The Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control within Terrorist Organizations

The Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control within Terrorist Organizations

By Anouk S. Rigterink, Durham University

This paper investigates how counterterrorism targeting terrorist leaders affects terrorist attacks. This effect is theoretically ambiguous and depends on whether terrorist groups are modeled as unitary actors or not. The paper exploits a natural experiment provided by strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) “hitting” and “missing” terrorist leaders in Pakistan. Results suggest that terrorist groups increase the number of attacks they commit after a drone “hit” on their leader compared with after a “miss.” This increase is statistically significant for 3 out of 6 months after a hit, when it ranges between 47.7% and 70.3%. Additional analysis of heterogenous effects across groups and leaders, and the impact of drone hits on the type of attack, terrorist group infighting, and splintering, suggest that principal-agent problems—(new) terrorist leaders struggling to control and discipline their operatives—account for these results better than alternative theoretical explanations.

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