When the Nigerian air force claimed Tuesday that it had “fatally wounded” the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, the report was met with skepticism and little fanfare.
Partly, that’s because Nigeria’s military has claimed to have killed Abubakar Shekau before – only to have the mastermind behind the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014 resurface in one of his signature videos.
But another reason is that killing the leader of a terrorist group rarely portends the group’s imminent demise, experts say.
Years of targeted strikes have shown that eliminating a leader can have an effect, creating disarray and disillusionment among the rank and file. But other counter measures – such as degrading funding sources, taking back territory, and addressing the group’s appeal to young recruits – are more effective in the long term.
“Taking out leaders is important, but it generally only gets you so far,” says Nicholas Heras, an expert in jihadist terrorist organizations at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The most effective terrorist organizations will operate as insurgencies, so they’ll have layers of leadership,” he adds. “That way, if any of the leaders are killed or captured, those subcommanders can be elevated.”
The greatest effects of such strikes are generally in the short term, he adds.
“The best evidence we have suggests that if you can kill or capture the top leadership, you’re putting more stress on the organization,” Mr. Heras says. “You’re able to slow the operational tempo.”
That means “potentially preventing operations that were already planned, disrupting their ability to organize and coordinate assets that allowed them to strike out.”
Boko Haram’s targets are strictly regional. It has wreaked havoc across northeastern Nigeria and parts of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon since 2009. The Islamist extremist group doesn’t have the means to strike the West, though it is bent on removing Western influences by targeting schools, students and teachers, and women and girls in school or working out of the home.
The United States does consider Boko Haram a threat to its national interests, in large part because of the instability it has sown across West Africa. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Nigerian capital of Abuja Tuesday – the same day the military announced its air strikes targeting Boko Haram.
Some regional experts say the timing is no coincidence.
For years, Nigeria has been wanting to buy sophisticated US arms, including light attack aircraft. The US has resisted, questioning the country’s past human rights record. But President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office last year, insists that Nigeria’s respect for human rights has improved.
How the death of Shekau, if confirmed, might affect Boko Haram is unclear. Signs of the organization’s disarray were already mounting, with hundreds of emaciated fighters surrendering to authorities in recent months and complaining of lack of food.
But the group was still able to post a video last week showing dozens of the kidnapped schoolgirls, many holding babies assumed to be the children of “marriages” with Boko Haram fighters.
Heras doesn’t dismiss the possibility that Boko Haram might be more susceptible to disruption than other terrorist organizations. The group is affiliated with the Islamic State, and those affiliates have proven to be more dependent on a charismatic leader than Al Qaeda affiliates, which are more decentralized and structured as local movements.
In one scenario, Boko Haram could become a smaller but still lethal group on the order of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjacent countries.
Heras says: “Boko Haram has invested a lot in Shekau as the face of the organization, so his definitive removal could potentially hit the group hard and disrupt its hold on people.”