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Killing Soleimani: The only language that terrorists understand, and it should put others on notice

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Before Iran’s Qassem Soleimani was abruptly brought to justice on Jan. 3, the majority of our illustrious members of Congress didn’t know him from Sean Connery. Now, many are suddenly armchair experts proclaiming devastating fallout from his death. 

Soleimani was a terrorist and a cowardly killer. He was no more a real general than Col. Sanders was a real colonel. Those of us who worked counterterrorism as a profession knew about him for a long time and sounded many alarms. His direct terror attacks on U.S. military personnel stretch back to the earliest days of the war in Iraq.  

He was personally responsible for importing explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) from Iran into Iraq to be placed primarily along roadsides, targeting U.S. military armored vehicles. We weren’t ready for them. These were not amateurish bombs cobbled together in some dismal Iraqi garage. They were well-engineered and quite lethal against our inadequately armored military vehicles of that time.  

The EFPs killed and horribly maimed thousands of our troops. We knew they were coming from Iran with decent specificity. We passed that intelligence to senior policymakers. Yet, not much was done to substantially deter Iran.

Over the years, location intelligence on Soleimani, developed by both the Department of Defense and the CIA, was routinely passed up the chain of command. When former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice recently asserted that “The Obama administration was not presented with an opportunity by our intelligence community or by the U.S. military to strike Qassem Soleimani,” she misled the American people in order to protect her former bosses from looking weak and indecisive compared to the Trump administration. 

In fairness, this type of intelligence was provided to the Bush administration as well. The point is, we in fact were weak and indecisive for many years as our troops were placed in harm’s way unnecessarily. And that is precisely the wrong strategy to counter a terror threat.

The FBI has learned from years of experience dismantling terrorist organizations of every political, ethnic and religious stripe that all terrorists share common traits. Chief among them are low self-esteem and perceptions of inadequacy that fuel a need to feel powerful and relevant, which they feed by following some corrupted philosophy.

The correct, proven strategy for countering terrorists and their organizations is to prove to them, swiftly, that theirs is a lost cause. That they have cast their lot with a depraved ideal that ultimately is powerless and that will not, in the end, eliminate their inadequacies. We do this by hitting them hard and dominating in such a way that they know they cannot get back up.  

Domestically, we accomplish this with overwhelming indictments, arrests and imprisonments. Overseas this has to be done more kinetically. As much as we would like negotiations to carry the day, that is largely ineffective as a counterterrorism strategy. A seat at the table feeds the terrorist quest for self-importance.

A major step toward deploying such an assertive strategy didn’t occur, amazingly, until April 2019 when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its commander, Soleimani, were officially declared terrorists by the U.S. government. This unlocked greater options to target Soleimani directly.  

Soleimani had been sanctioned at various times by the U.S. government and other governments in years past. These actions weren’t hard punches and didn’t deter him. Despite the April 2019 designation, which theoretically put him in more dangerous crosshairs, Soleimani felt secure enough, based on the U.S. government’s historically tepid response to him, to actually travel to Iraq and jump in a car to move around freely, even though he had just engineered attacks on Americans and the still-smoldering U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  

He miscalculated like a toy poodle wandering into a Rottweiler’s yard. The U.S. strategy had shifted in a very dramatic way and he missed the memo. And here is that shift’s main value beyond Soleimani’s quite personal obliteration: For the first time, the religious and political terrorists who run Iran have had it planted in their brains that they, too, can and might be killed just as easily, quietly and efficiently, if the U.S. so wills it.

And this valuable realization likely will serve as the most effective brake on Iran’s response to Soleimani’s elimination. This is the other common denominator of terrorist organizations: Their leaders don’t want to die. They want their psychologically inadequate followers to do the dying, manipulating young men with scam religious interpretations of a sensual afterlife that the older leaders don’t believe for a minute — because they prefer this life.

To further cement the ruling ayatollahs’ reticence to strike back in a meaningful way, U.S. policymakers should consider officially labeling them terrorists as well and their “government” as a terror organization that funds and exports terror actions. There is ample evidence. They should not be able to hide behind a nation-state illusion that affords them certain protections under international law. They are terrorists and thugs. Put them in the crosshairs and hold them personally accountable. That is a language to which terrorists generally respond appropriately.

Our shallowest politicians have spent the past week alarming Americans about devastating reprisals and escalation of hostilities. They are fixating on the sufficiency of intelligence claiming an imminent threat from Soleimani, as if such was absolutely required to justify the killing of someone who already had killed so many Americans.  

None of this is the true concern of these politicians. They simply don’t want the president to accrue political benefit in an election year from his rather bold move and departure from the ineffective policies of his predecessors. They know what most in the intelligence community know, that Iran’s options are limited.  

Iran is definitely a player in the world of cyber attacks and intrusions. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that order, form our most troublesome cyber adversaries. (Call them CRINK, since the government loves acronyms.) But even here, Iran’s capabilities to effect more than nuisance disruptions is likely limited.

A final word on claims from the other side of the political aisle that the $1.7 billion sent to the Iranians by the Obama administration was subsequently used by Iran to purchase weaponry to further their terrorist activities. This deserves verification, especially in light of the rampant politicization of intelligence information that we’ve suffered in the past few years. Let’s get ground truth, not election-year assertions.

However, the Obama administration’s claim that all that money was owed to Iran for an old order of military equipment placed by Iran’s shah but never delivered remains teeth-grindingly absurd. That “debt” was paid by the deaths and devastating injuries inflicted on U.S. personnel by their hitman, Soleimani. The right thing would have been to distribute that money “owed” to Iran to those whom Soleimani injured and maimed and to the families of those he killed.  

Instead, the payment to Iran was a magnificent sign of weakness and appeasement. And that is what terrorists thrive on.

Kevin R. Brock is the former principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, and an FBI special agent for 24 years, he is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump FBI Most Wanted Terrorists Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassem Soleimani War on Terror

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