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Isolate, don’t target, Islamic State leader

The Islamic State has been wounded. While the execution of reporter James Foley displayed the group’s depravity, its timing also suggests that recent counterattacks are having a significant effect on its leadership. The group’s expansion has been slowed, and some of its territorial gains have been rolled back. Iraqi and Kurdish forces, aided by U.S. airstrikes, secured a much-needed strategic “win” in retaking the Mosul Dam. Are there other ways to use this force mix to weaken the Islamic State and buy time for the Iraqis to regroup?

In 2006, the United States leveraged a similar set of capabilities and alliances to eliminate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Using a combination of human intelligence and airborne surveillance, the U.S. found al-Zarqawi and killed him. At the time, this was thought to be a major blow to al-Qaida in Iraq that would do much to reduce the violence being inflicted upon Iraq’s Shiite population.

There is an enduring allure to the idea of capturing or killing an enemy leader. In chess, if you capture the king, you win the game. Many assume the same holds true in the real world. Given the capabilities in place and the pressing need to weaken the Islamic State, U.S. leaders are surely asking themselves whether they should target the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

At first glance, the answer would appear to be yes. Like any organization that must operate amid the pressures of combat, the Islamic State needs strong leadership. In fact, the group appears to enjoy effective leadership at multiple levels, as evidenced by its adaptability, rapid growth, skilled strategic messaging and battlefield tactics that combine patience and boldness. It is reasonable to think that attacking the group’s top leader would weaken the organization, perhaps decisively.

Killing or capturing such a leader has rarely been decisive, however. While there have been instances where such action induced a form of organizational paralysis, it has also proven counterproductive. When Saddam Hussein prioritized hiding over leading Iraq when his country was invaded in 2003, the Baath government was paralyzed, yet dangerous elements remained and reorganized themselves into a more menacing threat.

In determining what to do about al-Baghdadi, here are some key questions:

What is the role of al-Baghdadi and other leaders within the Islamic State? The effect of attacking an enemy leader is roughly congruent with that leader’s role. Disrupting a tactical leader can shock and paralyze a small unit, but this effect quickly fades once the unit reorganizes. In contrast, killing or capturing a strategic leader might have little impact in the short term, but over time it could deny the adversary the vision and inspiration it needs to stay vibrant. Eliminating a symbolic leader can be a watershed event for an adversary, with unpredictable results. The attack on al-Zarqawi in 2006 did little to quell the wave of violence perpetrated by al-Qaida in Iraq, but al-Zarqawi received widespread honor as a martyr. Given that the Islamic State appears to exhibit tremendous skill at strategic communication, the United States needs to be cautious.

How is the Islamic State structured? Some organizations are naturally more vulnerable to an attack on their leadership, particularly ones that are tightly connected, require large amounts of communication and rely on centralized control. The Islamic State has a distributed structure, so it may be more effective to target the middle layers of leadership — where most communication takes place — than to spend resources attempting to find al-Baghdadi.

That leads to a third question: Is there sufficient intelligence to target al-Baghdadi? This is often the limiting factor in leadership attacks, which require reliable information that can be difficult to get. Success usually involves a large and persistent effort, combined with some luck.

Perhaps most important, one cannot divorce these military questions from the overall goal. If the goal is to paralyze an organization, then attack its leaders at all levels, as quickly as possible. Alternatively, if there is a possibility of dialogue — repellent as that may be — then attacking leaders can be counterproductive. A leaderless organization cannot be coerced, but its components can still cause pain.

While classified details might change the analysis, the available information indicates that al-Baghdadi is an inspirational leader who is not involved directly in battlefield tactics. Considering this, disrupting al-Baghdadi’s leadership is not likely to be worth the cost in precious intelligence resources. Better to use those to identify and disrupt the Islamic State’s middle layers, where strategic direction is translated into tactical action. A focused and sustained effort to damage this part of the organization, therefore, would have significant — perhaps paralyzing — effects on the battlefield, further blunting its advance and buying time for Iraqis to meet this dangerous challenge.

Clint Hinote, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, is a 2014-15 Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this column, which first appeared in The Washington Post, are his own.

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