By Anne Speckhard
As published in Homeland Security Today:
Last week’s U.S. airstrike on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds force, was both decried and celebrated across the Middle East and in the West by many disparate groups. Those who celebrated included American servicemen whose comrades-in-arms had been killed and maimed in the hundreds by the Iranian-manufactured armor penetrating EFPs used in roadside attacks orchestrated by Soleimani during the U.S. coalition-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Likewise, Syrians whose friends and family had been killed and butchered under Soleimani’s attempts to save Assad and quell their Arab Spring revolution took to the streets to celebrate. Many Iraqis also celebrated after having watched helplessly as thousands of anti-corruption and anti-Iranian influence demonstrators were recently killed and injured under his orders to fire upon them with live ammunition.
Yet the Iranian-back militias in Iraq were able to marshal over one hundred thousand “mourners” to fill Baghdad streets for his funeral march, a march that also involved firing bullets into demonstrators who refused to yield them passage through central Baghdad.
There’s no question that as Soleimani built up his strong network of brutal proxy militias acting inside Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria that he was responsible for killing, maiming and injuring thousands of innocents. But did this qualify him for targeted assassination? In the U.S., many are glad he’s dead, although the repercussions of how he died raise important policy issues and questions about the immediate and long-term repercussions of this American act of warfare on Iraqi soil.
Since the mid-1970’s U.S. policy (according to U.S. executive order 11905) prohibited U.S. government agencies from participating in assassinations of political figures. However, killing terrorists has been viewed through an entirely different lens. The Reagan administration, for instance, targeted Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in 1987 citing later questionable intelligence reports about his having been behind terrorist attacks, as well as plotting new and imminent attacks. Despite President Reagan’s attack on Qaddafi, in the early 2000’s, U.S. officials still strongly protested against Israel’s campaign of targeted assassinations during the Palestinian’s second intifada, labeling them as violating international law. But following 9-11, and the desire to bring down the leadership of al Qaeda, combined with the advent of unmanned drone warfare which could spare the lives of special forces sent in for kill and capture raids, U.S. targeted assassinations of terrorists went on steroids—particularly during the Obama administration.
The legalities of the targeted assassinations of terrorists was heatedly debated during the Obama administration, particularly when American Anwar al Awlaki, and later his American teenage son were both killed by separate U.S. drone strikes. However, the U.S. government has generally been in favor of killing terrorists—even Americans—who have gone to live among or serve terrorist groups, as long as they could clearly be labelled as a terrorist posing an imminent threat. The collateral damage of killing their family members and those around them has also raised concerns.
The legal and ethical difficulties surrounding the killing of Soleimani, however, revolve around the fact that he was involved in terrorism while also serving as a high-level government official, making the airstrike both an act of killing a terrorist, as well as an act of warfare against another sovereign nation. As former Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman pointed out, killing Soleimani was the equivalent of Iran killing the commander of the U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. “If Iran had killed the commander of U.S. Central Command, what would we consider it to be?” Ambassador Silliman asked. Clearly, from Iran’s perspective, the airstrike killing him was tantamount to an act of war.
Yet, when it comes to Iran, the whole idea of respecting nation-states, who are generally expected to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, becomes complicated as General Soleimani’s leadership in Iran has been a major facilitator of terror, as have Iranian policies themselves. However, the Quds force, an Iranian government organization, that Soleimani commanded was recently designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization making this distinction between state and non-state actors designated as terrorists even more unclear.
During Obama’s term, the argument was made that terrorists could be targeted for assassination when they posed an imminent threat to the U.S. In this killing, the Trump administration has argued that the act was one of deterrence, that Soleimani was actively plotting against U.S. targets. However, Jane Arraf of NPR reports that the Iraqi Prime Minister has announced that Soleimani was traveling to Iraq at his request to try to deescalate tensions with the U.S. These may not be mutually exclusive, and both statements may be true.
Whether or not it was ethical, or legal under international law, to kill Soleimani, most Americans do not regret his death—far from it. Yet the repercussions are chilling.
The fallout thus far has been the Iraqi parliament declaring the targeted assassination as an illegal act of war and voting for the U.S. forces to exit Iraq. Likewise, the spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces announced this past weekend new restrictions on the movement of coalition forces, including U.S. troops, in the air and on the ground, conditioned on receiving approval from Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces. These restrictions follow limitations that had already been placed on troop movements to be coordinated with the Joint Operation Command of top Iraqi military commanders.
From the Iraqi point of view it should be kept in mind that Abu al-Muhandis, head of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia that attacked the U.S. embassy, was killed alongside Soleimani, and that al-Muhandis is considered a hero in Iraq by some sectors due to his being credited with being a key leader in the Popular Mobilization Forces that helped save Baghdad and rid Iraq of ISIS. Gratitude over the defeat of ISIS explains some of Iraqi outrage. Al Muhandis, however, was also Soleimani’s right-hand man of late, and many others in Iraq viewed him as the iron fist of Iran inside Iraq and did not regret his death whatsoever.
