By Ethelbert Onuoha Oney

Evaluating the advantages of killing a terrorist leader in terms of a broader counterterrorism campaign, requires critical thinking beyond targeting individual leaders, rather to look more comprehensively at how to disrupt the entire organisation at large.

It is more effective to disrupt terrorist organisations and their networks by focusing on dismantling supply lines, and logistical capabilities, and denying them the ability to enjoy external support from both state and non-state actors.

Although, it does not mean that killing high-value targets is ineffective, rather that killing should be merely one of many tactics that should be used as part of a wider strategy.

To some terrorist organisation, killing a valuable leader may be a heavy set back but to some, it may be a re-enforcement.

It all boils down to the organisational structure of the sect in question. Boko Haram has proven that they are composed of many different and independent organisations with individuals characterised by their level of autonomy and their pursuit of shared goals.

The death of Mohammed Yusuf strengthens the organisation, hence his deputy Abubakar Shekau, took over his mantle and became a force to be reckoned with from 2009-2021.

The death of Shekau in 2021 did not record any sort of setback for Boko Haram or its franchises, instead, it escalated their activities and created more factions both within Nigeria and across West African Sub-Saharan.

Currently, the killing of the Boko Haram Commander should not be celebrated in isolation because he was responsible for a faction within the factions that existed.

Even if he was a hands-on leader and his actual degree of command was limited by their organisational structure, his death may not render the sect ineffective per se.  Where senior leadership remained involved in planning operations and mid-level commanders were empowered to execute the organisation’s strategic vision as they see fit, killing a Commander will not have a serious negative effect on the group.

In many terrorist organisations, it is the group of middle managers that can provide the connective tissue that links the top of the organisation with its bottom and, thus, makes it possible for sects such as the Boko Haram to function as a coherent and operationally effective entity.

Another point to note in the effectiveness of killing this Boko Haram Commander also stems partly from who replaces him, demonstrating the importance of organisational structure and how that will affect the leadership losses. It may discourage you to learn that leadership targeting has been an ineffective strategy against the Boko Haram sect so far starting from Mohammed Yusuf, because it has been unable to significantly degrade and defeat the sect or any of its factions, and barring the complete breakdown of the group’s structure, is unlikely to bring about its defeat.

Consider other franchises such as ISWAP, ISIL, AQIM, ANSARU, MUJAO, and others, to mention just a few. Realistically, the groups that are most difficult to weaken through leadership targeting are those that have substantial communal support, and/or adhere strictly to an Islamist ideology like the Boko Haram sect.

The advantages of targeting a terrorist leader may be temporary to a certain extent and yield benefits but also leads to a series of consequences.

First, it can reshape the manner and modus operandi of a terrorist group that will not be beneficial to our counterterrorism workforce.

Secondly, it is likely to lead more extreme forces to rise and/or create the conditions for more violent groups to emerge as we have experienced since Yusuf and Shekau.

Our counterterrorism workforce should be prepared to deal with splinter groups as they emerge in the aftermath of what seems to be a relatively successful campaign against the parent group because it is not over by any means.

Despite the attention and jubilation for the killing of the Boko Haram Commander by our counterterrorism workforce, it remains merely one of many strategies that security forces should adopt.

For long-term success, targeting Boko Haram’s logistical network, and disrupting its flow of resources, such as manpower, financing, and materiel will give us that long-awaited victory once and for all.

It seems the Boko Haram are used to surviving the elimination of their leaders, even a highly charismatic one like Mohammed Yusuf than they are to overcome the crippling of their supply infrastructure, particularly as they are now a transnational organisation with affiliations and franchises in West Africa and beyond.

Ethelbert Onuoha Oney Counterterrorism Expert,

based in the US

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1 thought on “Why killing terrorist leaders not solution to terrorism

  1. Very correct analysis,disrupting the funds flow and material supply is key to lasting solution in combating terrorism.

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