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Leadership Takeover Mechanisms within Terrorist Organizations

02 November 2016

Recently, many terrorist organizations, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Almoravids in the Western Sahara, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, have witnessed radical changes in leadership, which have had an influence on these organizations as a whole. These changes had an evident impact on the activities of these organizations and how they faced the pressures imposed upon them by the states or other terrorist organizations. These changes are reflected in the various types of relations between these organizations, which vary from alliance to competition, and from conflict to balance.

Remarkably, in this context, there is no one mechanism for dealing with the leadership shift inside these organizations. These shifts are attributed to several factors, relations with the other terrorist organizations, the external pressures facing them, and their ability to devote their efforts to internal cohesion and harmony among different wings of operation.

Fundamental Characteristics:

After the death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016 by a U.S. drone which targeted his parade, the movement’s Shura council issued a decree that Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada would be the leader of the movement, following his position as vice leader tothe former leader. Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, and Mullah Yaqoub, son of the former leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, were appointed as vice leaders for Akhundzada.

Following the death of Zahran Alloush, Commander of Jaysh Al Islam organization in Syria, in December 2015 due to a Russian raidEssam Al Buwaydhani, nicknamed Abo Hammam, was appointed as his successor. Furthermore, Qasim Al Raymi was appointed as Emir of Al Qaeda in Yemen following the death of the former leader Abo Basir Nasir Al Wuhayshi in June 2015, also by a U.S. drone.

Al Qaeda is one of the leading organizations that have dealt with issues in leadership, particularly after the death of their former leader Osama Bin Laden in an operation by the U.S. in May 2011. After his death, Ayman Al Zawahiri was appointed as his successor in June of the same year.

Many trends point out that the death of Bin Laden was the beginning of a new phase for confrontations between terrorist organizations and some of the forces concerned with the crises in the region. It has become the norm to target the main leaders in these terrorist organizations in order to shrink the intensity of threats to security.

However, targeting these organizations was not the only reason that pushed some terrorist organizations to make changes at the leadership level. In this context, some of the organizations witnessed radical changes for other reasons, for example, the escalating conflicts among some of these organizations and the widening scope of internal disputes between the different orientations.

The Nigerian movement Boko Haram is a strong example. The Islamic State (ISIS), to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance to in March 2015, announced overthrowing their leader Abubakar Shekau and appointing Abu Musab Al Barnawi as the new leader for the movement in August 2016, following the escalation of conflicts between the organization and its followers.

Similarly, in July 2015 the Almoravids organization removed their leader Abu Adnan Al Waleed Al Sahrawy and appointed Mukhtar Belmukhtar, nicknamed Khaled Abu Abbas, as their new leader after the former pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Multiple Mechanisms:

Arguably, there are various mechanisms adopted by terrorist organizations to deal with the leadership shift issue. Each mechanism gains a special importance and stature inside these organizations, in such a way that may explain, to a large extent, the escalation of competition and conflict over leadership roles, and the reasons for the decline in the capabilities and activities of these organizations after targeting their leadership. The types of leadership shifting in these organizations can be defined as follows:

1. Selecting their Shura council: This type is one of the most widely spread inside terrorist organizations; it is often used once the first post is vacant after the killing, death or overthrow of the organization’s leader. In this case, the Shura council of the organization meets to make the decision of appointing a new leader. The selection inside the council is by the majority of votes, in case more than one candidate was nominated for the post.

The Taliban movement adopted this mechanism in choosing Mula Akhundzada as the successor to Akhtar Mansour. Al Qaeda in Yemen also followed the same mechanism when they chose Qasim Al Raymi as the leader of the organization (he was preceded by Nasir Al Wuhayshi).

2. Removal: Many times some terrorist organizations witness an escalation in the conflicts between the leader in command and another leader competing for the position. The challenger may then use this opportunity to take the main leadership position through accusations against the current leader. The challenger usually accuses the leader of deviating from the intellectual and ideological path adopted by the organization, and calls for the overthrow of leadership to preserve the organization.

Often, this type of conflict ends with toppling the leader in command and the subsequent takeover of the competing leadership. This was the case for the Almoravids organization when their former leader Abu Adnan Al Waleed Al Sahrawy announced his allegiance to ISIS in May 2015, thereby breaching his allegiance to Al Qaeda. This paved the way for a competing wing under the leadership of Mukhtar Belmukhtar to take on the leadership role.

3. Succession: Terrorist organizations, which are usually under the control of one family, often adopt succession. The organization's leadership position is entrusted to one of the family members after approval from the organization’s Shura council, which is made up of influential people in the organization. Therefore, the person who would take over the leadership position is chosen without many obstacles.

The Haqqani network is an example of this sort of mechanism. The Haqqani family has strong influence, which constantly qualifies one of its members for taking over the leadership position.

4. Change made through a decision by the main leadership: This type of change usually takes place in the affiliate organizations which follow one of the transnational terrorist organizations, as the main leadership sees that there must be a change of leadership in one of their affiliates due to their failure in executing the organization’s strategies and achieving its objectives. This was the case for Boko Haram, also known as the ISIS of West Africa, to which it pledged allegiance, when the leadership in Iraq and Syria issued a decree to appoint Abu Musab Al Barnawi as a leader for the movement after Abubakar Shekau.

It can be said that the adoption of these mechanisms of leadership shifting in terrorist organizations relies mainly on the nature of the organization, its power, its spread, and its organizational as well as intellectual cohesion. Terrorist organizations, especially transnational organizations, often resort to a Shura decision when appointing the new leadership, while the small and affiliate groups often resort to overthrow or dominance when resolving leadership shifts in the organization, particularly in light of the escalation of internal conflicts between the different wings.