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Experts Doubt Obama’s Strategy Of Killing ISIS Leaders Even Works

(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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A U.S. airstrike Tuesday likely killed ISIS’s top voice, Abu Abu Muhammed al-Adnani in Syria, sparking a debate whether killing senior terrorist leaders is an effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Targeted killing of senior terrorist leaders is a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy. Under Obama’s presidency, the U.S. dramatically increased the use of unmanned drones to target terrorist leaders across the globe.

Examples include the targeted killing of al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Alwaki in 2011, and the 2016 strike on Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The Obama administration carried out less high profile drone strikes for years. Obama even boastfully declared in September 2012 that his counter-terrorism strategy had “decimated al Qaeda.”

Adnani’s death is certainly a significant blow to ISIS, lone wolf terrorists most cited his messages inciting violence against non-believers. Adnani headed an elite special operations branch within ISIS that is creating a network of hundreds of foreign fighters who are actively planning multiple coordinated attacks across Europe.

Rukmini Callimachi, lead ISIS correspondent for The New York Times, however took to twitter after Adnani’s death to caution followers “not to see this as a blow ISIS can’t recover from. Organization is built to survive deaths.”

Hassan Hassan, author of a book on ISIS, also cautioned those celebrating  to The New Yorker saying “Those leaders who grew up within this organization are more attuned to the local dynamics, so the decapitation of such leaders could, in fact, inject a new life into the group.”

Alwaki’s death was similarly celebrated by U.S officials, who portrayed it as a significant blow to al-Qaida. Alwaki’s internet archive of videos calling for jihad outlive him, and remain one of the main drivers of radicalization among western muslims. Scott Shane, renowned national security correspondent for The New York Times, noted in a book on drone warfare that dozens of western terrorists “considered Awlaki their posthumous mentor.”

Shane continues, “In fact, Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.”

Obama and other national security officials hailed the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016. U.S. officials sought to portray his death as a major blow to the Taliban, and described how it would impede their ability to function. The Institute for the Study of War however noted in its recent Afghanistan battlefield assessment that the “Taliban’s campaign gained momentum on several fronts in August after a lull coinciding with multiple leadership transitions.”

“If Afghanistan remains on this course, global extremist organizations will reconstitute their sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces and pose enduring threats to U.S. national security,” the assessment continues.

Jenna Jordon, a professor at Georgia Tech University, wrote in 2015 that “there is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational collapse.” Patrick Johnson, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, noted in 2012 that targeted killing of senior terrorist leaders is “not a silver bullet.”

Both academic studies suggest targeted killings of senior terrorist leaders can play some role, but ultimately a broader strategy must be in place to deal with the group’s ability operate.

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