Al Qaeda hits New York in September 2001

Orders for a killing

Assassinating political opponents frequently has a paradoxical effect: instead of weakening and defeating, it strengthens, argues Yassamine Mather

In the last couple of weeks, we have heard on at least four occasions of assassinations organised and executed by US and Israeli military and security forces against Islamic (Sunni and Shia) military commanders and political leaders in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Of course, there have been many other targeted killings of particular individual Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. However, I am concentrating on the assassinations that have made headlines because of the significance of the targets.

On Christmas Day, an Israeli airstrike outside Damascus killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Mousavi’s responsibility was the coordination of the military alliance between Syria and Iran.

On January 2, Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy leader, was killed in a drone attack in a suburb of southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. Six other members of Hamas were killed in the same attack, while a number of cars and houses were destroyed. Although officially Israel neither confirmed nor denied that it killed al-Arouri, a spokesman called it a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership”.

On January 4, the US military killed a high-ranking commander of the Iran-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, in Baghdad. The Pentagon, confirming the attack, tried to justify this assassination and that of several other members of the militia by pointing out the close ties between the militia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

According to the Financial Times,

The Islamic Resistance of Iraq, a newly created shadowy group of Iran-backed militias, has carried out more than 100 attacks on military bases housing US and other foreign troops in Iraq and Syria since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza strip.1

However, it should be added that most of these were low-level attacks. Similarly, on January 8, Wissam al-Tawil, a senior commander of Hezbollah, was killed in southern Lebanon when his car was hit by an Israeli strike.

Role in Islam

Political assassination dates back many centuries (at least to the time of Egyptian Pharaoh Teti of the Old Kingdom’s Sixth Dynasty in the 23rd century BCE) and has been used regularly since then by rulers against their internal and external opponents.

However, today political assassination can be categorised as the dawn of a new era in this long history. New technology in the form of facial recognition tools, global positioning systems and automated weapons (drones) have made it much easier for some countries, particularly the United States and Israel, to identify, spy on and target leaders and military commanders of Islamist groups - presumably as part of a strategy to weaken and defeat their opponents.

The first point to make here is that adopting such a tactic shows a complete failure to understand how these groups operate, how they recruit new members, not to mention the pulling power of martyrs. The concept of martyrdom is important in all the major monotheistic religions, both as a means of promotion and as proof of the religion’s devotion. However, in Islamic tradition, martyrdom plays a more significant role, and it had already become a key element of religious war (jihad) as early as the 7th century.

For most Muslims driven to political extremism, whether they are Salafi (Sunni) or Shia, martyrdom, including assassination by foreign powers, is considered an achievement. They not only believe that they will go to the gardens of heaven and be revered forever, they hope that, if they die a martyrs death, it will promote their cause and increase recruitment dramatically. In the case of the Shia religion, martyrdom plays an even more crucial role. For this faction of Islam, the Battle of Karbala and the violent death of Imam Hussein are not just pillars of their beliefs, but the commemoration of this event plays a key role in the customs and rituals of the Shia (12th Imam) believers.

In October 680 (Muḥarram AH 61), the Battle of Karbala was a short but significant clash, where Ḥossein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, along with a small group of supporters, were defeated and massacred by far larger forces sent by the Umayyad caliphate. This solidified the Umayyad dynasty’s power. For Shia Muslims, who revere Ḥossein, this date marks his martyrdom and was named ʿAshuraʾ, an important day of mourning and remembrance.


So it is difficult to understand how the United States and Israeli intelligence officers are under the impression that targeted assassinations will damage Shia militias. One of the most significant of these assassinations occurred in January 2020, when Qasem Soleimani, a major general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was assassinated by a drone strike carried out by US forces. This incident took place close to the Baghdad International Airport as he was en route to a meeting with Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Apart from the fact that Soleimani had until then been heralded by sections of the US media as a hero - the man who helped defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (making the cover of Time magazine) - this was a clear violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions considered the assassination as a likely violation of international law, as well as US domestic laws.

The Iraqi government complained that the act undermined its national sovereignty and was a breach of bilateral security agreements with the US - an act of aggression against Iraq, as five officials were also killed during the operation. There can be little doubt that the death of Soleimani was initially a gift to the leaders of the Islamic Republic, leading to huge demonstrations protesting against the assassination, until the Islamic government in Tehran managed to squander this support by bringing down a passenger plane, mistaking it for a US military plane. As I wrote in this paper,

Inside Iran, a mood of patriotism has grown, with rival factions within the government coming closer together, and even some opponents of the regime rallying to ‘defend the country’. Such views are expressed by the former foreign minister of the Shah’s era, Ardeshir Zahedi, who praised Soleimani in a January 5 [2020] article, and his views find echoes amongst middle class nationalists, though they have never been supporters of the regime.2

If the intention behind the assassination was to diminish or impair Iran’s influence in Iraq or Lebanon, four years after the event we can say with a level of confidence that Shia militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon continue to thrive and recruit large numbers of volunteers keen to follow the path taken by their hero, Soleimani.

Meanwhile, the dead leader is easily replaced by a clone-like deputy or some headstrong younger man eager to prove his military prowess. Far from having a chilling effect, the result is often the exact opposite. When it comes to the Sunni side, of course, if there was any ‘intelligence’ in the security forces of the US and its allies, they should have learned from the experience of the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Islamic State

Daesh, ie, Islamic State - a branch of al Qaeda, then a rival, initially led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi - recruited widely not only in Arab countries, but also among Muslims throughout the world, including second-generation Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Algerians, Moroccans ... in western Europe. More to the point, by 2015 its militias had seized hold of considerable tracts of territory in northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. At its height Islamic State commanded 30,000 fighters, had an annual budget exceeding $1bn and ruled over some 12 million people. Of course, al-Baghdadi is long gone, killed in a US raid. Today IS has its fifth caliph, Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, and operates with deadly effect throughout central Asia and north Africa.

Bourgeois opponents of political assassination point out that it is against the rule of law both national and international, especially as most of these killings occur in a third country. Of course, those of us who have no illusions about such matters have learned from real examples of constant breaches of international law by the US. However, we must emphasise the fact that assassinations can further enrage sympathisers and followers of the martyred individual, fuelling demands for revenge in a bloody spiral of murder and mayhem, that easily spills over into other countries, leading to further chaos and instability.

Assassination undoubtably promotes a culture of thuggery, irrationality and secrecy - there is no transparency and accountability, no sense of acting within some legal framework. Governments such as the United States, Israel and Russia, who regularly use such mafia methods should be exposed both in terms of breaking their so-called commitment to civilized behaviour and for pursuing a strategy that amounts to outdoing the terrorists in terrorism.

  1. <pwww.ft.com/content/6c70205d-e2b0-4f1a-bb19-835f7aa2b268.↩︎
  2. <p‘A godsend for the regime’ Weekly Worker January 1 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1281/a-godsend-for-the-regime.↩︎