by Ophir Falk
On January 3, 2020, American drone-launched missiles killed Major General Qassem Soleimani shortly after his landing at Baghdad International Airport in what may turn out to be the most significant targeted killing of the 21st century to date.[i] While it is too early to determine the long-term implications and effectiveness of this operation, there is no question that the US action showed it will hold Iran accountable for terrorist actions.
Previous US administrations reportedly shunned targeting Soleimani, and even prevented allies from doing so, anticipating that the fallout would outweigh the expected benefits.[ii] This and new concerns were voiced immediately after the targeting. Critics warned that by boasting about and declaring responsibility for the killing, the United States has set a dangerous precedent that will be exploited by others with similar capabilities but different perspectives on legitimate targets (i.e. that the President of the United States will become a target); that Major General Soleimani was a senior political official in the hierarchy of a sovereign nation-state; and that the mounting availability of technology along with an alleged deterioration in the accepted standards of legal compliance regarding targeted killing benefits weaker states and nonstate proxies, such as Iran and Hezbollah.[iii]
In fact, there is precedence of US presidents taking credit for targeted killings considered of high value. George W. Bush did so after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi met “American Justice”[iv] in June 2006 and Barack Obama did so immediately after Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in May 2011[v]. Alongside being a senior official of a nation-state, Soleimani was also the head of a designated terrorist organization[vi] who was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and was plotting imminent attacks against American servicemen, citizens and civilians across the Middle East and beyond. [vii]
The threat of terrorists targeting American leaders is not novel either. Robert Kennedy was assassinated by a man many see as a Palestinian terrorist[viii] and President George H.W. Bush was purportedly the target of a thwarted attack planned by Saddam Hussein.[ix] Undoubtedly, other American leaders were and are targets of terrorist plots. Killing Soleimani did not change that but it should put American security services on higher alert for such a scenario.
What was new about the targeting of Soleimani was that it was the first time a senior Iranian militant, despite being a key state official, was held directly responsible for the widespread terrorism he instigated and was plotting. It served as a clear message to the Iranian leadership and others that the tactic of avoiding accountability for their clandestine attacks or proxy attacks carried out on their behalf is no longer overlooked and may be obsolete. State terrorism is terrorism and should be addressed accordingly.[x]
With Soleimani head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, and someone who was plotting imminent attacks against American citizens and other civilians, his targeting was justified and permissible. Targeting a man considered a continuing and imminent threat complied with the Laws of Armed Conflict principles of Distinction and Proportionality[xi]. The precision strike hit the intended combatants, who planned and took direct part in hostile actions against American interests, without causing loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that could be considered excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.
Nevertheless, the legal prism is but a narrow view of this targeted killing and the policy of targeted killings. The essential question is whether the targeting of Qassem Soleimani will be effective in furthering the goals of those who carried it out. Namely, will Iranian terrorism or Iranian sponsored terrorism subside? Will the targeting eventually enable sound minds to further a durable settlement in the region or will the longstanding conflict become an endless one?
The threat that Soleimani’s successors will be driven by revenge and that they will leverage the sophisticated tactical capabilities developed by Soleimani over the years is one that cannot be taken lightly. At the same time, it is safe to say that his successors will keep in mind the fate of their predecessor and may prefer to change the strategy set by Soleimani.
From a different setting, Israel’s targeted killing policy during the first decade of the 21st century has been seen as a key factor in mitigating Palestinian suicide terror attacks generated against Israel in general and from Gaza most specifically. Many believe that the targeting of high value ideological leaders, primarily in Gaza, was effective in decreasing subsequent suicide bombings fatalities.[xii]
To date, Iran’s military response to the Soleimani targeting has been limited to military targets on a relatively small scale. Five days after the targeting, Iran launched a series of missile attacks on US forces based in Iraq, resulting in minor injuries to approximately a hundred US service men.[xiii] The tone of escalating aggression, including threats from Hezbollah’s leader that “American army bases, the American naval fleet, and every soldier and officer in the region will have to pay the price”[xiv] still looms but has not been acted upon in full. Tehran has encouraged pro-Iranian militias to attack American military posts and political assets in Iraq and has harassed the US Navy in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, Iran’s retaliatory measures have focused on military targets with relatively minor consequences, while taking note of warnings from Washington.
The relatively moderate response may be due to Iran’s unintentional downing of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft causing 176 civilian deaths that caused an outburst of internal and external criticism[xv] and multiple ongoing social and economic challenges, including international sanctions, record low oil prices and the severe coronavirus crisis within Iran and its strongholds. It may also be a sign of more pragmatic reasoning.
In the short term, the United States and its allies are much better off without Soleimani leading and plotting terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. In the long term, if the sides to armed conflict see targeted killing, under correct circumstances, as a legitimate tool against terrorist leaders and, more importantly, if the parties to armed conflicts refrain from deliberately attacking civilians, a path to more calm may prevail. By making it clear that Iran and its senior officials will be held accountable for terrorism directly carried out by Iran and by its proxies, the United States took an important step in the right direction.
Ophir Falk is a research fellow at the International Counterterrorism Center (ICT), a founder of Acumen Risk Ltd., and the author of the forthcoming book: ‘Targeted Killing, Law and Counter-Terrorism Effectiveness’ (Routledge 2020) https://www.routledge.com/Targeted-Killings-Law-and-Counter-Terrorism-Effectiveness-Does-Fair-Play/Falk/p/book/9780367339265
[i] Nine others were killed alongside Soleimani, including chairman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and commander of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
[iii] Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘The Age of Open Assassination’, Brookings Institute, https://www.lawfareblog.com/age-open-assassination, January 19, 2020
[iv] ‘Bush tells troops terrorists cannot hide’, CNN June 18, 2004 https://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/06/18/bush.fort.lewis/index.html
[v] ‘Bin Laden is Dead, Obama Says’, New York Times May 1, 2011 https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/02/world/asia/osama-bin-laden-is-killed.html
[vi] ‘Statement from the President on the Designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization’, April 8, 2019 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-designation-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps-foreign-terrorist-organization/
[vii] Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘The Age of Open Assassination’, Brookings Institute, https://www.lawfareblog.com/age-open-assassination, January 19, 2020
[viii] Michael R. Fischbach, ‘First Shot in Terror War Killed RFK’, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-jun-02-oe-fischbach2-story.html June 2, 2003
[ix] ‘U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush’, Washington Post June 27, 1993
[x] Ophir Falk, ‘Terrorism: Agreeing on the Basics’, http://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2019/05/terrorism-agreeing-on-the-basics-2/, May, 1, 2019
[xi] Third Geneva Convention, Article 4, as well as in Articles 43 and 44 of Additional Protocol I.
[xii] Ophir Falk, “Measuring the Effectiveness of Israel’s ‘Targeted Killing’ Campaign,” Perspectives on Terrorism (February 2015), Vol 9:1
[xiii] ‘Pentagon Defends Handling Of Traumatic Brain Injuries In Iranian Attack’, Kate Bo Williams, https://www.defenseone.com/politics/2020/02/pentagon-defends-handling-tbis-iranian-attack/163286/, February 24, 2020
[xiv] ‘Hezbollah: U.S. forces in Middle East to go home in coffins’, Nasrallah quoted by Reuters January 5, 2020
[xv] ‘Iran plane crash: Ukrainian jet was ‘unintentionally’ shot down’ 11 January 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51073621