“Ariel Sharon was convinced by some game theorist who knew nothing about Palestinian Arab society that if he could kill off one-quarter of the Hamas leadership, he could cause the organization to collapse. What I heard was that the original basis for this thesis was risk studies of corporations like IBM, where the models had shown that in case of a catastrophe that took out a quarter of the management, the organization would implode.
So Sharon’s government assiduously assassinated suspected Hamas leaders, killing the spiritual leader of the movement, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, in his wheelchair as he came out of a mosque, along with 17 others, including juveniles. Then titular leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was assassinated. And so on and so forth. But Hamas did not collapse. It won the 2006 Palestine Authority elections, and even when the resulting government was overthrown by the PLO in the West Bank — with U.S. and Israeli help — it proved powerful in Gaza. The Gaza war was another Israeli attempt to destroy Hamas, which failed miserably. Israeli military leaders professed themselves astonished at how little resistance to the invasion Hamas put up, showing that they don’t understand movements. Movements can afford to lie low during attacks, because they have the resources and support to reemerge once the heat is off.
Assassinating movement leaders, as opposed to organization leaders, is usually worse than useless, especially if the movement has a strong social base in a compact population.
On the other hand organizations such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya) in Egypt were effectively defeated by the Egyptian security forces. They arrested some 30,000 militants in the 1990s, and they engaged in running street battles with armed members. Since 1997, these groups have been defeated in the Nile Valley and seldom can pull off even a small attack. The Egyptian government caught a break, because the radicals’ 1997 attack on Western tourists at Luxor produced profound revulsion toward them among almost all Egyptians. The leadership of the Islamic Grouping (whose blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, is in an American penitentiary for involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing) has even renounced violence and now sees the Koran as forbidding terrorism. This leadership had not been systematically killed, however. It was incarcerated in Tura prison.
In this regard, U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida figures in Pakistan must be contrasted to assassinations of Taliban leaders. Al-Qaida is more like an organization, and its leaders seldom have a lot of local support (the Arabs in the northwest of Pakistan are not embedded in a local population that adulates them, but rather live among Pashtuns who have a variety of views of Arab expatriates). There has never been a big al-Qaida demonstration (I mean by al-Qaida Osama Bin Laden’s organization, and don’t consider the Islamic State of Iraq to be actually al-Qaida), because they don’t have the numbers to pull it off.”