The drone strike against Soleimani marks a novel shift in targeted killing, dangerous to the global order.

The drone strike against Qassem Soleimani marks a significant escalation in the United States’ use of force against external security threats as it has evolved in the years since 11 September 2001. President Donald Trump’s decision to target Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, brings the signature technique of the so-called “war on terror” – the targeted killing of individuals outside any wider conventional military engagement – into the context of interstate relations. After a period when the United States used the analogy of interstate war to expand its use of force against terrorist groups, this new development shows how the influence of the open-ended military campaign against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (ISIS) is washing back into the interstate realm, imperilling the line between war and peace.

Following al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States, President George W Bush and President Barack Obama embraced the use of targeted killing against terrorist fighters overseas, striking alleged members of al-Qaeda and other groups in remote locations in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. In doing so, they imported a “war paradigm” into counter-terrorism operations, claiming the right to target terrorists because of their status as members of an enemy force, as in an armed conflict with another state. The barriers to the use of lethal force were reduced, as individual terrorists could be killed outside battlefield conditions and without showing they posed an imminent threat to life (though Obama added a policy restriction in 2013 limiting strikes outside zones of hostilities to cases where targets posed a “continuing, imminent threat.”) The powers of a country at war were transposed into a context of individualised surveillance and targeting, expanding the notion of the battlefield in an unprecedented way.

The killing of Soleimani represents a converse and symmetrical development. With this action, Trump has imported the kind of individualised targeting that has become associated with counter-terrorism operations into the United States’ confrontation with another state. Of course, there would be nothing new or remarkable in a state carrying out the targeted killing of a military commander of another state in wartime. The example that is routinely cited in this context is the United States’ operation in 1943 to bring down the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander who was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor. But a comparison of the strikes against Yamamoto and Soleimani brings out what is different and novel about Trump’s move.

The attack against Yamamoto took place at a time when the US and Japan were engaged in an all-out war that ended with the complete surrender of Japan. By contrast, the US targeted Soleimani, Iran’s most influential military commander, at a time when there were no direct conventional hostilities under way between the US and Iran. Indeed, Trump said that the strike against Soleimani was taken “to stop a war” (meaning, apparently, to prevent a war from starting) rather than forming part of a war that was already taking place. What is more, it has been reported that the US carried out the strike knowing that the Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had a formal position within the Iraqi military, was also likely to be killed in the attack.

The strike against Soleimani therefore looks less like a wartime military operation, and more like the kind of targeted killing that the US (and Israel, among other countries) has carried out to remove individual members of non-state groups involved in planning or conducting terrorist attacks. Indeed, it was precisely Soleimani’s role in sponsoring and orchestrating the activities of non-state groups that made him a target of the US – especially his role in supporting the Iraqi militia group Kataib Hezbollah, which the US government held responsible for an attack on an Iraqi military base in late December that killed an American contractor. According to press reports, administration officials compared Soleimani to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in discussing the decision to kill him.

By targeting a most senior official of another state outside wartime, Trump has taken a step that recent US administrations had shied away from.

Nevertheless, by targeting a most senior official of another state outside wartime, Trump has taken a step that recent US administrations had shied away from. It has been widely reported that the administrations of both Bush and Obama considered targeting Soleimani, but ultimately decided against such a provocative step. The nearest equivalent in recent history may be President Ronald Reagan’s bombing raid on Libya in 1986, after the bombing of a West German disco for which the Libyan regime was considered responsible. The US raid attacked the military barracks where Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi was based, and it has been claimed that killing Qaddafi was a principal goal of the strikes. Even if this was an attempt at targeted killing, however, it was framed as an attack on a military facility. A different context and the development of armed drones have allowed Trump to conduct and openly acknowledge the targeted killing of Soleimani.

The administration has described the killing of Soleimani as a “defensive action” against an individual who was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” This is the language that US officials have used to justify attacks against terrorist targets in recent years. But in killing an Iranian government official, the US has used force against Iran, and under the UN Charter that is only permitted to the degree that is necessary and proportionate to defend against an armed attack. Whether or not the US has met that threshold, its action – and public acknowledgement and justifications of that action – sets a significant precedent in loosening restraints on military action in a way that could prove highly escalatory, at a time when links between states and proxy militias have multiplied across the Middle East and north Africa, and beyond.


The commentary was originally published on Just Security.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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