Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Peter Liberman

Subject Categories

Comparative Politics | Defense and Security Studies | International Law | International Relations | Military and Veterans Studies | Other Political Science


Terrorism, International Security, Insurgency


Leadership decapitation -- the practice of removing a leader from a position of authority through targeted killing (i.e. assassination) or arrest -- has long been a feature of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies the world over. Still, how effective is the practice of leadership decapitation in actually bringing a halt to, or even impeding, terrorist activity? Can removing top leaders of terrorist enclaves from power disrupt their groups to the point of organizational degradation or dissolution? And lastly, because no two terrorist groups are the same; when a terrorist group experiences leadership loss, how can the group be expected to react? Will they implode under exogenous pressure, reorient in a search for political viability, or something different altogether?

This paper endeavors to answer some of these questions by establishing a baseline of terrorist group typologies and motivations, distilling the key, generative factors that have proven to contribute to organizational death among terrorist groups, and provide a causal correlation between type of terrorist organization, and their probable response to leadership loss. Regardless of the ethical implications of leadership decapitation, this paper provides a mixed method analysis of the after-effects of leadership removal.

Similarly, this paper finds that certain terrorist groups, such as religiously motivated ones, are more likely to degrade or disband when a leader is removed, while others, like those who use terrorism as a tool to further a nationalist or separatist agenda, are less likely to be irreparably damaged when a leader is extricated. Finally, the conclusion offers some prescriptive policy implications for the findings within the paper.