NDISP Speaker Seminar "Why Targeting al Qaeda Won’t Work"

Wed Mar 20, 2013 4:00PM - 6:00PM • Room 210 DeBartolo Hall • Calendars: Main


Jenna Jordan is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests include terrorism, population transfers, attachment to territory, and international security. Her book manuscript focuses on the leadership decapitation of terrorist organizations. Jordan received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, M.A. in Political Science from Stanford University, and B.A. in International Relations from Mills College. She previously held a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. Her research has been supported by grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation and the University of Chicago.


Leadership targeting has become a key feature of current counterterrorism policies. Both academics and policy makers have argued that the removal of leaders is an effective counterterrorism strategy.  In order to understand why decapitation is successful in some cases and unsuccessful in others, this paper develops a theoretical analysis of organizational resilience to leadership targeting.  In a study of 298 cases of leadership decapitation against terrorist organizations from 1945-2004, I find that decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time. Organizations that have not had their leaders removed are more likely to fall apart than those that have undergone a loss of leadership. The marginal utility of decapitation is negative for many groups, particularly for larger, older, religious, and separatist organizations. In fact, decapitation can actually be counterproductive against certain organizations.This paper develops a theoretical analysis of organizational resilience to leadership targeting.  This model is applied to the case of al Qaeda to argue that targeting leaders is not only ineffective; it is likely to have counterproductive consequences. First, I will discuss existing analysis on the effectiveness of targeting policies.  Second, I will present a theory of organization resilience to leadership targeting. Third, I will discuss empirical results regarding organizational resilience. Finally, the paper will conclude with an analysis of al Qaeda in order to examine causal mechanisms and data on the organization’s operational capacity.