International Security coverLeadership targeting has become the cornerstone of American counterterrorism policy. Since 2004, the number of strikes carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles has increased dramatically. In 2010 alone the United States carried out 118 drones strikes, 70 in 2011, and 24 in the first six months of 2012.[1] In the past two months, the U.S. has intensified its use of drone strikes against militant targets in both Yemen and Pakistan. In May of this year, drones strikes killed 11 suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen. Over the course of three days in June, 27 suspected militants were killed in drone strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s deputy leader Abu Yahya al-Libi, reportedly was killed in one of those attacks.[2] I mention these examples to highlight the continued relevance of the debate over the effectiveness of targeting terrorist leaders. Patrick Johnston and Bryan Price have contributed to the debate through two rigorous and insightful pieces on the effectiveness of killing and capturing terrorist and insurgent leaders. These two pieces examine, in different ways, the effectiveness of leadership decapitation on the lifespan and organizational activity of terrorist groups and insurgent organizations. Price looks at whether decapitation affects terrorist groups’ duration. He finds that decapitation increases the mortality rate of terrorist organizations. Johnston focuses on the outcomes and dynamics of counterinsurgency campaigns and shows that decapitating insurgent organizations increases the chance of war termination and government victory and lessens the intensity and frequency of insurgent violence. There are significant differences between the two studies in terms of data, analysis, and theory, yet both authors conclude that decapitation can be an effective tool in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies. In the remainder of this review, I will summarize their respective arguments and then discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of each article.




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