In 2014, after ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) surprised the world by quickly seizing Mosul and declaring an Islamic state that controlled eastern Syria and most of western Iraq American intel analysts concluded that attacks against key ISIL personnel would be a key tactic in defeating ISIL. That was because it was already known that ISIL was created largely by Saddam era administrators and technocrats who had run the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda in an unsuccessful effort to regain control of the country. While this effort was defeated many key people, and a lot of cash got away. While the Iraqi al Qaeda worked on rebuilding its support among Iraqi Sunni Arabs a rebellion broke out in neighboring Syria were the Sunni Arab majority rose up against the Shia minority Assad dictatorship. The Iraqi al Qaeda were not welcome in Syria but set up shop and formed a new “baddest of the bad” group called ISIL. As had happened in Iraq (2004-08) these tactics divided the rebels and made them easier to defeat. In 2014 the U.S. had a large database of deceased and current Iraqi al Qaeda personnel, including family connections and all manner of biographical detail. That personal data was useful because what was not known was where these key people were at any particular time (the better to capture or kill them).
This was especially true when it came to key technical personnel who could not easily be replaced. Administrative and battlefield ISIL leaders are much more numerous as Iraqi Sunni Arabs were long known as a well-educated bunch. But when it came to some new technologies, like the Internet, there were fewer of these available. Unlike administrative and tactical leaders, who can be replaced with less skilled people who can still do the job that does not work with tech.
With Internet jobs the loss of a few key leaders and their technical staffs had an immediate, substantial and sustained impact. This could be seen most clearly with the ISIL Information War operations, mainly those operating largely via the Internet. Twice since 2014 these targeted attacks against key tech personnel crippled ISIL media operations. The first time was in 2016 when several ISIL media operations were destroyed or crippled. ISIL took months to recover most of the lost capability. The 2016 attacks were based on earlier (2015) operations that killed or captured a few key ISIL technical personnel who comprised their small number of skilled Internet experts. Tracking down and taking down these individuals provided a useful set of procedures for the continued search for key ISIL media and Internet personnel.
The second major victory occurred in late 2017 as ISIL lost control of most of its territory in Syria and Iraq and their media operations in those two countries were not only under frequent attack but were spending most of their time trying to avoid detection and attack. ISIL media activity soon encountered a sharp drop in activity. By early 2018 ISIL had reorganized its media operations by getting some key people out of Syria and Iraq and then setting up an operation that could collect and widely distribute Internet based media produced by half a dozen smaller ISIL “franchises” in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But the new organization was much less productive, the price it had to pay for being more dispersed included getting by with less technically capable media personnel.
The Western intel agencies and their growing force of civilian online volunteers gained an edge because of these ISIL defeats. Some of the most effective of these volunteers were anti-ISIL hackers who didn’t follow orders but would go after an ISIL target if one caught their attention. The tips and insights provided by the volunteers was frequently accompanied by valuable cultural insights. That’s because many volunteers were tech savvy Moslems seeking to eliminate ISIL and the shame it brought to Islam. These volunteers spoke the same languages as many ISIL operatives and could more easily track down targets on the web than intel agencies whose searchers were closely supervised by several layers of bureaucracy.
Most of these “decapitation” operations were not directed as ISIL tech personnel but at the ISIL leadership in general. These attacks became more frequent and more effective as ISIL lost most of its territory in Syria and Iraq. This gave key people fewer places to hide and even more importantly forced them to move more frequently and often without the careful planning and preparation they had learned was essential for survival. By early 2017 the impact of the damage was pretty obvious.
While the hunt for the senior leadership got the most publicity these men, especially ISIL founder and leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, these men were not the most important targets (unless you goal was headlines and maximum media audiences). The key to crippling ISIL as an organization were those leaders responsible for finance, logistics and media. These were harder to replace and the senior ISIL leaders knew that success at raising huge amounts of cash (mainly via looting and smuggling, but also extortion and ransoms paid to free kidnapping victims and slaves) and maintaining effective communications for the finance and recruiting operations were more important. The logistics included obtaining weapons and explosives and moving them to where they would be most effective.
For example a number of attacks carried out in the months before Mosul fell (and Raqqa was surrounded) in July 2017 led to loss of several key people who managed and ran the ISIL media networks. This included Internet distribution of propaganda and ISIL documents as well as the ISIL Amaq News Agency. Attacks against these media networks have been going on for nearly three years although the results were often kept secret (short or long term) in order to exploit the confusion these losses created within ISIL. Even ISIL would often deny accurate reports of their key people dying or being captured in order to maintain morale.
Early on in this campaign it was noted (by the Western media) that the targets were often technical experts, which ISIL never had enough of. For example in August 2015 a U.S. UAV missile attack in eastern Syria (near Raqqa) killed Juanaid Hussain, a British citizen believed to be the most skilled computer hacker working for ISIL at that time. Hussain was one of the key people in ISIL’s twitter based recruiting and publicity operation. Hussain did not have world class hacking skills but he came to Syria in 2013 as a bright British teenager who had a talent for hacking, good knowledge of Internet culture and eager to “defend Islam” any way he could. The U.S. kept the news of Husseins death quiet for a few weeks in order to take advantage of the confusion within the ISIL Internet based networks created by the sudden disappearance of such a key person.
