Department or Program

International Relations

Additional Department or Program (if any)

Political Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Nadya Hajj


Since the beginning of the War on Terror in 2001, the United States has employed a plethora of methods to destroy terrorist organizations, ranging from conventional war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to espionage and, more recently, cyber warfare. However, with the advent of drones, the United States has increasingly relied on one particular strategic tool for fighting global terror: targeted killing. Namely the assassination of a leader or key member of a terrorist group to disrupt or destroy the organization. Though the effectiveness of targeting has improved in recent years, strategic options regarding how to capitalize on instances of success have not. My research attempts to fill this policy void by asking two central research questions. First, does targeted killing reduce the rate of terrorist attacks post targeted killing? Second, what can be done to further reduce terrorist attacks post targeted killing? To evaluate these questions, I use a multi-method analysis combining a quantitative analysis of the frequency of terrorist attacks, as well as a qualitative, comparative analysis of a variety of case studies on targeted killings from numerous terrorist groups and geographic areas. Using the examples of Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Saleh Shehadeh, I argue that, while targeted killing is ineffective in terms of destroying or permanently debilitating terrorist organizations, this strategy does manage to create a six-month reduction in attacks. Even so, targeted killing will not reach its greatest potential until policy makers stop simply moving to the next target, and instead find a way to better capitalize on the benefits it can provide.