Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Assassinations (February 7, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: US President Joe Biden took credit for the assassination last week of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, in Idlib province, northwest Syria. Can targeted killings like this have strategic value?

A: This is a mixed bag. In looking at targeted killings, we are opening a Pandora’s box of ramifications of successful and failed assassinations in the contemporary Middle East. The issues are complex, the outcome not always unequivocal. And it’s not just about strategic gain; sometimes morals and ethics are involved, or at least should be.

In the particular case of last week’s killing of Quraishi, the assassination generated at least limited strategic value for most of the world. This will presumably be measured in the cumulative erosion of the Islamic State leadership echelon. Quraishi’s predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was targeted by the Trump administration in 2019 in similar geostrategic circumstances, just as al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011 by the Obama administration.

It seems fair to assess that the leadership level and skills of these Sunni Islamist terrorist groups are deteriorating, assassination by assassination. This is undoubtedly demoralizing for them, and that’s a good thing. Future leadership candidates may have been deterred.

Still, that al-Qaeda has nearly disappeared and Islamic State has been weakened may or may not be due to the targeted killings of their leaders. The success of a concerted military effort in Iraq and Syria spearheaded by the United States is a far more persuasive explanation.

On the other hand, the Quraishi assassination bolsters the image of US President Joe Biden as an avenger (for the Yazidi women and children Quraishi enslaved when IS conquered parts of northern Iraq). Biden also comes across now as a calculated and successful risk-taker. In an effort to save civilian lives, he avoided an attack from the air on Quraishi’s hideout and instead knowingly endangered the American troops deployed on the ground (none were lost). If last August’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan hurt Biden’s deterrent image, this operation enhanced it.

Note, similarly, how President Barack Obama’s controversial record in the Middle East is bolstered by the credit awarded him universally for eliminating bin Laden. All the elements were here: revenge for 9/11, decimation of al-Qaeda, strengthening of American deterrence.

Not only the assassination of a terrorist leader, but even a political assassination can have strategic value, however disastrous. Recall how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 triggered World War I. More recently, and painfully, the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin disastrously ended the momentum of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.


Q: When can an assassination be deemed a strategic failure for its perpetrator?

A: Israel’s repeated attempts to decapitate another terrorist group, Hamas, have failed. Hamas has proven capable of producing new and effective leaders. In one instance, in September 1997, the botched assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman, Jordan by the first Netanyahu government precipitated a dangerous crisis in Jordan-Israel relations and the removal of Head of Mossad Danny Yatom. On another occasion, the successful assassination of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010 was deemed a failure because it soured Israel’s clandestine relations with the United Arab Emirates and, by revealing the identities of Mossad operatives, hurt that organization’s operational capabilities.

Note that Israeli attempts to assassinate Hamas leaders have ceased. And not because Hamas has made its peace with Israel.

When Islamist extremists assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo in October 1981, they failed to alter the secular nature of the Egyptian regime and leadership, and brought massive retribution upon even more moderate Egyptian Islamist movements. Failed Israeli attempts to assassinate Fateh and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, going all the way back to the 1970s, merely enhanced Arafat’s image as a tough and intractable leader.

Some say that Arafat’s death in November 2004 was caused by Israeli poisoning. Others cite AIDS or a series of strokes. Whatever the truth, Arafat’s removal from the scene cannot be said to have radically altered the Israeli-Palestinian reality. Arafat’s successor in Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas, may be less supportive of violence but he is also a less courageous leader. And Hamas has capably filled the terrorism void left by Arafat’s departure.


Q: Let’s turn to the moral and ethical aspects of assassinations in the Middle East context. Here it looks fairly easy to justify Quraishi’s assassination. But the killing of Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020?

A: Quraishi headed a terrorist organization that targeted and even enslaved civilians, especially women. No political leader globally has objected to his assassination. In sharp contrast, the assassinations of Sadat and Rabin, both serving heads of state, were completely political, hence broadly condemned globally--unless one asks their assassins, for whom their killings reflect the hand of God. Yet Israel at one point planned the assassination of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a very brutal serving head of state, as revenge for his targeting of Israeli civilians with his Scud rockets in the First Gulf War in 1991 (the plan was aborted after it was ‘rehearsed’ in a fatal IDF training accident).

So when is it moral to target a national leader? Even the targeted killing of Soleimani, for which the Trump administration (apparently with some Israeli help) took credit, brings us into a grey area. Soleimani, a brilliant strategist and charismatic leader, commanded a sovereign Iranian military force. His life’s mission of extending Iranian and Shiite hegemony all the way from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, thereby to threaten Israel, was sanctioned by a sovereign state, Iran. But the Quds Force was also directly or indirectly responsible for acts of terror against Jews, from Argentina to Bulgaria. The Islamic Republic of Iran appears not to distinguish between these ostensibly different targets and objectives.

Was Soleimani fair game? According to whose rules? Iran and the United States are not at war. There is no United Nations-approved rule book for targeted killings of terrorists or anyone else. Iran has vowed vengeance--against Trump and his generals. “Revenge is inevitable. . . revenge is definite”, the regime in Tehran announces on the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.


Q: You yourself have written about a somewhat similar and related dilemma in which you were involved: Khomeini . . .

A: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was in early 1979 leading an Islamic revolution against the regime of the Shah of Iran, who was friendly to Israel. Khomeini was living in exile in France and the ailing Shah had fled when the de facto ruler of Iran appointed by the Shah, Shapour Bakhtiar, asked the Mossad to assassinate Khomeini. I was at the time in charge of intelligence assessment regarding Iran at the Mossad. I recount my reaction in my 2015 bookPeriphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.

On January 28, I was summoned urgently to the office of Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi [who] . . . opened the meeting: “Bakhtiar summoned Gaizy [Eliezer Shafrir, Mossad representative in Tehran] and asked us to kill Khomeini”. . . . Hofi was a man of very few words. He added something--that, knowing him, I knew was sincere--about rejecting the very idea of assassinating a foreign leader. He looked at me: “What’s your opinion?” . . . .

I thought of Washington’s stand, Moscow’s; the ramifications throughout the Middle East of success in eliminating Khomeini; the ramifications for relations with France and the Muslim world of failure. . . . I took a deep breath. “We simply don’t know enough about what Khomeini stands for and what his chances are to justify the risk,” I stated.

Bakhtiar also asked the CIA, British MI6 and the French SDECE to kill Khomeini. Everyone turned him down. Was Khomeini at the time a foreign leader? A politician? A terrorist? I confess that my considerations in responding to Hofi were pragmatic, not principled. I left principles to the Head of Mossad.

Within days, Khomeini was back in Tehran, taking over the country. In short order, a reign of terror commenced. Back in Tel Aviv, we quickly gained a better understanding of where Khomeini’s Islamist revolutionary fervor would lead the Middle East. Within months, and too late, it seemed a lot easier to justify the risk of assassinating him.

But would Khomeini’s assassination have changed things dramatically for the better? That’s pure conjecture. Based on the record we have briefly and partially reviewed here, every Middle East assassination is a gamble.