The Age of the Manhunt

Never before have individuals been so threatening to the security of nation-states. And never before have nations had so many tools to dispatch these enemies. But is the effort worth the risk?


The Navy SEALs’ surgical dispatch of Osama bin Laden on May 2 local time in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ended the 13-year hunt for the terrorist mastermind. But despite the current fascination with the satellite surveillance, stealth helicopters, and signal intercepts that may have enabled the raid, strategic manhunts themselves are almost as old as organized warfare itself. Alexander the Great pursued Darius III all the way from Mosul to eastern Iran in 331 B.C. to cement his conquest of Persia, and the Romans targeted Hannibal for two decades as he fled eastward in exile after the Second Punic War. The United States has deployed forces abroad with similar objectives nearly a dozen times since the 6th Cavalry was sent into Mexico to pursue Geronimo in 1885.

Yet the killing of bin Laden (who, coincidentally, was code named Geronimo in the Navy SEAL operation) has raised the question of whether killing an individual actually matters. Some have argued that decapitation strategies are ineffective or actually counterproductive, especially when it comes to the drone-strike attacks that have taken out al Qaeda members in Pakistan and Yemen. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that bin Laden’s death offers an opportunity to end the "war on terror" itself. Having just finished a book on the history of strategic manhunts in which I found that killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success, I think the manhunt skeptics may have a point. And yet, it is unlikely that such campaigns will disappear from America’s arsenal. Even if bin Laden had never been found, the manhunt is simply engrained too deeply in the American psyche and in the technology of modern war. The manhunt is here to stay — and if anything, we’re entering an era in which it will become a more prominent policy tool.

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