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Is Leadership Decapitation Effective at Sustainably Ending Civil War?

Is Leadership Decapitation Effective at Sustainably Ending Civil War?

Photo credit: Wikipedia (Original artwork by Gustave Moreau 1875-1876)

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ryckman, K. C. (2020). Lasting peace or temporary calm? Rebel group decapitation and civil war outcomes. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 37(2), 172-192. DOI: 10.1177/0738894217724135

Talking points

  • Leadership decapitation increases the likelihood of civil war termination, generally speaking, and especially in cases of termination due to low rebel group activity.
  • There is no indication that leadership decapitation increases or decreases the likelihood of government victory in a civil war.
  • Leadership decapitation is only effective at terminating a civil war without risk of recurrence when coupled with a military victory by the government, otherwise there is a good chance the rebel group will regroup and continue fighting at a later date.


“Leadership decapitation” (the successful killing or capture of an armed group’s top leader) is a widely used strategy for counterterrorism as well as against rebel groups and criminal organizations, but its effectiveness is debated in academic research. The mixed results can be attributed to the range of campaigns, targets, and actions analyzed in the research as well as varied understandings of what is meant by “success.” In an attempt to provide clarity on the effectiveness of leadership decapitation, Kirssa Cline Ryckman specifically examines the short-term and long-term effects of leadership decapitation of rebel groups in the context of civil war. With this focus, she asks whether leadership decapitation leads to conflict termination (and, if so, what kind) and, further, to the non-recurrence of civil war, a longer-term effect that has received little attention in existing scholarship.

Using the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) Armed Conflict Data, the author examines civil wars from 1989 to 2014 with a minimum of 25 battle-related deaths in a given year and fought between a government and an internal, organized armed opposition group. Within this dataset, she identifies 54 cases of armed group leadership decapitation, 30 of which were considered successful, in that the civil war ended in the year of the decapitation or the following year. She then examines these 30 cases of successful leadership decapitation to understand what impact decapitation has on the quality of conflict termination and on conflict recurrence. In measuring the quality of conflict termination, she identifies four termination outcomes: government victory, low activity, rebel victory, and negotiated settlement—two of which (government victory and low activity) are considered favorable to the government. A government victory is considered the best outcome for a government because the government achieves victory without any policy concessions, as would be required with a negotiated settlement, and the rebel group is dismantled. A low-activity outcome, “in which the rebellion dies outs but is not necessarily defeated,” is also favorable because no policy concessions were granted, and the immediate threat has dissolved. The author measures conflict recurrence by whether the armed conflict recurred between the same government and rebel group within three years of its termination, which is a common measurement in civil war research.

The author conducts a series of tests to understand the short-term effects (quality of conflict termination) and long-term effects (conflict recurrence) of leadership decapitation. After reviewing the existing academic research, she posits four hypotheses for how killing or capturing a rebel leader may impact the quality of conflict termination and conflict recurrence. When assessing short-term effects, the author expects that leadership decapitation will increase the likelihood of (1) civil war termination and (2) especially forms of civil war termination favorable to the government, including “government victory and low activity outcomes.” Her expectations for long-term effects are that leadership decapitation (3) will have no effect on civil war recurrence and/or (4) will decrease the chances of civil war recurrence only if the war ends in military victory for the government. 

The author’s expectations regarding quality of conflict termination and conflict recurrence are generally supported by the results. In the short-term, leadership decapitation increases the likelihood of civil war termination, and especially in the case of conflict termination via low activity, which is considered a favorable outcome for the government. Yet, there was no indication that leadership decapitation has any effect on the likelihood of government victory in a civil war. There were no cases of leadership decapitation and rebel victory. Her analysis also reveals there is no meaningful relationship between leadership decapitation and negotiated settlement outcomes. The results also indicate that leadership decapitation has no long-term effect on conflict recurrence. Generally speaking, a war that ends in decapitation (when not specifying civil war outcome) is no more or less likely to recur. The author also considers the impact of specific outcomes—government victory and low activity—on civil war recurrence. In her results, there are no cases of recurrence in wars that end with decapitation and government military victory. Decapitation had only a slight “dampening effect” on recurrence for wars that ended in low activity. (She excludes rebel victory and negotiated settlement outcomes because there were no cases of the former, and there was no meaningful relationship determined with the latter.)

