Does Decapitating Terrorist Leaderships Work?

In the last two-years, international counter-terrorism strategies have focused on decapitating terrorist leaderships. But the threat and the ideology remains. In the coming year it is important to address the psychological motivations for conducting terrorist acts. 

By Dr Anne Speckhard

According to many, the militant jihadi (or Al-Qa'ida-inspired) terrorist threat has been severely degraded - this due to over a thousand declared and covert US drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan over the past five years decapitating the operational and ideological leadership of Al-Qa'ida and affiliated groups.[1]  With leaders from Bin Laden downwards killed or arrested, one might ask what might motivate today's militant jihadi terrorist?  And will decapitating the leadership work in the long-term?

To answer that questions one must look at the 'lethal cocktail' of terrorism that relies on the complex interaction of: 1) a group that is, by definition dedicated to attacking civilians on behalf of advancing its political cause; 2) the ideology the group uses to justify attacking civilians; 3) the social support that exists for the group and its ideology; and 4) the individual vulnerabilities of those who are exposed to these three.  In the case of Al-Qa'ida inspired ideology-it has already found a firm foothold in the hearts and minds of many.  Thus the ideology of Al-Qa'ida inspired terrorism might suffer little from decapitating the ideologues/instigators.  Their words and teachings live on and continue to inspire, indoctrinate and teach their ideas and methods in the 'virtual university of jihad' existing on the Internet, (as Reuven Paz so aptly names it).[2] 

Likewise for each leader that is killed by a drone strike, a 'martyr' lives on in the minds of his followers and many more may join the movement when angered by the so called 'collateral damage' occurring in the loss of civilian life - particularly when it's women or children that are killed.  Thus it is not so clear-cut what the long-term gains will be. 

The Psychological Back-Drop for Would-Be Terrorists

In a recent study, I explored these issues from a psychological standpoint and examined how individuals fall into the terrorist trajectory and what it might take to take them back off.  One of the findings is that individual motivations for engaging in terrorism are context specific and vary significantly by whether or not the individual lives inside a conflict zone.

Inside conflict zones, the motivations for engaging in terrorism are often trauma and revenge driven, along with feelings of frustrated aspirations, desire to belong, find meaning and confer a sense of adventure and heroism amidst circumstances of violent conflict. Having personally witnessed multiple episodes of extreme violence (including violent clashes, injury, torture, imprisonment and death) individuals in conflict zones who suffer from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - frequent flashbacks, nightmares, recurrent intrusive thoughts; experience painful emotional and bodily arousal; survivor guilt and feelings of a foreshortened future may actually seek out terror groups and are very vulnerable to being manipulated by them. 

While trauma survivors generally try to avoid the constant and painful bodily arousal that reminders of their traumatic experiences cause, living inside a conflict zone often precludes that possibility.  Some victims became dissociative- that is important parts of their minds no longer operate normally, such as their emotions, memory or sense of attachment to those around them-some described themselves to me as 'already dead'.  In this state of mind some turn to fanatic forms of religion and terrorist groups in attempts to find a sense of security and deal with threat to life and traumatic bereavement.

Terrorist leaders are adept at cynically manipulating vulnerable individuals into believing that the struggle they are in is a cosmic one, that excessive means are called for and that giving one's life is a rational choice to make in behalf of the cause. Terrorist instigators direct the traumatically bereaved and those who are suffering from overwhelming 'psychache' (which is also a predictor of normal suicide) into sacrificing their lives -and killing others while doing so- by peddling them the martyrdom ideology as a type of 'short-term psychological first aid'.  

For those who suffer from survivor guilt, a sense of a foreshortened future and who ache to reunite with those who have died before them, and who may also wish to revenge at any cost - this type of psychological fix can be quite powerful.  It opens up a pathway to exit life honourably and enter immediately into Paradise, to reunite there with loved ones and to provide for those left behind with the promise that seventy relatives can be chosen to also immediately enter Paradise (as well as any financial rewards the group may also offer to the survivors). While this type of psychological first aid is short-lived as it ends in taking their own lives - and the lives of others - in the short-term it offers an intoxicating sense of meaning, empowerment and heroism and in some cases even a dissociative euphoria. As with normal suicides there is often a contagion effect following a suicide operation -whole teams of young soccer players, friends or relatives respond to the call to 'martyrdom' following one after another.

Motivations in Non-Conflict Zones

In non-conflict zones - as I found in interviews in the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Morocco, individual vulnerabilities centre more on marginalisation, discrimination, frustrated aspirations, the desire to belong and have meaning in life, adventures and believing their actions to be heroic.  In impoverished areas, such as the slums of Casa Blanca, poverty is also an important factor in that the bombers there felt little future possibility to escape their dire circumstances. 

In non-conflict zones, PTSD and traumatic bereavement may also be operational but this is far less the case, given there are not the same levels of violence.  Although one should not forget that some cities and even families harbour their own mini conflict zones. Thus, the recruiters are adept at bringing the violence from the conflict zones to their potential recruits - via the Internet and other means by showing their potential recruits pictures and graphic films of suffering there.  They are also adept at creating a sense of 'fictive kin' or identification with those in conflict zones naming them their 'Muslim brothers and sisters' and instilling a sense of duty to participate in militant jihad by telling them that their involvement in terrorism can make a difference to addressing the suffering of those they have become identified with.  Diaspora populations, first and second-generation immigrants of Muslim descent, may be susceptible to such calls especially when they are directed back to circumstances in their 'home' countries.  And as noted by other researchers the 'band of guys' sense of belonging that Marc Sageman[3] found and the 'fictive kin' sense of relatedness noted by Scott Atran[4] can be very powerful alongside these other psycho-social variables.

