The use of high value targeting (HVT)—using military and police forces to kill or capture leaders of insurgent and terrorist groups—has increased exponentially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. HVT operations have become the primary tool of the United States for combating Al Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide, and while these operations have eliminated scores of terrorists and insurgents from the battlefield, they haven’t always led to strategic success. Utilizing a data set of 20 distinct HVT campaigns dating back to the end of World War II, this article will highlight the positive and negative effects of HVT efforts throughout history and identify six key lessons from past campaigns and their implications for the United States. The body of the paper looks at the important issues inherent to any HVT campaign, including the benefits of having a local force carry out the campaign, the importance of incorporating HVT into a larger counterinsurgency strategy, and the necessity of understanding the dynamics of the group being targeted.
The United States has historically struggled in all of these areas, leading to difficulties in achieving success through HVT operations, but these historical lessons also provide opportunities for progress. The article concludes with important implications for the United States and identifies strategies for improvement in these pivotal areas, including expanding relationships with host governments, leveraging new technologies, and contemplating unique ways to approach target sets. Failure to make these changes, the article argues, will leave the United States with the same strategic failures it had with the infamous “deck of cards” in Iraq, where the focus on HVT at the expense of counterinsurgency both helped create and failed to stop the spread of a nationwide insurgency.
The image people often have is plane-loads of these [jihadists] flying out, but that’s the wrong image: It’s people filtering out in dribs and drabs.