The author concludes that for leadership decapitation to be an effective strategy for terminating a civil war without risk of recurrence, it must be in conjunction with a military victory by the government. Therefore, leadership decapitation is not a “permanent or… long-term strategy” because without a military victory there is a chance for civil war recurrence. In the case of a decapitation absent a government victory, the author recommends governments and international partners monitor and pacify rebel groups because otherwise they may regroup and continue fighting.

Informing Practice

Although the author finds a relationship between leadership decapitation that leads to government military victory and the non-recurrence of civil war, there is a note of caution. Her results indicate that leadership decapitation is most strongly correlated not with government military victory but with low rebel activity outcomes—and these present a risk that the armed conflict may recur. In addition, almost half of the total cases of leadership decapitation did not result in any termination of hostilities. Leadership decapitation, therefore, is not a reliable strategy for sustainably ending a civil war. Furthermore, we must consider the pro-government framing of this research, as it is primarily concerned with testing for favorable outcomes for the government. As history makes clear, rebel groups are not uniformly bad and states are not uniformly good. Although both perpetrate violence in a civil war, the former may be fighting to address legitimate grievances and the latter may be thoroughly oppressive. In other words, conflict termination on the government’s terms may not always be in the interest of all citizens, especially marginalized groups. A far better approach to ending civil war and doing so sustainably—as opposed to creating martyrs of rebel group leaders and risking conflict recurrence—is to address the legitimate grievances of affected groups through negotiation.

In cases where leadership decapitation has already occurred, however, and may have resulted in lower levels of rebel activity, concerned actors should do what they can to ensure that conflict recurrence is pre-empted, by engaging with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) on two fronts: (1) violence mitigation and (2) negotiation.  

Short of immediate disarmament and demobilization, violence mitigation can include encouraging ANSA compliance with international humanitarian law and facilitating dialogue between local government and ANSAs. As noted in a previous Digest analysis, the NGO Geneva Call encourages ANSAs to sign deeds of commitments—public agreements that declare their support for a particular humanitarian norm established in international law, such as banning landmines, protecting children, or prohibiting sexual violence. Additionally, the UN stabilization mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has employed a “local agreements strategy,” in which local government representatives engage in dialogue and sign civilian protection agreements with ANSAs.

These methods showcase how ANSAs can be engaged in an effort to reduce immediate violence and protect civilians, but in order to resolve underlying grievances ANSAs must also be engaged in negotiation. A brief by the Danish Institute for International Studies notes that, in conflict zones with many ANSAs, these groups are most commonly included in short-term security sector reform, such as disarmament and demobilization, yet excluded from long-term peace processes. As a remedy to this exclusion, the brief advocates uniting Track 1 (political elites) and Track 3 (grassroots) negotiations. By taking advantage of the lull in armed conflict sometimes brought forth by leadership removal, NGOs and international organizations can work to mitigate ongoing violence perpetrated by ANSAs with the ultimate goal of facilitating national-level negotiation and preventing civil war recurrence.

Continued Reading

Hoffman, B., & Schneckner, S. (2011). NGOs and nonstate armed actors. United States Institute for Peace. Retrieved on September 7, 2020, from

Peace Science Digest. (2018, June 26). Influencing armed nonstate actors to comply with humanitarian norms. Retrieved on September 3, 2020, from

Philipsen, L. (2019, October 10). Armed non-state actors need to be included in pragmatic peacebuilding. Danish Institute for International Studies. Retrieved on September 3, 2020, from


Geneva Call:

Key Words:  Civil war, conflict recurrence, conflict termination, leadership decapitation

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