Drone Strikes Targeting Terrorist Leaders Could Increase Terrorism

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Lizzie Martin, covers the new article by Anouk S. Rigterink, Durham University, “The Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control within Terrorist Organizations

In 2018, the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism named “targeting key terrorists” as one of its top priorities. Terrorist leaders are primarily targeted using armed drones. As of January 2020, the U.S. had executed more than 6,700 U.S. drone strikes. In “The Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control within Terrorist Organizations,” Anouk S. Rigterink evaluates the effects of this strategy on terrorist violence. Does it prevent terrorist attacks, or increase them?

It is not clear what we should expect. On one hand, if we think of terrorist groups as cohesive organizations, then killing a leader should reduce future attacks, like cutting off the head of a snake. However, if we think of terrorist groups as less unified, then the effects of a leader’s death could be more complicated. Perhaps killing a leader undermines the control of a group’s leadership overall. If so, and if the organization’s operatives are more prone to violence than its leadership, attacks could increase. Targeted leader killing might also increase violence if groups respond to losing a leader by committing more or larger attacks to signal strength. Additionally, drone strikes with civilian casualties can create backlash and prompt terrorist recruitment.

“Terrorist attacks that follow an attack of a leader are often aimed at civilian and private targets, which researchers generally agree are not typical of terrorist leaders.”

To parse these possibilities, Rigterink analyzes the effects of drone strikes “hitting” or “missing” terrorist leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Until September 2015, when the Pakistani government acquired armed drones, the United States was the only actor conducting strikes in Pakistan. In this paper, Rigterink sets aside the question of civilian casualties both as an outcome of drone strikes and a cause of further violence in order to focus specifically on the effects of attacks on terrorist leaders.

For this purpose, Rigterink constructs a dataset of drone strikes targeting terrorist leaders from narratives of about 379 drone strikes on identifiable terrorist groups from 2004 to 2015. 137 of these strikes targeted an individual leader. The narratives that Rigterink studies indicate that whether drone strikes hit or miss their targets is essentially random. This allows for a comparison of how terrorist organizations change their attack strategies before and after a drone hit or a drone miss.

Rigterink finds that drone hits are associated with an increase in the number of attacks the organization carries out for 3 months after a hit, with the increase ranging from about 50% to 70%.

There are a few reasons to believe that this is because an attack on a leader undermines control in an organization. First, terrorist attacks that follow an attack of a leader are often aimed at civilian and private targets, which researchers generally agree are not typical of terrorist leaders. This indicates that groups may be deferring to the preferences of lower-tier members. Second, terrorist attacks after drone strikes increase more dramatically in organizations with more centralized control. Finally, attacks killing terrorist leaders are associated with infighting and splintering within the group. Rigterink also finds some evidence that, in addition to responding to control issues, terrorist groups may choose to perpetrate attacks that signal strength and resolve after a leader is killed, such as by attacking military targets or taking credit for attacks.

Because this study is focused specifically on outcomes within roughly a year of a drone strike, as well as on the effect of drone hits relative to misses, additional research on longer term outcomes and on the effect of the overall threat of drone strikes on terrorist attacks or recruitment would contribute to an fuller picture of the outcomes of these counterterrorism measures. However, that a “successful” drone strike targeting a leader may be likely to increase terrorist attacks in the months that follow gives us reason to question the effectiveness of this strategy.