By Daniel DePetris
Six days after 9/11, President George W. Bush gathered with his cabinet for a meeting on how the United States planned to respond to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. The man at the top of Washington’s target list was none other than al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. “I want justice,” Bush told the reporters assembled before the meeting began. “And there’s an old poster out West … I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”
Twenty-two years and three months later, Israel is using similar language as it seeks to hunt down and kill Yehya Sinwar, the 61-year-old leader of Hamas in Gaza and an architect of the biggest attack on Israel since the state was founded in 1948. A spokesman for the Israeli military has called Sinwar “ a dead man walking.” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has vowed that the entire Hamas leadership, Sinwar included, will be wiped out. “We will get to Yehya Sinwar and eliminate him,” he said last month. “If the residents of Gaza get there ahead of us, that will shorten the war.”
The Israel Defense Forces are well on their way. Israeli ground operations expanded to the south of Gaza weeks ago, an area of the enclave even more populated than Gaza City. The priority is Khan Younis, a city bursting at the seams with Palestinians who were displaced from the north and who are now being ordered to move yet again, this time toward the Gaza-Egypt border. As Israeli troops make their way through the city, Sinwar and the rest of Hamas’ political and military hierarchy are trying to remain elusive. While the Israelis don’t know Sinwar’s exact location, they suspect that he’s sitting somewhere in the terrorist group’s underground tunnel system. And he’s still giving orders; Sinwar signed off on the weeklong humanitarian truce with Israel in late November.
Israel believes that killing Sinwar will shorten the war and make its quest to destroy Hamas easier. A shorter war would obviously be in Israel’s interest. The country is being excoriated at the United Nations for plunging Gaza into hell on earth and for killing far too many civilians in the course of its military operations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was so concerned about Gaza’s humanitarian situation that he invoked Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, which permits him to unilaterally elevate an issue to the Security Council’s immediate attention. (This was the first time this specific article was used since 1971.)
More than 17,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to Palestinian authorities. Not enough aid is getting into the enclave, and the aid that does get through isn’t disbursed to where it needs to go. Even the United States, Israel’s strongest backer, is increasingly concerned by the level of casualties, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warning the Israelis to take much better care in their targeting. The longer the war drags on, the more heat Israel will receive.
Yet will neutralizing Sinwar lead to a shorter war, as Israeli officials claim?
It’s tough not to sympathize with the prospect. Sinwar, after all, has been a key member of Hamas since its foundation in the late 1980s. Indeed, he’s considered a co-founder of the organization. The man got his start as Hamas’ internal enforcer, weeding out spies suspected of passing intelligence to Israel. Sinwar’s stature took off during his 22-year stint in an Israeli prison, where he emerged as Hamas’ de facto leader inside the prison system and would be a central player in the 2011 deal that traded captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held on various terrorism and criminal offenses (himself included). For Israel, Sinwar’s role as the man ultimately responsible for the Oct. 7 attack is icing on the cake.
Nobody is disputing that targeting Sinwar is legally or morally justified. Killing him would be a justifiable act of self-defense and a sign that if Hamas or any other terrorist organization dares to strike Israel, the bill will eventually be paid in full.
Even so, it would be premature for Israel to conclude that Sinwar’s death will, over time, result in Hamas’ total and complete annihilation.
Terrorism scholars are divided on the question of whether killing the top echelon of a terrorist group is a net positive for those doing the targeting. Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman’s scholarship suggests that taking out a terrorist group’s leadership is an efficient way to weaken the entire group overall. When skilled bomb-makers, leaders, financiers and commanders are taken off the battlefield, the group is forced to promote less skilled people as replacements, leading to attacks that are less impactful and recruitment efforts that are less effective. As with any organization, removing talent is a surefire way of degrading its work.
Others, however, conclude that leadership targeting isn’t all Champagne and roses. Professor Jenna Jordan of the Georgia Institute of Technology argues that terrorist groups tend to adapt to leadership decapitation and, if able to draw on some social support, can survive and thrive well into the future. Terrorist groups will respond to the death of a leader or commander with retaliatory attacks or incite their followers in the West to conduct an act of revenge. And if the terrorist group being targeted is known to have a bureaucratic structure, as Hamas most certainly does, then replacements will be found and roles quickly filled. It’s not like Israel hasn’t gone after the top dogs of Hamas before.
The debate about how best to counter terrorism will persist as long as terrorism remains a problem. But in Israel, there is no debate: Sinwar needs to go.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. This article was published in the Chicago Tribune and distributed by Tribune Content Agency.