Fanning the Flames? Leadership Transition and Violence in Terrorist Groups

48 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011 Last revised: 8 Feb 2012

Date Written: 2011


The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism lists leadership targeting as the first of four priorities of action. Although leadership removal has been a common strategy for many governments dealing with terrorism, there has been almost no empirical research on the success of these programs. What is the effect on a terrorist group when its leader is removed? Does the group become more violent, out of a desire for vengeance, or does it commit fewer atrocities? This study looks at eight well-known terrorist groups that have survived multiple leadership transitions. The groups selected (Basque Homeland and Freedom, Hamas, Hezbollah, Irish Republican Army, Palestine Liberation Organization, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Red Brigades, Sendero Luminoso) represent a broad geographic area, a wide spectrum of ideologies, and a diverse array of organizational structures. Leadership data were compiled from open-source records by the author, and the Global Terrorism Database was used for attack information. The resulting cross-sectional time series dataset consists of over 2,800 group-months from 1970 to 2008. The dataset was analyzed using linear regression on logged dependent variables: the number of attacks, victims, and casualties-per-attack in the months following a leadership turnover. This study finds that leadership transition generally causes a noticeable and statistically significant increase in attacks and casualties for the months immediately afterward.

Keywords: terrorism, terrorist groups, terrorist leadership, targeted removal, leadership transition, Global Terrorism Database

Suggested Citation

Dickenson, Matthew, Fanning the Flames? Leadership Transition and Violence in Terrorist Groups (2011). Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Matthew Dickenson (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

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