Remove the head of an insurgent group and you risk it growing back, stronger and smarter

The capture of Al Qaeda commander Hisham Ashmawi has opened up the age-old military question of whether it is truly possible, or wise, to decapitate hostile enemy groups

Hisham Ashmawi after his capture in the former ISIS stronghold of Derna, Libya
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The mugshot shows a bloodied, bandaged captive, glowering defiantly despite his injuries. Had Hisham Ashmawi had his way, though, there would have been nothing left of him to photograph at all. When Egypt's most wanted terrorist was arrested in neighbouring Libya two weeks ago, the suicide vest he routinely wore failed to detonate, allowing security forces the rare triumph of taking him alive.

A former special forces officer in the Egyptian army, Ashmawi was as competent as he was ruthless. Over the past five years, his Al-Qaeda-backed cell has been blamed for many of Egypt's worst terror attacks, including the massacre of 22 border guards in 2014 and the 2015 murder of the country's top prosecutor Hisham Barakat. In a country still reeling from its Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Ashmawi's capture is one small step towards rebuilding its image as a stable, tourist-friendly corner of the Middle East.

Or is it? For as they begin Ashmawi’s interrogation, security officials may be asking themselves a few tough questions too. Chief among them will be the matter of whether the capture of a high-profile terrorist will incapacitate his organisation, as intended, or make him a martyr and encourage even more followers.

“There’s no easy answer, I’m afraid,” says Roger MacMillan, a former British army officer and security consultant, with 20 years’ experience in the Middle East. “If a terrorist leader is tried and executed, he may become an icon. On the other hand, if he gives away his secrets and his accomplices’ names, he may destroy his organisation.”

This dilemma has troubled military minds across history. From the armies of Alexander the Great as they swept through Afghanistan, through to the Pentagon chiefs who hunted down Saddam Hussein, commanders have always tried to “decapitate” opposing forces at an organisational level.

Yet, after years of killing chieftains in the valleys of Central Asia, Alexander’s forces realised that they were battling a hydra whose heads always grew back. Two thousand years later, British imperial forces made the same complaint. And when Saddam was hauled out of his spider hole near Tikrit, 15 years ago, Washington’s triumphant cry of “We got him” was certainly not followed by peace in Iraq. The inconvenient truth, it seems, is that for every insurgent leader whose capture proves a success, there’s another for whom it backfires.

That, however, has not stopped the West investing a great deal in the art of the kill-or-capture in recent years. In the wake of 9-11, Washington has developed what is probably the most sophisticated man-hunting machine on the planet. Thanks to eyes in the sky, mobile phone triangulation and metadata intelligence tools, the CIA today can track down even the best-hidden fugitives, from an Al Shabab commander in rural Somalia to Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In the case of the Bin Laden, it was considered effort well spent, if only because of his symbolic value. By the time special forces killed him in 2011, Al Qaeda was already on the wane − defeated in Iraq, and caught off balance by the broadly peaceful nature of the early Arab Spring.

But as long as he was free, Bin Laden remained a charismatic figurehead for jihadists everywhere. Killing him destroyed that sense of invincibility. And while his successor, the elderly, bespectacled Ayman Al Zawahiri, was an equally formidable tactician, nobody wanted to put his face on a T-shirt.

Arguably the opposite, however, happened with Saddam, the ace of spades in Washington’s card deck of 55 Most Wanted Iraqis. As a reporter in Baghdad at the time of his capture in 2003, I remember the smiles on the faces of US commanders, who hoped it would quell what was then a relatively low-level insurgency. The problem was that the insurgents were happy too. Most had no desire to see Saddam back in power, and with him safely out of the way, they knew many more would be willing to join their cause. Four months later, Iraq was on the brink of all-out meltdown.

An insurgent leader’s personal appeal, though, is not the only factor. Just as relevant is their conduct on the ground. Forced to spend their final days in hiding, neither Bin Laden nor Saddam were active in the field. By contrast, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, made his mark in the most bloodthirsty way possible, personally beheading US hostages and targeting Iraq’s Shia Muslims. Such was his viciousness that even Al Qaeda disowned him. America, meanwhile, put him at the top of its kill list, hoping to thwart his goal of a Sunni-Shia civil war.

Yet when he died in a drone strike in 2006, the euphoria was once again short-lived. Thanks to Zarqawi’s contacts, wealthy backers and reputation as a brutally uncompromising warrior, an estimated 10,000 foreign fighters had already followed him into Iraq. They simply continued the sectarian conflict he had already ignited. In the six months after his death, violence grew worse, forcing President George W Bush to send in thousands of extra soldiers in the so-called “troop surge” of 2007.

It was, however, the killing of Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub Al Masri, that really demonstrated the potential pitfalls of the decapitation strategy.

Publicity-shy and uncharismatic, Al Masri proved a poor leader − so much so that by 2008, the US had downgraded the price on his head from $25 million to a mere $100,000. Two years later, he was killed in a US raid, hailed at the time as the final death knell of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In his place, though, came a battle-hardened insurgent known as Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the man who went on to become the leader of ISIS, the movement that has brought more carnage to the Middle East than any other.

This, unfortunately, is an example of what security experts calls the “survival of the fittest” theory. Applied to the world of terrorism, this means that every killing of a given organisation’s leader presents a valuable learning opportunity for their successors. As Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me when ISIS swept into Mosul in 2014: “Baghdadi is actually more capable than the man he took over from. It’s one of those unfortunate situations where taking out the previous leadership has made things worse, not better.”

True, the opposite can also apply. Taking out a particularly bloodthirsty leader may lead to someone more amenable taking over, or even remove a block to peace talks. In the same way, British forces in southern Afghanistan claimed that the removal of Mullah Sadiq, a legendary Taliban bomb maker, led to significant drops in the numbers of IED attacks. By the following year, though, they were as high as ever, as other bomb makers replicated his knowledge. As with everything else in the messy world of counter-insurgency, straightforward answers are rare.

Still, as modern warfare increases its reliance on aerial surveillance and armed drones, the use of “decapitation” as a strategy is likely to continue. Regardless of whether it actually works, the killing of an organisational figurehead provides a sense of public spectacle and evidence that some form of progress is being made. For many military commanders, these benefits are hard to give up.

For proof, look no further than Baghdadi himself. Aside from one public speech in Mosul’s Grand Mosque in 2014, he has spent almost all his time as Caliph on the run from drone strikes, and was badly wounded by one in 2015. Since then, much ISIS’s empire has crumbled. As far as Washington is concerned, however, nothing will draw a line under group’s demise as clearly as another announcement of “We got him.”

Colin Freeman is a foreign affairs journalist and former chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, who was based in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. He is the author of Kidnapped: Life as a Somali pirate hostage