Courtesy Reuters

Al Qaeda's Prognosis

Can Terrorist Groups Live Without Their Leaders?

What will the death of Osama bin Laden mean for the future of al Qaeda? That depends on whether al Qaeda more closely resembles the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) -- or Hamas and Hezbollah.

The former two groups were crippled by the capture of their leaders. Peruvian authorities apprehended the Shining Path head Abimael Guzmán in 1992, virtually eradicating the group. Turkish authorities arrested the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Although the PKK continues to exist, it lacks the operational capacity it once had under Öcalan’s direction.

Hamas and Hezbollah, in contrast, have flourished despite the past loss of their top brass. In 2004, Israel eliminated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s founder, and then his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, employing helicopter-fired missiles in both cases. Israel killed Hezbollah's secretary-general, Abbas Mussawi, in a helicopter strike in 1992, and its director of military (i.e., terrorist) operations, Imad Mughniyeh, with a car bomb in 2008. Yet both organizations are stronger today than when they lost their respective leaders. Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah recently managed to topple the pro-Western government of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and install Najib Mikati, a candidate more to its liking. Both movements are quickly becoming quasi-regular forces, armed with a frightening array of missiles provided by their patrons in Damascus and Tehran.

Why do some terrorist organizations wilt from a decapitation strategy, while others manage to flourish? In the aforementioned cases, much of the answer has to do with the fact that the Shining Path and the PKK, although large movements, were built around a cult of personality. Remove that personality, and it becomes difficult for followers to fill the gap. Hamas and Hezbollah, however, have always had a more collective leadership that could better survive losses at the top. Both groups also control substantial territory, which makes it harder to uproot them no matter how many leaders they lose.

That points to another major difference: in the case

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