People like Hussian were sought out and killed because of the known effectiveness of these “decapitation” tactics. This had been perfected and proven in Iraq before U.S. troops left in 2011 and earlier in Israel where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000. The Israelis were very successful with their decapitation program, which within five years reduced Israeli civilian terrorist deaths from over 400 a year to less than ten. The Israeli and American decapitation tactics adapted to the techniques and tactics of current Islamic terrorism.
The modern version of decapitation had to adapt to new technologies (Internet, cell phones, laptops) that the Islamic terrorists, especially in Iraq, made use of. The Israelis realized this early on and came up with new investigation and analysis tools to cope. The Israelis had to quickly perfect and put their new tactics to work. Put simply, go after a specific combination of key people to achieve a specific goal. For example, if you want minimize Israeli civilian casualties you have to concentrate on bomb makers and the team leaders who recruit, train and deploy the bomb placers or suicide bombers. If you want to diminish terrorist threats longer term go after more senior leaders, especially the media, financial, intelligence, recruiting and logistics specialists. For other goals you went after a different collection of people. At the same time every arrest or dead terrorist was investigated for more information and Israeli intelligence had some of the most advanced data analysis software available and many of the people inventing and maintaining such software products (which were lucrative products sold mainly to businesses and researchers) were military reservists. Thus the Israelis had the ability to quickly modify the new tech. Same deal with cell phones and PCs in general. Islamic terrorists soon learned that if the Israelis, and later the Americans, got their hands on your cell phones, PCs or whatever they would quickly extract and put to use information that led to the next target. This made decapitation tactics move more quickly than ever before.
Despite all the new tech decapitation tactics are an ancient practice. American troops have used them many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago, and in 18th century colonial America) but tend to forget after a generation or so. Some things had to be relearned.
So successful has decapitation been that in 2013 Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan openly called for supporters to help develop methods (electronic or otherwise) to deal with the American UAVs that constantly patrolled terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan (Waziristan) and Afghanistan (the Pakistani border area) and constantly found and killed (with missiles) Islamic terrorist leaders. This has led to the deaths of hundreds of key terrorist personnel and, despite the heavy use of civilians as human shields, few civilian deaths. The Taliban were increasingly frustrated at their inability to deal with this. Decapitation tactics work and while the tactic is ancient they have become more common in irregular warfare because of new technology. This has changed attitudes towards decapitation tactics.
What changed everything were some new technologies unique in military history. Wars have always included attempts to gain victory, or at least an edge, by going after the enemy leaders and other key people. This has always been difficult because the enemy leaders know they are targets and take extensive precautions to protect themselves. This included things like the “royal guard”, food tasters, and all that. This no longer works and terrorist leaders are scrambling to find ways to avoid this lethal retribution for their wickedness. Islamic terrorists also use decapitation but their favored weapon is the suicide bomber or other lone assassin. But it is easier for key people to avoid a suicide bomber than it is when UAVs armed with guided missiles are used.
The increased use of UAVs to find, identify, and kill terrorists (or enemies in general) led many people in the West and in the Moslem world to assert that this is not effective, fair, or whatever. Some call it murder. But war is murder, and for centuries those involved have recognized that going to war is a messy business, especially once you are in the midst of it. In war the survivors quickly learn two things; those who kill first are less likely to be killed later and those who can kill more of the opponent's leaders will most likely win. Current terrorist leaders may be homicidal fanatics but they know how to count. If the Americans come after them, especially because their organization carried out an attack in the United States that generated a widespread demand from Americans for revenge, the terrorist leaders are dead men walking. The belief is that the Americans will eventually get you, and most terrorist leaders don’t want to be killed. Suicide attack duty is for the little people, not the leaders or their children. So the Islamic terrorist propaganda specialists do what they can to protect their bosses. This helped with recruiting, especially among your Moslem men living in the West. But since most of the victims of Islamic terrorist violence are Moslems in Moslem countries, those Moslems who were likely targets of the terrorist violence wanted the decapitation tactics to continue and sought to get the aircraft and missiles so they could do it themselves. This is what the Iraqi and Afghan government did once most foreign troops left. While the aerial surveillance and laser guided missiles worked for the Iraqis and Afghans, it was also discovered that the powerful information gathering and analysis tools were not so easily adopted and used other countries. Those skills require a lot of skilled computer hardware and software personnel and it turned out few nations could match the way the Israelis and Americans adopted, deployed and continued to develop these new systems.
Some components of the new decapitation tactics are easier for others to adopt. Since the late 1990s UAVs, and before that space satellites and high-flying, long endurance recon aircraft (like the U-2 and SR-71), made it possible to find and identify key enemy personnel. But until armed UAVs came along in 2001 there was no way to quickly act on that information. Many opportunities to kill key enemy personnel were missed. Now, with Hellfire missiles (and several other similar weapons) on these UAVs, you can promptly kill what you find. Some pundits find this unsporting, morally indefensible, or otherwise wrong. For military personnel, risking their lives fighting a determined enemy, it's just another way to kill the enemy leadership before the enemy succeeds.
That civilians are also killed is nothing new. During the allied invasion of France in 1944, the several months of fighting required to destroy the German armies in France also left 15,000 French civilians dead in the invasion area and more than that in the rest of France. The Germans did not normally try and hide among civilians, while Islamic terrorists do. The Germans knew they would be attacked no matter where they were. Islamic terrorists do sometimes get away because of the successful use of human shields (and because the order to fire is not given). This attitude ignores the civilians who die because terrorists escape to keep killing. Thus, in war, you can avoid killing civilians, but you do so at the cost of giving enemy personnel immunity that just gets more people killed down the road.