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You Can't Stop ISIS Simply by Killing Its Leader

The New Republic’s Graeme Wood recently made a boldly obvious declaration: the U.S. should try really, really hard to hunt down and kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, lest his power grows into something unstoppable. Bravo to Mr. Wood for that clear statement of purpose, but does he really believe the United States isn’t already trying to do this?  

After all, the U.S. government has had a $10 million bounty on his head for some time now, putting him right alongside America’s top terror targets like the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. There are presumably drones and special operations forces looking for him. The NSA is probably collecting terabytes of signals intelligence trying to locate him. Case officers from a dozen countries—probably even Iran—are questioning  their contacts looking for him.

But by merely focusing on one man, the U.S. would fall into a very simple analytic trap: that taking out the top terrorist will cause his organization to crumble. Consider this falling for “The Big Man Theory of Counterterrorism.” Al Qaeda hasn’t disappeared into the dustbin of history despite the death of Osama bin Laden, nor has Hamas vanished despite Israel taking out more than one of its leaders.

We’ve even tangled with the Islamic State in its previous iterations over the years. An airstrike killed its predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006, while a blast delivered from a tank killed the next two leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, in 2010.  Yet the Islamic State is now stronger than it ever has been before. 

Perhaps this is borne from our desire to personify our enemies, to imbue them with flesh, blood, and names. Since our current adversaries are terrorists, we naturally gravitate toward this impulse, but Americans been doing it for years. “If only,” our ancestors have asked, “we had killed Saddam Hussein in 1991. Then we could have avoided this entire mess.” And Hitler before that. And Jefferson Davis before that. The results speak for themselves.

What if the U.S. actually catches up with Abu Bakr? It would be foolish to assume that, even with his death or capture, the Islamic State will be significantly set back. It seems Abu Bakr has been in the terrorism business for a long time. He certainly knows the history of his organization and of Iraq; he has survived this long to become the Islamic State’s CEO.

And like any good corporation, Islamic State has a succession plan in the event he falls. How can one be so sure? Because these sorts of organizations have done it before. Zarqawi was killed on a Wednesday; his successor was announced that following Monday. When Israel fired a missile at Hamas’ leader Sheik Yassin on March 22, 2004, his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, was announced that very next day. And after Rantisi was killed on April 17th, Khaled Meshal stepped in a day or two later. The Islamic State, like its predecessors before it, has a shura council that stands ready to choose another leader if Abu Bakr dies. 

Of course the U.S. is looking to strike Abu Bakr and take him off the battlefield one way or another. But killing one man is never enough. One must crush the network.

That will take a great deal of teamwork from intelligence and military elements—plus diplomatic efforts with both our allies and our adversaries. We may even have to work with some nefarious elements to achieve this. That’s the ugly bit about fighting terrorists—it’s time consuming and requires hard choices, not like in the movies.

The president says America’s objective is to “degrade” or “destroy” the Islamic State. Those are two radically different paths for America to take, and will require this nation to expend two different types of efforts to achieve this. It remains unclear whether the White House and the American public have the stamina to see this long conflict to the end. 

But merely stopping one sour, middle-aged zealot will not be enough. Taking him out will be cause for presidential speeches and commendations, but not the death of the Islamic State nor its loathsome ideology. 

Let’s not fall for the Big Man theory of counterterrorism—and think this particular long war will be over any time soon.