Leadership: Misunderstanding Targeted Killings


March 17, 2015: There is trend among news media and pundits to condemn the use of “targeted killings”, especially those involving missiles fired from UAVs. This shows a woeful ignorance of history, organizational dynamics and what this all does to reduce civilian casualties.

Start with the fact that there are key people in any organization, be it a corporation, military force or the leadership of a nation. Identify and remove key people and the organization becomes less effective. In combat this has meant that killing enemy leaders in combat was always accepted as a useful, and sometimes essential tactic. For thousands of years the death of the commander of an army in battle often so demoralized his troops that they broke and ran. Archers were always taught to shoot for the leaders and the medieval English longbow archers were taught to pick out and shoot for the highest ranking enemy leaders when operating at close (usually under 50 meters) range. Most longbow fire was done at longer ranges in the form of a barrage that could stop a cavalry charge. With the introduction of firearms snipers soon evolved and their job was to seek out and kill leaders during the battle (at sea as well as on land). During the American Revolution many American soldiers were good shots, and they used skill to shoot enemy officers and NCOs, thus disorganizing the enemy. During World War II and later American officers and NCOs were trained to not wear rank insignia in combat and to try not appear to be the leadership, otherwise enemy snipers would concentrate on them,

A classic example of this occurred during World War II when American code breakers found that Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Navy (and planner for the Pearl Harbor attack) would be visiting front line Japanese units and at one point would fly within range of American P-38 fighters. An ambush was planned and Yamamoto’s transport was shot down and he was killed. This was important because it was known that Yamamoto was the most rational of Japanese military leaders and one who could make the American advance much more costly. Killing Yamamoto in 1943 removed a man who had spent many years in America and knew that any military success against the United States would be short-lived (he warned the government against it). The less well traveled Japanese army generals were more prone to believing their own press releases. Throughout the war, the Japanese army and navy had avoided cooperation, preferring to fight with their own resources even if that meant fighting at a disadvantage. What cooperation there was between the army and navy was usually hammered out back at general headquarters in Tokyo. Even then, local commanders would frequently drag their heels when ordered to deal with people from the other service. Yamamoto was known to be very persuasive in getting the two services to cooperate and more effectively fight the allies. With the removal of Yamamoto the Japanese military slid back into their ineffective strategic planning habits and saved thousands of American lives.

It’s not just the military that depends on key personnel. Many businesses recognize this to an extent that they pay for “key man” insurance policies that compensate somewhat for the loss of very effective leaders or technical personnel. Successful corporations all have one thing in common; the ability to find, hire and hang on to very talented and effective personnel. Failed corporations usually go out of business because they did not have enough of these essential leaders, or if they did could not hold onto them.

Which brings us to UAVs and death by missile. During World War II armies learned to move their combat zone headquarters to avoid enemy detection followed by an air attack. Such attacks might not kill or incapacitate all the key people but would get a lot of them and this made the units they controlled less effective and increased losses among the less well led troops. After World War II it became a greater problem with the introduction of battlefield ballistic missiles and headquarters were referred to as “missile magnets.”

Exactly how this worked became very obvious during the war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait in 1991. The U.S. Air Force drew up an attack plan that emphasized hitting headquarters and the ability for Iraqi leaders to communicate. These attacks not only rendered the senior Iraqi leadership unable to control their troops but also did it in a way never seen before. Interviews of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad after the war revealed that civilians were amazed, and relieved that the American smart bombs and cruise missiles just went after these headquarters and left nearby civilians untouched. This had never been seen before, because for the last half century it had been standard practice to drop hundreds or thousands or unguided bombs on an area to destroy headquarters and key military targets. The use of “smart weapons” and new surveillance technology (using manned and unmanned aircraft) radically reduced (by over 80 percent) the civilian casualties usually referred to as “collateral damage.” This never became big news, but to the civilians who survived these attacks because of it this was literally a life saver.

Which brings to the growing use of suicide bombing. Usually described as a weapon of the weak, its killing of large numbers of civilians was in sharp contrast to the Western approach which did just the opposite. Suicide bombers are often going after key people and usually this fails and just kills a lot of civilians. This makes the terror groups more unpopular. Thus suicide bombings cannot be described as is a weapon of the victorious either. In the last few decades, whoever used suicide bombers not only failed to gain anything, but saw their cause harmed in the process. You can draw your own conclusions.

The terrorist organization that first popularized the use of suicide bombers was the Sri Lankan LTTE. This was not even Moslem but Hindus serving a secular cause (autonomy for Tamils on the island of Sri Lanka). The LTTE tried to use suicide bombers to kill off Sri Lankan (and Indian) leadership and terrorize into submission Sri Lankan soldiers. The suicide tactics were used for three decades and became yet another example of how suicide bombings doesn’t work. In fact, this particular weapon actually backfires. Consider the facts.

Between 1984 and 2006 the LTTE carried out 346 suicide bombing attacks (killing 3,262 civilians and wounding another 3,494). Through 2000, the LTTE accounted for most of the suicide bombing attacks on the planet. The LTTE was particularly effective at attacking senior politicians and security officials. But each attack just made their opponents angrier without making the enemy weaker or less effective. The LTTE was eventually defeated, partly by an enraged Sri Lankan population, and partly dissention and demoralization within their own ranks.

In Lebanon Hezbollah was the next to pick up on suicide bombers. While Hezbollah claimed to represent the Shia minority in Lebanon, it brought itself increasing resistance from the majority of Lebanese by acting in support for foreign nations (Iran and Syria). By the 21st century Hezbollah largely abandoned suicide bombing, apparently noting the downside of the tactic.

Palestinian terrorists adopted the use of suicide bombing against Israel in 2000. The Israelis eventually developed tactics (, which emphasized going after the key people involved in planning and carrying out the suicide attacks) that defeated this weapon. The Palestinian attacks destroyed the substantial support within Israel for a Palestinian peace deal, and increased support for stronger measures against Palestinian terrorism. The Palestinian terrorists are still at it, although many Palestinians admit that the tactic has failed and has been counterproductive.

Al Qaeda also adopted suicide bomber tactics, particularly in Iraq. This turned out to be a major error. So many Moslems were killed, particularly women and children that Arab public opinion turned against al Qaeda. Even Sunni Arabs in Iraq have been fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, despite the fact that al Qaeda is committing all this mayhem in the name of Sunni Arabs.

In 2003 al Qaeda began using suicide bombers in Pakistan, and were promptly taken apart by an enraged Pakistani government, with much public support. This, despite many Islamic conservatives in the government. Al Qaeda was largely driven out of most of Pakistan, and confined to the tribal areas along the Afghan border. Here, the Taliban had a lot of influence, and al Qaeda has convinced the Taliban to support a suicide bomber campaign in Afghanistan. This campaign has been even less successful than previous ones. The Taliban do not have the experienced support personnel (bomb makers and bomber handlers) to make most of the attacks successful by any measure. Meanwhile, most of the victims are Afghan civilians. Naturally, Afghans see these foreigners (Afghans are difficult to recruit as suicide bombers) as murderers who do not have Afghan interests at heart.

Now ISIL is continuing the use of suicide bombings and pioneering the use of “massacre porn” videos to attract new recruits and terrorize enemies. How do you think that is going to work out. 




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