The tactic of leadership decapitation, using military action to capture or kill terrorist leadership, is a key component ofUnited States counterterrorism strategy. Policymakers argue that eliminating terrorist leadership is an effective way to disrupt, and, ultimately, destroy terrorist organizations. Since 2001, hundreds of terrorist leaders have been captured or killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations. In spite of this, the spread of violent, radical jihadist groups like Al-Shabaab has expanded and grown in strength. This thesis analyzes the United States’ approach of leadership targeting toward Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and asks the research question: Under what conditions are leadership decapitation effective in degrading the terrorist group Al-Shabaab? This thesis finds that leadership decapitation operations have a limited effect in disrupting and preventing future acts of terrorism. It argues for a more analytical approach to leadership decapitation in order to improve its effectiveness. This thesis argues for leadership targeting principles that are likely to be effective counterterrorism strategies and lead to the long-term decline of the group, including basing targeting decisions on understanding the group’s internal dynamics, integrating decapitation operations into comprehensive counterterrorism strategies, and capitalizing on existing leadership divisions, which can be as effective as lethal military action.
Strawser, Bradley Jay
Information Strategy and Political Warfare
Naval Postgraduate School
Master of Science in Information Strategy and Political Warfare
Defense Analysis (DA)
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.