Counterterrorism Targeting – Head shots or Body Shots?

MQ-9 Reaper

By Thomas G. Pledger.

Current United States counterterrorism strategy concentrates on retribution over network targeting. These different lines of effort, retribution and network targeting, compete for limited resources on an ever-expanding battlefield. Not only do these lines of effort compete for resources from each other, but they also compete for resources from all other military operations globally.

Retribution is the direct targeting of a group’s senior leaders for a kill or capture mission. Retribution operations are often seen as the delivery of justice for attacks against civilians. Retribution satisfies the emotional desire to directly target those who inspired and directed violent attacks (i.e., Osama bin Laden) and the American public’s desire for a personal response.

Network targeting, however, is the daily grind of defeating the logistics and communications networks that violent extremist organizations build in order to enable and conduct operations. Targeting these networks can be conducted via direct military operations, and / or the use of interagency, or partner nation assets. Understanding the effects retribution or network targeting have on a violent extremist organization long-term capability is crucial to understanding which type of operations should receive the priority of limited resources.

Over the past 30 years, multiple countries have conducted retribution operations around the world. Most notably, the US mission against Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Other recent US operations include Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (AQ-I, 2006) and Abu Ayyub Al-Masri (Daesh, 2010). Israel and other countries have conducted retribution operations against violent extremist organizations around the world. A shortlist of high valued individuals targeted by Israel includes: Khalil al-Wazir (PLO, 1988), Fathi Shaqaqi (PIJ, 1995), Ahmed Ismail Yassin (Hamas, 2004) and Ahmed Jabari (Hamas, 2012). Even while suffering successful retribution operations, Hamas’s operational reach and capability have increased. Equally, Daesh continued to spread after the targeting of Zarqawi and Masri and went onto create a safe haven in Iraq and Syria.

During major combat operations, conventional forces target logistics and communication networks in an effort to prevent, delay, and limit effective adversary military actions. Destroying these nodes breaks the links, which allow communication and movement of supplies to opposition military forces. Looking at the historic aspects of attacking an adversary’s logistic networks, multiple effective examples stand out, using both lethal and non-lethal effects. The shock and awe of the first Gulf War against the Iraqi Army was the ultimate recent example of network targeting. Thirty-nine days of airstrikes, against networks, enabled a 100-hour ground campaign.

Similarly, targeting the networks of violent extremist organizations has proven effective at limiting violent extremist organization operations. Operation Christmas and Operation Rivers of Light are examples of non-lethal operations against a violent extremist organization. Conducted in 2010 and 2011 against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC), specifically FARC transportation networks. Operation Christmas and Operation Rivers of Light effectively removed over 500 guerrillas from the battlefield without firing a shot, including a FARC Commander, a key bomb-maker, and a large cache of weapons. Driving the FARC to the negotiation table in 2012.

The key then becomes finding which Nodes to attack, individuals, physical locations, infrastructure, or some other target or combination thereof. Much research has been conducted on social network analysis and link analysis. Research coming from the University of Maryland illustrated the effectiveness of nodal network targeting to decrease the lethality of violent extremist organizations. This research has shown statistically that retribution operations can create more aggressive or effective violent extremist organizations. In contrast, operations against mid to upper level “staff” will reduce the effectiveness of these same violent extremist organizations. [1] Moving beyond this research, the removal of these mid-level staff by capture operations provides an additional information source for future operations against all levels of the violent extremist organization.

Network targeting is not meant to replace the retribution targeting of high valued individuals. Targeting of the facilitation networks is designed to augment high valued individual targeting by placing indirect pressure on the high valued individuals and reducing the ability of both centralized and decentralized violent extremist organizations to conduct effective operations. Reducing or stopping the number and frequency of violent actions is the goal of any counterterrorism policy.


[1] Spezzano, Francesca, V. S. Subrahmanian, and Aaron Mannes. “Reshaping Terrorist Networks.” Communications of the ACM 57, no. 8 (2014): 60-69. Accessed February 20, 2019. doi:10.1145/2632661.2632664

Photo: AMQ-9 Reaper armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (USAF photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt).


Thomas G. Pledger is an Army Infantry Officer currently serving at the Army National Guard Directorate in Washington, DC.  Tom has deployed to multiple combat zones supporting both the Conventional and Special Operations Forces.  Tom holds a Master in Public Service and Administration from the Bush School of Public Administration at Texas A&M University and a Master of Humanities in Organizational Dynamics, Group Think, and Communication from Tiffin University, and three Graduate Certificates from Texas A&M University in Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and Military Policy and Defense Affairs.  Tom has been a guest lecturer at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute.  Tom’s current academic and professional research is focused on a holistic approach to counter-facilitation/network, stability operations, and unconventional warfare.

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