Currently, the U.S. military has announced a pause to its fight with ISIS, stating that all U.S. forces will now be diverted to protecting American diplomats, bases and interests. This pause is occurring despite a recent growth in ISIS activity in Iraq, with some saying the numbers of active cadres hiding in poorly governed mountainous areas between Iraq proper and the semi-independent Kurdistan region of Iraq are similar to the numbers of ISIS cadres active when ISIS first began. NATO also temporarily suspended all training activities in Iraq due to safety concerns, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan announced this past Saturday.
Currently the U.S. has about 5,000 personnel in Iraq to combat ISIS, a fight Soleimani is ironically credited with aiding—although in Syria, Assad was also known for playing a double game with ISIS, using them to make himself look better, trading oil and electricity with ISIS, and fighting the rebels more than ISIS. Another 3,000 U.S. service members were sent to the region following the assassination of Soleimani. As the Iraqi government announces that that U.S. forces must exit, it remains to be seen if Kurdistan may defy the central government and invite U.S. forces to remain present to fight ISIS.
On the Iranian side, Iran has announced that it will no longer abide by the 2015 nuclear deal that the Europeans were still trying to salvage. Red flags of jihad were raised in Qom, Iran, signaling that the country is ready for war and to avenge Soleimani’s death. Mourners in Iran also carried red Shiite flags signaling their support for revenge. In addition, Esmail Qaani, the new Quds leader, also signaled his support for revenge in gestures touching his throat as he honored his fallen comrade’s death. Trump, who has alienated many allies throughout Europe continues to saber-rattle and escalate the situation with tweets threatening cultural sites inside Iran and sanctions upon Iraq if the U.S. military is forced out.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has issued advisories for Americans to leave Iraq and other areas in the region and security has been heightened, even inside U.S. borders, out of fear of attacks on Americans. This is not an unfounded fear, as for years, U.S. intelligence officials and experts have warned that Iranian Hezbollah sleeper cells are dotted throughout the world and ready to rise in short order on behalf of Iranian interests. In Iraq, Americans queuing at Baghdad and Basra airports raised concerns for this author of when these types of advisories occur, does this sudden congregation of Americans at insecure regional airports create convenient mass targets as they attempt to exit to safety?
On the positive side, both Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Iranian government have issued statements that it’s the U.S. military that will be targeted in any retaliatory attacks, not ordinary U.S. citizens. Although, with all the rogue Iranian-backed militias operating in the region, this is hardly reassuring. With Americans exiting Iraq en masse, U.S. run businesses, humanitarian and research organizations will find it increasingly hard to operate throughout the region, crippling U.S. influence as well.
While Americans may be viewing Soleimani’s death as a current event, it’s important to also bear in mind that Iranians and Iraqis view these events in the context of decades of history under which they have suffered. Iranians still vividly recall what they see as American treachery in the reinstatement of the Shah after Iran had established a democracy as well as Americans taking him in after he was toppled in Iran and refusing to return money he had taken out of the country, this alongside captured CIA documents from the U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran that didn’t look good for the U.S. intentions in Iran. Likewise, the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and has been judged as not having a clear plan for securing the country, particularly in the face of the unexpected al Qaeda-led insurgency, nor good exit plans. Many in both countries doubt the U.S. interests are not about oil and profit versus Americans truly wishing peace and democracy for the people living there and many Sunni Iraqis felt “the U.S. handed Iraq to Iran on a golden platter” as one Iraqi noted.
Iraq is currently struggling to pull a government together. Thousands of protestors trying to fight Iranian influence and corrupt politics in the country were gunned down under Soleimani’s orders and more were killed during his funeral procession. Iraqis still urgently want the freedoms and opportunities they thought might be theirs following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and many realize that is only likely to occur when aligned with the U.S. government. However, beleaguered Iraqis have faced, since the fall of Saddam, a non-responsive and massively corrupt government, loss of basic services, and the widespread lack of meaningful employment opportunities, particularly for youth—this despite being an oil rich nation with the resources to create good for everyone in the country. Whether or not Iraq can right its course and free itself from Iranian meddling within its borders as well as clean up massive government corruption remains to be seen but looks unlikely in the short-term. Meanwhile, this act of war may lead to exactly what Soleimani was aiming for—ousting U.S. forces from Iraq and diminishing U.S. influence there. Given the trillions of dollars spent toppling Saddam Hussein and attempts to rebuild a flourishing Iraq, the U.S. potential pull-out of Iraq seems to be a losing situation for both the U.S. and Iraq.
The hope is that some coherent strategy can emerge, perhaps to regroup Western allies, and somehow reinstate a nuclear deal with Iran and rein in their nefarious influence meddling in Iraqi government affairs, to help bolster Iraq’s fledgling democracy and finally reining in the many militias that make death threats upon Iraqi politicians when they try to clean up their country. Without these steps, Iraq may be lost, and Iran will continue to increase as a growing threat, making global peace and security in the region elusive for years to come.
About the author:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=217 and counting) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16 and counting) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (January 6, 2020). What are the Legal and Moral Issues and Repercussions of the U.S. Assassination of Soleimani?. Homeland Security Today