Counter-terrorist forces (Mossad, CIA, DoD, etc.) routinely use assassination to disrupt terrorist networks. However, despite the apparent success of this approach (moral and propoganda), experience indicates that this technique is not very effective. Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have proven to be extremely resiliant despite attempts at "decapitation."
The reasons for this are complex but understandable. Let's dive into this topic by first listing what organizational/network disruption means. Kathleen Carley, Ju-Sung Lee, and David Krackhardt in their paper "Destabilizing Networks" propose a well constructed set of criteria:
- The rate of information flow through the network has been reduced (perhaps to zero).
- The network, as a decision making body, cannot reach a consensus.
- The ability of the network to accomplish tasks is impaired.
However, evidence indicates that terrorist networks aren't susceptable to these measures of disruption due to leadership removal. The reason is that in a distributed terrorist network, intra-networking between emergent leaders radically reduces the impact of leadership removal. The removal of leadership from a distributed network is rapidly repaired. The reasons for this are:
- Redundant design. Existing leadership ofthen suppresses emergent leaders by acting as gatekeepers. If leadership is removed, emergent leaders quickly ascend to central positions by "turning on" connections that are already in place.
- Meta-matrix design. Distributed networks are actually composed of a meta-matrix of networks -- networks for information transfer, knowledge sharing, task completion, etc. This layered approach network design reduces the impact of removal of leadership from the social network alone.
- Dynamic design. Relationships in the network aren't dictated by assigned hierarchical relationships, rather they are based on a complex panoply of factors that are constantly changing. Therefore, the structure of the network is in constant flux in response to learning and adaptation by the individual nodes.
This analysis indicates that assassination isn't effective in disrupting terrorist networks. The belief that it will have a disruptive impact may be due to the "mirror imaging" of counter-terrorists that work in hierarchical networks. In fact, leadership removal may make the network more opaque to future analysis given the emergence of new leadership that may not be known.