One of the main arguments against the strike that killed Qassem Soleimani is that targeted killings of terror leaders are ineffective: They invite escalation and reprisals, and the removal of senior terrorists doesn’t degrade the effectiveness of the groups they lead because they can be quickly replaced.
But this argument doesn’t hold up to the experience of recent history. Take two examples of targeted killing campaigns against terrorist groups in the past 20 years: Israel during the Second Intifada, and the Obama administration campaign against al-Qaeda.
In both campaigns, Israel and the U.S. combined precise intelligence with precision-guided munitions to systematically eliminate the leadership and top operatives of dangerous terrorist groups. The key to these campaigns was that they weren’t one-offs — they were sustained over the course of years.
During that time, in places like Gaza, Afghanistan, and the tribal regions of Pakistan, targeted killings did much more than symbolically remove terror leaders from the battlefield. They helped cripple the effectiveness of terror groups by forcing them to shift from offense to defense.
Instead of recruiting followers and planning attacks, they had to spend time and energy worrying about security. The sophisticated intelligence employed by the U.S. and Israel raised suspicions of informants. Distrust grew. The ability of operatives to propagandize, communicate, plan, and move freely was undermined as every phone call and meeting raised the specter of surveillance or a missile strike. As leaders were killed off and replaced, only for the replacements themselves to be killed, morale suffered.
As much as jihadists boast about their lust for death, few genuinely want to be killed. And much of the ardor of the foot soldiers owes to the belief that they have joined the winning side — but it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm when a promotion means likely death.
Meanwhile, as anyone who has worked in an organization knows, few people have the genuine talent or experience for leadership. It’s simply not true that operatives who have spent decades working their way up the ranks of an organization can be easily replaced with people of equal ability. Terrorist groups, like any company, organization, or cause, need talent at the top.
Targeted killings, of course, weren’t the only reason why Israel prevailed against the Palestinian-Arab suicide bombing campaign of the early 2000s or why the Obama administration was able to turn al-Qaeda into a has-been — but they were a key component, and this success could be replicated by forcing Iranian terror masters to grow far more worried about their safety than they have recently been. In recent years, Soleimani was so confident of his impunity that he traveled the Middle East almost openly, meeting with political leaders and visiting the front lines of the various battles Iranian-sponsored militias and terrorists were fighting in order to pose for selfies with his troops.
Killing him creates a major opportunity for the U.S. to reset its tolerance for Iran’s strategy of arming and training of proxy terrorist forces in the Middle East. Soleimani was the chief architect of this strategy, and it has succeeded largely due to the willingness of countries such as the U.S. to observe the distinction without a difference between Iran and the militia groups it builds in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. By killing Soleimani, the U.S. and its allies can put a bookend on this Iranian game. And the way the U.S. can enforce this new policy is through targeted killings of any Iranian terrorist leaders who attempt to replicate Soleimani’s success. We need only look to Israel and the Obama administration for guidance.
Noah Pollak is a political consultant and contributor to The Washington Free Beacon. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahPollak.