, which is described in detail in an article in the Spring 2012 issue of International Security. To test the effectiveness of targeted killing and capture of terrorist leaders over long periods, I used survival analysis. This is a technique that doctors commonly use to evaluate the efficacy of medical treatments by comparing the survival rates of patients who receive different treatments for the same disease.


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