Effects of Leadership Decapitation on Social Movements, 1960-1995

Open Access
Simmons, Noah Nathan
Area of Honors:
Political Science
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • James A Piazza, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael Barth Berkman, Honors Advisor
  • Decapitation
  • Social Movements
  • Assassination
  • Political Science
Since the end of the Cold War, political scientists’ focus has toward the study of sub-state actors. Particularly in the post-9/11 world, significant attention has been devoted towards the study of terrorism: its causes, how to fight it, how to stop it. For centuries, “decapitation” tactics, arresting or killing opposing leaders, have been commonly used to fight groups. The question has recently arisen as to how successful these tactics are. In following with the post-9/11 interest in terrorist groups, significant quantitative research has been conducted into the effectiveness of these leadership removal tactics. These studies have found that decapitation is largely counterproductive in dissuading terrorist groups, but this research has not been expanded to social movements. With the recent international uprising in grassroots-based social movements (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, etc.) not seen in this quantity since the Civil Rights and Cold War days, it is important to understand which tactics are effective for countries to use to potentially limit or dissuade these groups. This study takes a quantitative approach to determing the effects that decapitation has on social movement groups, looking at data from the United States from 1960-1995. Contrary to the findings in the terrorist literature, the data suggest that leadership removal imposed on social movements can be a successful and crippling tactic.