Targeting Quality or Quantity? The Divergent Effects of Targeting Upper Verses Lower-Tier Leaders of Militant Organizations
Research on the efficacy of leadership decapitation has focused primarily on targeting the topmost leaders of groups. Yet, most organizations rely on multiple leaders with specific functional or geographical responsibilities, rather than a single symbolic leader. In this context, we pose the following question: how are the effects of leadership decapitation on a group’s short-term operational capacity conditioned by the type or rank of targeted leaders? We argue that due to the risks faced by militant organizations, upper-tier leaders will delegate operational duties to lower-tier leadership for security purposes. Because of the shift of the principal-agent dynamic to lower-tier leaders, targeting of lower ranked leaders versus topmost leaders is more likely to result in a loss of control over foot soldiers, and trigger negative effects such as a rise in indiscriminate violence. We conduct our study using the case of Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan, with weekly data on the group’s attacks, and multi-tier leadership losses between 2015–2019 across 72 districts.