The Pointlessness Of Terrorist Assassinations

On 6 February 2020, the White House confirmed the death of Qassim al-Rimi, one of the earliest founders of al-Qaeda and leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen. It was no surprise that the Trump administration ordered the airstrike. The was simply the next assassination in a line of Middle Eastern leaders whose deaths have been ordered at President Trump’s behest. He defended these actions by stating that they “bring us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security.” Whether or not this is true is highly debatable.

Jennifer Cafarella, a research director for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington states that, “Unfortunately, killing leaders does not defeat terrorist organisation.” She goes on to cite al-Qaeda as an example, saying that “we should have learned that lesson after killing Osama Bin Laden, after which Al-Qaeda continued to expand globally.” The killing of terrorist leaders is generally only a symbolic victory. By the time U.S. forces discover their locations, many of them have already been in hiding for months, if not years. They are often aware of their imminent demise and have redistributed their power to those next in line. Thus, they often hold little to no power in the terrorist organisations when they are killed – their deaths serve only as one-off victories that U.S. politicians then use to boost their own election prospects.

We can see this in the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ex-leader of ISIS. He was killed on 6 October 2020, after the Trump administration ordered a raid on his compound in Syria. Following his death, Trump made a 40 minute long announcement touting this assassination as a huge success that “brought the world’s no.1 terrorist leader to justice.” However, a report made by the Pentagon found that “following the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s capabilities in Syria remained the same… ISIS remained cohesive, with intact command and control structure.” This is because Al-Baghdadi held very little power over ISIS in the last few months of his life. Instead, most of his energy was spent hiding from US forces and redistributing his power amongst regional, and functional lieutenants. In doing so, he was able to ensure that IS operations could continue after his death.

On top of this, assassinations of big name leaders allow their followers to unite under their perceived martyrdom. For example, they can be used to inspire ISIS soldiers by framing the narrative as another “U.S. attack on foreign soil” or another unwanted U.S. intervention. It can inspire civilians into joining ISIS and to commit depraved acts, such as drowning ‘dissenters’ in cages, crushing them with tanks, and beheading journalists. At the same time, announcing the death of leaders in the way Trump has done provides a false sense of security. It allows the U.S. to shift focus by giving the impression that these groups are already defeated. As such, US forces tend to pull out of these regions, resulting in the re-establishment of terrorist groups, as was the case with Al-Qaeda.

For now, it is too early to tell whether Qassim al-Rimi’s death will have lasting positive consequences in Yemen. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that violence means fuel violent ends.