Is Terrorism Like a Cult?

It seems apparent to me that the counterterrorism strategy employed by the U.S. is a strategy of decapitation. Kill the leaders and the phenomenon of terrorism will cease to exist. The government views terrorist leaders similar to leaders of a cult (as defined by Weber). The leaders have omnipotent control over members and followers, and inspire them to act in ways that, without such leadership, they would not undertake. Therefore, if one kills the charismatic leader, the members and followers will cease to undertake terrorist operations, lacking inspiration from the charismatic figure, similar to a cult.

The current drone strategy as well as the continued emphasis on special ops teams, such as the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, reflect the fact the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy as one of decapitation. However, terrorism continues to proliferate even in the wake of Bin Laden and countless other high profile terrorists' deaths. Al-Qaeda branches flourish in the Maghreb and Yemen; ISIS continues to besiege towns in Syria and Iraq; and Boko Haram stalks northern Nigeria looking for prey. The world is more threatened by terrorism now than in 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed. The U.S. counter-terrorism strategy of decapitation has unsurprisingly failed; unfortunately it was never much of a strategy.

The decapitation strategy of fighting terrorism seemed like a "hail mary," a hopeful wish more than anything else. Sending unmanned drones into Waziristan, Yemen, and Afghanistan seemed like an inexpensive solution to the terrorism problem; however, it doesn't work. Such a strategy misunderstands terrorism as a globalization phenomenon. Terrorism is not like a cult. Terrorism will never cease due to dead terrorists. Osama Bin Laden by quite a few accounts was not a charismatic leader. His appeal to fellow jihadists was not based upon his own charisma (in the whole sense of the word), but rather the appeal came from a variety of other factors working in tandem to create a human being willing to blow himself up for a cause. These factors are even in more in play in the Middle East now than in 2001. The U.S. went "all in" on the decapitation strategy, hping there was a causal link between dead terrorists and less terrorism. Fourteen years after 9/11 the attacks haven't stopped, despite unparalled success in killing high-profile terrorists.

America, and the larger world, must ask, yet again, if we are truly committed to stopping the phenomenon of terrorism. But this time fighting terrorism must not just be equated to killing terrorists, but dealing with complex historical, cultural, social, economic, and religious factors that all play a role in the phenomenon. The call is certainly daunting, should we answer?

Only once we concede that the "decapitation" strategy failed, and re-examine a long-term, not short-term, strategy that wrestles with these underlying factors will we find success in the fight against terrorism; but the cost is steep. The continued pursuit of our flippant, decapitation strategy incites the phenomenon more, continuing to reflect our gross misunderstanding of terrorism, and endangering more lives, American and others. We, as a nation, must decide if we should answer the call, if the fight against terrorism is not only worth fighting, but worth winning. Washington must realize that the ad-hoc, short term, "kill this terrorist, and that terrorist" strategy will never end the phenonmenon of terrorism., nor properly alleviate the national security risk posed by terrorism. Something long-term must be considered. Today, I am demanding of Washington, the Obama Administration, and the next administration to consider a long-term, sustainable strategy in the Middle East, because quite simply and clearly, what we are doing, just isn't working.