In recent years, the United States has launched several risky military operations to kill individuals it viewed as posing a direct threat to U.S. national security, including raids against the leaders of the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
But analysts warned that Friday’s airstrike on a two-vehicle convoy near the Baghdad airport that killed senior Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and several other people differs greatly from earlier strikes on extremist operatives and puts the United States — and the Middle East — in dangerously uncharted territory.
“This is a very different level of escalation,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After targeted killings of extremists, he said, the greatest cause for concern “might be a brief intensification of fighting or some kind of limited reprisals against the U.S. military.”
After the killing of Soleimani, the United States could face direct Iranian reprisals, including potential cyberattacks, analysts said. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened “severe revenge” but gave no indication of what could come.
Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said Trump is “trying to do a victory lap here and beat his chest and somehow show this is like killing Baghdadi.” She was referring to the October raid on the hideout of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northwestern Syria. “But it’s not. It’s much more serious,” she said.
Like Baghdadi’s, other targeted killings carried out by the United States have typically struck at extremist leaders without affiliations to a powerful state such as Iran.
In 2011, a drone strike killed the U.S.-born al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki, marking the first acknowledged case of the United States tracking and killing one of its own citizens with a drone abroad. Three years later, a federal court released a Justice Department memo that had previously been secret, which outlined the government’s legal justification for the killing. The document claimed that Awlaki’s ties to al-Qaida put him “within the scope” of military force approved by Congress following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Earlier in 2011, then-President Barack Obama announced that Navy SEALs had raided a compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida who plotted the 9/11 attacks. And last year, a U.S. military operation in northwestern Syria led Islamic State leader Baghdadi to detonate a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children.
“He didn’t die a hero. He died a coward,” Trump said about the raid.
But in those cases, Cordesman said, “you were killing a leader in a context of an ongoing operation against an extremist movement which did not have a major state sponsor.”
“Here you’re talking about … somebody who was recognized throughout the gulf region, for good or bad, as a figure sponsoring groups and supporting countries with a great deal of popular support,” he said.
Soleimani joined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its early days after the 1979 revolution in Iran and grew into one of the most influential military commanders in the region, eventually taking control of the elite Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guard, in the late 1990s. The group aligned itself with Shiite militias in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and the Pentagon has accused militias linked to Iran of killing hundreds of U.S. troops there. Iraqi militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known by the name Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, was also killed in Friday’s airstrike near Baghdad’s airport.
The Trump administration has defended the attack, which came amid escalating tension between Iran and the United States, with Iraq among the venues where the confrontation is unfolding. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN on Friday that the attack on Soleimani was necessary to avert an “imminent attack” against Americans.
But the strike alarmed European allies of the United States, which urged restraint to avoid a full-blown conflict. Analysts also warned that the 2015 nuclear deal could now completely fall apart.
Other recent attacks against Iranians include the killings of four scientists affiliated with Tehran’s nuclear program between 2010 and 2012. Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the attacks, and in 2017 sentenced an Iranian citizen to death in relation to the killings, calling the unnamed individual a “Mossad agent.” The United States denied involvement. And in 2008, a car bomb in Syria killed Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, a Lebanese Hezbollah leader closely tied to Iran.
But Soleimani was an outsize figure in Iran and across the Middle East. If Iran chooses to retaliate swiftly, Slavin said, “there are just myriad ways in which we’re likely to see chaos flowing.”
The United States has ordered Americans to leave Iraq immediately. Oil prices spiked, and protests broke out in Iran. The Pentagon announced that an additional 3,500 U.S. troops would be deployed to the Middle East.
Iran has “enormous resources at its power,” Slavin said. “I think Trump has no idea what he’s done.”