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The Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control within Terrorist Organizations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2020

Durham University
Anouk S. Rigterink, Assistant Professor in Quantitative Comparative Politics, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University,


This paper investigates how counterterrorism targeting terrorist leaders affects terrorist attacks. This effect is theoretically ambiguous and depends on whether terrorist groups are modeled as unitary actors or not. The paper exploits a natural experiment provided by strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) “hitting” and “missing” terrorist leaders in Pakistan. Results suggest that terrorist groups increase the number of attacks they commit after a drone “hit” on their leader compared with after a “miss.” This increase is statistically significant for 3 out of 6 months after a hit, when it ranges between 47.7% and 70.3%. Additional analysis of heterogenous effects across groups and leaders, and the impact of drone hits on the type of attack, terrorist group infighting, and splintering, suggest that principal-agent problems—(new) terrorist leaders struggling to control and discipline their operatives—account for these results better than alternative theoretical explanations.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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I am grateful to Dapo Akande, Margherita Belgioioso, Kyle Beardsley, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Sabrina Eisenbarth, Tarek Ghani, Victoire Girard, Maia King, Julien Labonne, Anandi Mani, Guy Michaels, Linda Nostbakken, Rick van der Ploeg, Chiara Ravetti, Jacob N. Shapiro, Nelson Ruiz, Gerhard Toews, Tony Venables, Danny Quah, Simon Quinn, Thierry Verdier, Diana Weinhold, the editor, and several anonymous reviewers, as well as seminar participants at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of Oxford, the University of East Anglia, the American Political Science Association Annual Conference 2018, the Political Studies Association Annual Conference 2018, and the Oxford Political Violence Conference for extremely helpful comments on this paper. I also thank Paul Staniland, Asfandyar Mir, and Sameer Lalwani for generously sharing their data. Most importantly, I thank Sam Vincent, who is the inspiration behind this paper and without whom this would never have been written. Note that some of the research for this paper was done when the author was affiliated with the London School of Economics and Political Science (partially funded by FP7-IDEAS-ERC-269441), the University of Oxford, and Princeton University, respectively. All errors remain my own. Replication materials are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:


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