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David Miller: Israel’s ‘Decapitation’ Strike

David Miller Online

Israel’s ‘Decapitation’ Strike

Last year, this column wrote that Israel’s deployment of F-16 fighters to attack leading Palestinian militants marked a significant development in the conflict between the two sides. This tactic demonstrated that Ariel Sharon was prepared to utilise all resources within Israel’s vast arsenal and even though there was still the mention of peace, the Israelis were prepared to fight a war. However, the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin has added yet another dimension to the conflict as this is the first time that Israel has launched what can be described as a ‘Decapitation Strike’ and Yassin is the highest Palestinian figure of any movement to be killed. The purpose of a Decapitation Strike is to exactly as the term means: to behead. In this case, the Israeli government took the decision to kill Hamas’ spiritual and ideological figurehead and with Yassin’s death it is likely that the guidance and control of the organisation could be seriously disrupted.

Terrorist movements, such as Hamas and al-Qaeda operate on two distinct levels. The lower of the two is the operational level. Those at this level function within their particular city, country or region with a certain degree of autonomy from their superiors and anonymity from others along side them. They are either grouped into a cell or a unit of some description constitute a locally formed entity such as those within Indonesia and South East Asia. They are often staffed by people born in the country they intend to target with some members drafted in from elsewhere. The majority of the team will have resided within that particular country or area for considerable time and with them acting as sleepers it makes it very difficult for security forces to identify and counter them.

It is likely those at this level will choose the target, the time and location of any attack, the role and placement of each person and the method of transporting and delivering the bomb. One or two of them will act as the leaders or point men and they will liase with the command level, arrange the financing, expertise and materials if required. This was the role Mohammad Atta took in 2001 and unfortunately for the security services and police, any arrests they made in response to a bombing or attack are likely to only include these people.

Above this level is the command structure and so often the level that is least effected by any war on terrorism be it in Northern Ireland, the Middle East or Spain. This is the level on which figure such as Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Yassin sit. It provides the financing, expertise and training to those on the operational plane yet it also offers an ideological guidance as well and this has only become clearer as more is learned about the workings and structure of groups such as al-Qaeda. It is a very powerful instrument that terrorist movements have as it gives those cells and groups operating throughout the world a banner under which they can claim to fight and reason for committing the acts that they do. It also magnifies the image of power, capability and threat of that particular group. Had those who carried out the Bali attacks in 2002 simply been identified, as a local militant group then the image they cast would have remained that of a dangerous fanatical movement existing on the fringe of Indonesian society. Instead, they were linked to the banner of al-Qaeda and their movement and their atrocity took on a new, more powerful dimension. Suddenly governments and the media talked of them as though they were part of this global terrorist network seeking to isolate western countries in this part of the world and establish a hard-line Islamic line throughout South East Asia. Even though the link to bin Laden was never clearly defined, after the Bali bombings the picture was created that his reach stretched this far and even New Zealand and Australia were potential targets for attack.

The killing of Yassin and the hunt for bin Laden are examples of governments and coalitions striking at the command level. Israel’s aim was to deprive Hamas of its ideological and spiritual core as much as anything else. Hamas will survive Yassin’s death but it will remain to be seen as to whether it can remain as lethal as it has been up until now. This depends on there being a successor to Yassin, the strength of the command and control structure and whether the body will disintegrate after the removal of the head. Whatever happens the ramifications will be watched closely by the United States in its war on al-Qaeda.


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