How long will Al Qaeda live beyond bin Laden? Lessons from Latin America.

A real-world example of why Al Qaeda could live well beyond Osama bin Laden, Latin America has found limited results from taking out leaders of deadly ideological insurgencies.

Latin America has generally heralded the death of Osama bin Laden, with presidents from Mexico to Peru issuing statements congratulating the US on the operation that brought down the world’s most wanted terrorist.

But if this region's own history with deadly ideological insurgencies and organized crime is any example, Mr. bin Laden’s death won't alone spell the end of Al Qaeda, as the task of taking down such a group often requires targeting the many mid- and high-level commanders who control ground operations.

While governments tend to hail top take downs such as bin Laden and hold them up as proof of success, targeting a group's leadership has proven a mixed bag throughout Latin America.

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“The neutralization of the leader of a criminal organization has never brought – as an immediate consequence – the end of the threat that it poses,” says Bogotá-based security analyst Alfredo Rangel, who has watched drug trafficking and rebel organizations in Colombia survive through the demise of numerous top chiefs.

The US has voiced optimism that bin Laden's death is a game changer.

“We’re going to try to take advantage of this opportunity we have now with the death of Al Qaeda's leader, bin Laden, to ensure that we’re able to destroy that organization,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said on NBC's Today show. “We’re determined to do so and we believe we can.”

In Colombia, which has been fighting a leftist guerrilla insurgency since the 1960s, President Juan Manuel Santos shared the view. “This is an important and convincing strike at global terrorism,” he said in a statement. It “demonstrates yet again that terrorists, sooner or later, always fall. In the fight against global terrorism there’s only one path to take: persevere, persevere, persevere."

But President Santos's remarks overlook his nation's limited success against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by targeting its leadership. “The FARC have a capacity to persist even after the death of their leaders,” says Mr. Rangel.

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The FARC, which like Al Qaeda is on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations, has been weakened by a sustained military and intelligence campaign that whittled the number of fighters from an estimated 18,000-20,000 in 2002 to about 9,000 today. That success has little to do with hitting top leaders (a strategy known as "decapitation"), says Rangel.

The FARC’s capacity for survival was clear in 2008, when in a single month the group lost three people from its seven-member ruling secretariat. Legendary FARC leader Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack at 77, Raul Reyes was killed in a bombing raid on his camp in Ecuador, and Ivan Rios was killed by a member of his own security detail. They were quickly replaced.

In 2010, the FARC’s top military strategist known as Mono Jojoy was killed in a bomb raid on his camp, and while his military division, the Eastern Bloc, was reportedly thrown into some disarray after that, its operational capacity today appears to be stable, according to intelligence officials.

One peasant who has lived in an area long under FARC control, and who lost a leg after stepping on a rebel-laid landmine, says the guerrilla group is like a family. “The father dies, so the mother takes over leading the family. Then the mother dies and the eldest son is in charge, then he dies and the next one takes charge,” says the young man, visiting Bogotá this week, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons.

“Taking down one or two top leaders doesn’t do much but when there is a systematic and massive loss of middle and high-level leaders, that’s when things start turning around,” Rangel says.

A look at 300 cases worldwide

The fight against the politically inspired insurgencies that have today morphed into extralegal drug trafficking organizations in Latin America is, of course, far different than the fight against international terrorism.

Jenna Jordan, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, studied nearly 300 "decapitation" cases and found it is least effective when groups are well-established, religious, or relatively large – like Al Qaeda. Those characteristics lead to easier succession when leaders are taken down. Larger and older groups also tend to continue enjoying local support, critical to their operations.

“Groups that have been around for so long tend to have a lot of support from their communities, whether through coercion or not,” she says.

In Mexico, the government of President Felipe Calderón, in its effort to destroy drug trafficking networks that have cost more than 36,000 lives since 2006, has hailed the arrests or deaths of top leaders of various criminal organizations – 20 in all since March 2009, according to national security spokesman Alejandro Poire.

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But the results of “decapitation” in Mexico have been harder to assess, as groups, far from disappearing, have merely morphed or splintered – often provoking more violence. For example, after the takedown of drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva in 2009, violence exploded in the parts of the country once dominated by the Beltran Leyva Organization, which splintered.

Last year set a record for those arrested or killed during Mr. Calderón’s term. They include Edgar Valdez Villarreal (“La Barbie”) of the Beltran Leyva Organization and Ignacio Coronel Villarreal (“Nacho Coronel”) of the Sinaloa group. And yet, according to government figures, the 15,273 deaths in 2010 represented a 60 percent rise from the previous year.

There are myriad reasons why, but for many it shows that targeting leaders has a limited impact, even if it is symbolically important. “Groups readjust with the decapitation of their leaders, and continue disputing territories and trade,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

The same has proven true in Colombia. “Some groups, when they get hit at the top, disperse into new smaller groups with new leaders that individually present a smaller threat, but that taken together can be just as big a threat as before,” says Rangel, noting that Colombia is currently faced with the problem of a half-dozen fractured, unorganized drug trafficking groups with significant military capabilities that replaced now-demobilized rightwing paramilitary militias. “These new groups are harder to fight.”

Mexico defends strategy

Facing increasing criticism over its strategy, the Mexican government has gone on the defensive. Yesterday, Mexico's security spokesman held a press conference with journalists, which he commenced by stating: “It is not true that the capture or death of criminal leaders has been behind the increase in violence in certain regions of the country.” Highlighting the death of Mr. Coronel in Jalisco state, Mr. Poire said homicides there have gone down, not up.

Aside from that, taking out a top leader can play a critical role in morale – serving a sense of justice, like in the case of bin Laden, for those affected by acts of atrocity.

There are also cases in which decapitation has proved the last straw for organizational integrity, particularly when the charisma of a leader gels a group together. Ms. Jordan says that small, Marxist groups in Latin America and Europe in the 70s and 80s, for example, were crippled when their leaders were taken out.

And in Peru, where President Alan García congratulated US leaders and said the death of bin Laden may have been a miracle by beatified Pope John Paul II, the arrest of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman in 1992 is generally viewed as the beginning of the rebel group’s demise.

Still, Jordan says that it wasn’t until the end of the decade, with the arrest of Oscar Ramirez Durand, who led a resurgence of the group, that the Shining Path really fell apart. She says that a loss of membership and weakening of the bureaucracy were the last straws in that case.

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