A dead terrorist is a good terrorist, but sometimes taking one out makes matters worse.
This piece appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on January 06, 2020.
Do you remember when US Special Forces killed Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden (UBL)? Do you remember the scenes of elation in America when the mastermind behind 9/11 was dead? I know I do (I was working at CSIS at the time as a terrorism analyst).
At the time there were voices warning that the military operation was illegal and that if the US wanted to stop bin Laden from planning more attacks it should have brought him to trial. I am no legal expert on this – the killing may indeed have violated international law – but I did support the move then and I still do for the simple reason that AQ was planning more acts of terrorism under UBL and arresting him was next to impossible. At the time he posed a ‘clear and present danger’.
The decision to take Soleimani out points to a fundamental U.S. lack of understanding of the current terrorism threat and will lead to more, not fewer, deaths.
Last week’s assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Qassem Soleimani does not fall into the same category and hence cannot be justified for the same reasons. The decision to take him out also points to a fundamental US lack of understanding on the current threat from terrorism and will lead to more, not fewer, deaths.
Before I continue my analysis allow me to offer the following as ‘qualification’.
I worked as both a Farsi linguist and strategic analyst on Iran at both CSE and CSIS for more than 20 years. And while my career shifted towards examining Sunni Islamist terrorism after 9/11 and my knowledge of current Iranian affairs is not as strong as it once was, I nevertheless have a solid grasp on today’s terrorist threat.
To put it simply, that threat is not coming primarily from Iran.
I fully acknowledge that Iran is not our ‘friend’ – it has not been since 1979 – and that it backs terrorist groups such as Hizballah (NB both the IRGC and Hizballah are listed terrorist entities in the US and here in Canada). Hence it has enabled acts of terrorism over the years, although a number of attacks were targeted against military forces, a fact that has led some to question whether they were terrorist in nature at all. Interestingly, Hizballah has stated that retribution for Soleimani’s death must target the US military and not civilians.
But neither Iran nor the IRGC is the greatest of our problems.
Sunni jihadis are and always have been behind the vast, vast majority of terrorist attacks in the world, including 9/11 (even if some US officials continue to raise the non-existent Iranian ‘angle’). Groups such as AQ, and Islamic State (ISIS), and Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and hundreds of others around the globe need to be monitored and neutralised. Iran and its proxies are the B team, not worthy of the lion’s share of our attention – or assassination plots.
Furthermore, by taking out General Soleimani the US has demonstrated that it still does not get this. A similar brain cramp post 9/11 led to the unforgivable decision to invade Iraq – which had NOTHING to do with the attacks in New York and Washington (again despite the conviction of some US leaders) – leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the creation of ISIS. As I heard it told at the time, UBL was probably chortling with glee when the Bush administration refocused from him to Saddam Hussein. I imagine ISIS is feeling the same way today (there are already reports that the US-led forces in Iraq and Syria have stopped looking for ISIS and will now focus on protecting themselves).
Plus ca change. Instead of ‘eliminating’ a major threat the US has emboldened the real menace and given a lesser one cause to escalate. And this is smart foreign policy?
I believe there is more to this act beyond a justifiable questioning of President Trump’s competence.
The US has had ‘Iran on the brain’ since 1979 and cannot let the hostage crisis go. As noted, Iran is not a nice player but there have been occasions – particularly under former President Khatami – where partial rapprochement was possible. These have been rejected: does anyone recall President Bush’s laughable ‘Axis of Evil’ speech? How has that worked out?
It is also incredulous that the current US Commander-in-Chief cites intelligence as part of the reason he ordered General Soleimani’s death, given that he has ridiculed American intelligence for its findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election. It thus appears that intel is only good when it suits Trump’s preordained decisions. Was there credible information pointing to an imminent attack ordered by the IRGC leader? Maybe, but from what I have read from ‘insiders’ that does not appear to have been case.
World War III
In the end, I for one am not predicting ‘World War III’ as is trending online. I believe we will see an escalation of Iranian meddling in the region and that US forces are at risk. I also predict that ISIS and others will take advantage of this strategic error to regroup and carry out more ‘real’ terrorist attacks.
The death of Qassem Soleimani does not make anyone safer. It was the wrong move at the wrong time.