By Matthew Melino
On 1 November 2013, a US drone strike in North Waziristan killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. His death is one of a growing number of high-profile senior Islamic militants, including Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Ayyub al Masri, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, who have fallen victim to the US counterterrorism strategy of leadership-targeting or decapitation.
Decapitation became a defining characteristic of US counterterrorism policy in 2003 following the release of the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (NSCT). The rationale behind the strategy is simple – terrorist leadership provides overall direction and strategy for the group, linking grievances and ultimately becoming the catalyst for terrorist action. Therefore, eliminating the leader should result in the group’s collapse. Counterterrorism strategies have since relied on this assumption and have succeeded in removing influential figures. However al-Qaeda and TPP continue to promote their extremist ideology, and their adaptability in the aftermath of targeted killings leads many to question whether decapitation is truly an effective long-term strategy.