The U.S. attack against the top Iranian general will have far greater repercussions than the killings of al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders.
Of the most feared terrorist leaders the United States has hunted and killed this century—from Osama bin Laden to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—no death ever had the significance of the one America just dealt. The killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. strike yesterday in Baghdad wasn’t just the targeted assassination of a state military leader. It marked a dangerous new chapter in a roiling region Soleimani has helped shape for more than a decade, and moved the U.S. and Iran’s cycle of proxy violence and sabotage closer to outright war.
President Donald Trump did not immediately claim victory as he did for the death of Baghdadi in October. The president instead tweeted out a single image of an American flag as early reports of Soleimani’s demise circulated. The Defense Department confirmed that the U.S. military had killed Soleimani on Trump’s orders.
Soleimani has been called “the most powerful general in the Middle East today,” and the mastermind behind a strategy of backing sympathetic proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon to secure influence and attack Iran’s enemies. Through the summer and fall of 2019, as the Trump administration ramped up its financial pressure campaign on Iran after leaving the nuclear deal, Soleimani’s forces or their proxies were blamed for attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf, rocket volleys against American interests in Iraq, the shoot-down of an American drone, and a strike on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike bin Laden or Baghdadi, Soleimani had the power and resources of an entire state at his back—and open support at high levels of the government in the state where he was killed. Both bin Laden and Baghdadi died in hiding and on the run; Soleimani traveled openly in the region where his forces operated. “It’s one thing to kill someone who is considered a terrorist by everyone, including the host country,” Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told us. “It’s another thing to kill someone who is designated as a terrorist by the U.S. but not by the host country—Iraq, in this case.”
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Defense Department statement said, declaring Soleimani responsible for a series of attacks on U.S.-led coalition bases over the past several months—including one in late December that killed an American contractor. “We know that the intent of this last attack was, in fact, to kill” Americans, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference yesterday morning, noting that about 100 U.S. military personnel were at the attacked compound in December, in addition to about 200 contractors. “Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot.”