Females nowadays are also inolved in many aspects of terrorism both in active roles and indoctrinating and motivating others to act.  In Europe some girls have advertised themselves for marriage for a young man planning to become a 'martyr' knowing their social status among militant jihadis will be elevated upon his sacrifice for the cause.  In conflict zones females engage in terrorism for many of the same reasons as their male counterparts although they rarely rise to leadership roles.

Social support for terrorism is also important as those thinking of engaging in terrorism often look to their reference groups and significant others to define what is acceptable. In places such as Palestine and even in some pockets of militant jihadi groups inside Europe and elsewhere; videos, poems, songs, posters etc. are made of 'martyrs' elevating them to mythic status hence creating a 'cult of martyrdom'.  And this makes it far easier for potential recruits to pass inner barriers for engaging in violence against civilians and suicide. 

Regarding homegrown terrorism, individuals rarely act alone.  There is nearly always a group equipping, guiding and leading terrorists forward and convincing them that killing innocent civilians is justified.  Even with more so called 'lone wolf' actors operating nowadays, those that follow the militant jihadi ideology have nearly always had some interaction with the ideology and often also with a group that is operating-even at a distance-goading the individual on, convincing him of the ideology and helping him to self-equip for his mission. 

Counter-Terrorism in 2013

So what can we expect in the coming year? Given that we've seen an increasing trend for Al-Qa'ida central to call for attacks on Western targets, particularly in the US by so-called homegrown terrorists, it's likely we will see more of these types of attacks - given they are low cost and rely at a minimum on vulnerable individuals interacting over the Internet.

It will be interesting to see, in the next year, if militant jihadi terrorist groups continue to focus on taking down airliners and blowing up large symbolic targets or if they will become more creative, going after equally crippling - but less dramatic targets - such as taking down electrical grids which could potentially cause the deaths of many (in hospital, on transit, etc.) as well as cause serious disruption on multiple levels.  Cyber attacks may in the end be far more devastating than attacking an airliner, but may not have the same fiery war-like action that draws many of today's terrorists, so it remains to be seen if they will engage on those levels.

The Arab Spring, while opening up democratic hopes and aspirations for a better life, have left many in the Arab world still in search of leadership that can bring increased freedoms and economic possibilities.  Where, or if, they will find this leadership still remains to be seen. Likewise, conflicts such as we face now in Yemen, Mali and Syria leave openings for Al-Qa'ida inspired groups to flourish and to continue to showcase their fights against what they claim are non-true Islamic regimes while they also potentially create havens and militant training for terrorist cadres.  Swift and strong foreign policy actions to keep societies from disintegrating in conflicted areas may help to reduce terrorist threats in the coming year, although everywhere we place troops also has the potential for radicalising effects if things do not go smoothly.

The continued use of US drone attacks to decapitate terrorist leadership in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. is doing significant damage to Al-Qa'ida central but is also likely to continue to fuel the militant jihadi practice of identifying with the secondary victims of such attacks and this will likely offset any positive boost we might have seen in countering militant jihadi propaganda from a US drawdown in Afghanistan.  Likewise as the US shifts its presence from Afghanistan more focus will likely shift back to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  And Israel already finds itself facing uncertain allegiances due to the conflicts in Syria, the potential threats from Iran, the political changes in Egypt etc.  A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in fact recently stated that he does not expect Israel to exist in the coming ten years.  Any Israeli heavy-handed response to the Palestinians or to any of its neighbours-whether justified or not-may act as a lightening rod in the region.

The EuroZone crisis is also important to watch, as it increases pressure on European Muslim immigrant communities already challenged with discrimination and marginalisation.  A growing group of well-educated Muslim second-generation immigrants potentially face long-term unemployment as their parents also face economic challenges.  This combined with the growth of far right groups upping societal tensions and a general feeling of hopelessness could create a substantial pool of disenfranchised, alienated and vulnerable individuals for terrorist recruiters. Shock austerity programs in the Euro Zone, while providing the answer for some, may increase vulnerabilities for others.

Terrorists are always morphing tactics and strategies. On the group level terrorists are always looking for the big media draw in their attacks - taking down airplanes or bombing large symbolic targets.  In expanding the opportunities for dramatic media events they are undoubtedly also considering new types of attacks-such as cyber terrorism, bringing down the electrical grids, bio or nuclear attacks that may in fact do more damage.  Branching into some of these new areas such as cyber attacks may be a draw for highly educated unemployed marginalised youth who may be encouraged to find a positive identity in outsmarting the West. 

Continued vigilance is called for and well thought out and well-informed policies that keep in mind all four levels of the terrorist cocktail - decreasing the political grievances that fuel the existence of groups as well as shutting them down, fighting the ideology of terrorism and social support for it and addressing individual vulnerabilities are going to be ever more important to keep us safe in the coming year.  Simply decapitating the leadership is not likely to be enough.

Anne Speckhard is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and can be reached at or on the web at

Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & 'Martyrs' by Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. (Advances Press, released this January, 2013)




[1] C Woods and A K Ross, 'Revealed: US and Britain launched 1,200 drone strikes in recent wars'  Bureau of Investigative Journalism, December 2012

[2] R Paz, 'Reading their Lips: The Credibility of Militant Jihadi Websites as 'Soft Power' in the War of the Minds' in A C Speckhard (Eds.), RTO Technical Report (Vol. Psychosocial, Organizational and Cultural Aspects of Terrorism), 2011.

[3] M Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, (Pennsylvannia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2004)

[4] S. Atran, 'Genesis of Suicide Terrorism' Science, (Vol. 299, No. 5612, 2003), pp. 1534 - 1539.


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