On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Dr. Bryan Price of Seton Hall University’s Buccino Leadership Institute presented his first book titled “Targeting Top Terrorists: Understanding Leadership Removal in Counterterrorism Strategy.” The focus of Dr. Price’s research pertains to “leadership decapitation.”
In his introduction, Dr. Price pointed out that this in no way involves the literal decapitation of terrorist leaders. Some other common phrases, depending on the expert are assassinations, named killings, targeted killings, and the “snake-head” strategy. The snakehead strategy involves killing or capturing the “head” of the snake, a terrorist organization leader, and allowing the remainder of the “body” or the terrorist organization to die off.
Dr. Price is the Founding Executive Director at the Buccino Leadership Institute at Seton Hall. Prior to this position, he served 20 years in the United States Army and reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During the first half of his career, he held operational assignments as an Apache helicopter pilot, with combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to receiving his commission from the United States Military Academy (USMA), he also graduated with a B.S. in History. Additionally, he received an M.A. in International Relations from St. Mary’s University at Texas, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University.
From 2012 to 2018, Dr. Price was a USMA professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Director of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). Within his role as director, he briefed the Secretary of Defense, Directors of the CIA, DIA, and NCTC, as well as several combatant commanders.
At the start of his research, Dr. Price was fighting an uphill battle. All the previous conclusions drawn on leadership decapitation suggested it was not the optimal solution. These conclusions noted its ineffectiveness against drug cartels, as killing kingpins seemed to make more leaders step up, and forced more drugs across the U.S. border.
Furthermore, there was also the short-term negative consequence of an increase in revenge attacks. While those facts remains true, Dr. Price compared leadership decapitation to domestic policy on education and economics. Policymakers tend to look at the long-term effects of these, and it is important to do the same with the snakehead strategy.
One question the book answered was whether or not the type of terrorist group matters. In order to ensure results were not skewed, Dr. Price only included groups that committed four or more deadly attacks. A major distinction that he discovered was between groups that are profit based or value based, such as drug syndicates like the Sinaloa Cartel versus Al-Qaeda. This distinction had a direct effect on the group’s eventual mortality rate, due to the leaders having a large influence on organizational performance.
While religious terror groups are five times more likely to end after decapitation than nationalist terror groups, both of their mortality rates are still higher than profit driven firms. Dr. Price analyzed how 1980’s Fortune 500 companies were affected by the death CEOs, in which the data showed that there were little to no consequences, and in some cases the stock prices of the firm even increased.
Another key aspect to terrorist group characteristics was organization size. Groups with 10,000 members were effected the same way as groups with 100 members, something Dr. Price was surprised by, as he had originally assumed smaller groups would have a higher mortality rate.
An important conclusion was the relationship between the longevity of an organization and leadership decapitation. Dr. Price noted that removing a leader from power as soon as possible is the most effective solution. If a group’s leader is killed within the first year, it is 8.7 times more likely to fall apart, while that number is halved after 10 years in power. When Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, he had been in power for more than 20 years. While the mortality rate was not as high as it could have been if he was killed 19 years before, there was still a great effect on the group.
While Dr. Price was explicit in condemning the terrible atrocities committed by terrorist leaders, he discussed the lessons that can be learned from terrorist leaders. Specifically, Bin Laden was born into one of the wealthiest Saudi families, but chose to fight with the Mujahedeen and “embrace the suck” of living in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Another example is quadriplegic Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas. He was both authentic in serving the cause, and remained dedicated throughout his career. It is important to observe what some enemy leaders excel at, and for both of the previously mentioned terrorists, ironically, that is being both charismatic and genuine.
Through Dr. Price’s practical experience as a Lieutenant Colonel and his academic research experience at Stanford, he has developed a detailed database and informed policy recommendations on fighting the globe’s most violent terrorist groups.