On Nov 1, 2013 Hakimullah Mehsud, the emir of the ‘Movement of the Taliban’ in Pakistan, was killed in North Waziristan in a US drone strike. This was the second or third time he was rumored to have been killed by drone strikes, but this time the Pakistani Taliban confirmed that he is dead. Mehsud was a target not only for being the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, but also for being behind the suicide attack in Khost in 2009.
Six days later, the Mullah Fazlullah was announced as the new emir of the Pakistani Taliban. Fazlullah was the Taliban administrator of Swat from 2007-2009, where he authorized the executions of thousands and the beheading and torture of civilians.
This rapid succession once again illustrates the problem with focusing on the leadership of jihadist groups as though taking out the leadership will cause the network to collapse. This has been a flaw with the US approach ever since the Iraq invasion of 2003. The run to Baghdad focused exclusively on taking out Saddam, while the Baathist loyalists and the beginnings of the AQI insurgency slipped into the shadows with mountains of munitions in the Coalition’s rear. Similarly, Osama Bin Laden was the focus of a massive manhunt for ten years, and when he was finally killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the raid was hailed as finally bringing closure. Yet in a matter of days, Ayman al Zawahiri was named the Emir of the core Al Qaeda, and AQ affiliates all over the world are still swearing allegiance to him.
Much of our approach in recent years seems predicated on perceiving our enemies much like the Nazis in WWII, who largely kept fighting until Hitler offed himself. Once he was out of the picture, many of them surrendered. Not some of the die-hard SS units, certainly, but for the most part German resistance collapsed with Hitler’s death. This view, of course, is in itself simplistic, as it effectively ignores the effects of, by then, almost six years of war leading up to that point.
Ideological networks are, by necessity, motivated by the ideology, not a single, charismatic leader. Some might have such a leader, but for true believers, the leader is a rallying point, not a make-or-break, integral part of the cause. The jihadists are fighting for a cause, not for Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Mehsud, or any other single leader. Therefore, devoting all efforts toward taking out leaders is largely a waste of time and resources, that would be better spent actively disrupting networks as a whole. Dead jihadis might be a good thing, but one dead leader does not a dead movement make.