Small Wars Journal

Decapitating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and the Implication for US policy in Iraq and Beyond

Tue, 06/16/2020 - 10:14am

Decapitating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and the Implication for US policy in Iraq and Beyond

Dr. Peter K. Forster

Dr. Gregory J. Kruczek

Ms. Ava Sullivan


On January 3, 2020 an American drone strike killed Iranian Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Katai’b Hezbollah militia (KH) and the deputy commander and chief of staff of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The assassinations were the latest in an on-going tit-for-tat between the US and Iran, escalating already tense relations between the two countries. The attacks succeeded in sowing discord within the PMF, which is directly related to Tehran’s struggle to replace Soleimani’s operational genius and charismatic personality. However, the assassinations have not dissuaded Iran and its proxies from continuing to target U.S. interests in Iraq. This paper examines the emerging realignment within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), its control over the PMF, and the greater implications for US policy towards Iraq and Iran.

Who was Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis?

Qasem Soleimani was a Brigadier General in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s paramilitary wing. The IRGC was created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 with dual mandates to defend the country’s Islamic political system and provide an effective counterweight to the armed forces. Soleimani was often described as Iran’s second most powerful man behind Khamenei.[1] He transformed the IRGC-QF into centralized and stable organization capable of effectively countering U.S. forces.[2] Crucially, to both his foot soldiers and segments of the Iranian populace alike, Soleimani was more than a leader: He was “brother Qasem.”[3]

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as the KH leader and PMF deputy, was seen as a key Iranian ally. Tehran stood firmly behind both KH, formed in 2003 to combat U.S. forces, and the PMF, established in 2014 to combat the Islamic State. Al-Muhandis was often called Soleimani’s right hand man[4] in Iraq.

At the time of their deaths Soleimani and al-Muhandis were working to consolidate all elements of the PMFs, a task that included not just preventing their incorporation into the Iraqi security forces, but also the centralization of key directorates, such as finance, internal security, and intelligence. This goal has not changed. Neither has Tehran’s and its Iraqi proxies’ overall aim of expelling American forces from the country and region at large.[5]

Center of Gravity and Decapitation

In On War, Karl von Clausewitz eluded to the “center of gravity” (Schwerpunkt)  as, “…(the) hub of all power and movement….the point at which all our energies should be directed.”[6] The “hub of power”   offers physical strength and the will to act.[7] In the context of PMFs and IRGC-QF force operational capability in Iraq, Soleimani and al-Muhandis personified the center of gravity. As a result, their deaths unites the center of gravity with the effectiveness of tactical decapitation—the removing of key figures to disrupt organizational capability, which is discussed extensively in the literature.[8] The case provides an interesting opportunity to understand how individuals emerge as the “hub of power.” More importantly, it offers potential indicators and warnings of their replacement’s action and how such groups evolve and respond to setbacks. Crucially, it permits the assessment of the tactic of decapitation in a strategic context.     

Together Soleimani and al-Muhandis were the political and military central node of IRGC-QF influence in Iraq. Their stature was enhanced partly because of Iran’s asymmetric strategy that focuses on proxies to cover their lack of conventional strength[9] and partly because of their intense efforts at consolidating the PMFs’ key directorates and its estimated $2.1 billion budget.[10] In assessing al-Muhandis and Soleimani’s criticality, three variable are examined -- individual influence, operational value, and the level of organizational resilience.

Soleimani was an efficient and decisive decision-maker who enjoyed the unwavering support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.[11] This provided freedom of action which he used to extend his individual influence. Built upon charisma, contextual knowledge of his (strategic/operation?) “area of responsibility,” and Arabic language skills, Soleimani established a network of trusted individuals, such as current Iranian ambassador/former senior official in IRGC-QF, Iraj Masjedi, to spread his influence and entice organizations such as the Asai’ib Ahl Al Haq (AHH) into his orbit.[12]

His personality traits directly affected the operational arena. Personality influences operations through different leadership methods. For example, It was said of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban military commander killed in 2007, that he drew people to the cause because he was constant, trustworthy, and decision.[13] In the wake of the Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev’s death, Doku Umarov, his successor, sought to demonstrate leadership by promising attacks to re-assert Chechen resistance.[14] Soleimani personified the former and it appears that PMF leadership has embraced the latter following his demise. Soleimani developed a strategy of “sovereign capability to conduct remote warfare and influence operations.”[15] His operational value was directly tied to transforming the IRGC-QF into an organization that was seen as to counter US influence and his reputed responsibility for a significant number of American deaths. His operational status was further demonstrated in October 2019, when he provided sophisticated weapons to and ordered al-Muhandis to increase attacks on US targets.[16] The IRGC-QF designation as a terrorist group was due to Soleimani’s actions, thus reflecting his operational prowess. To a great extent al-Muhandis legitimacy emanated from his privileged relationship with Soleimani. However, in his own right he was the commander of Katai’b Hezbollah (KH), arguably the most influential pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, and demonstrated an ability to centralize and consolidate the PMFs, albeit under Soleimani’s tutelage. In short, he displayed both individual and operational efficacy.

The third variable is organizational resilience or decline. It reflects the impact of the leader’s death on the organization. Some initial reports theorized that Soleimani, again, due to his charisma and operational competence, was irreplaceable.[17] Notwithstanding, organizational resilience is best judged by the messaging and actions following the assassination. Reminiscent of Umarov’s efforts to establish legitimacy, Abu Ali al-Askari, KH’s security official, warned Iraqis not to work with the US.[18] But other groups such as the AAH also intensified their anti-US rhetoric, perhaps seeking a more prominent role in the post-Soleimani Iraq. In addition to in-fighting, the Iranian-back militias sought to marginalize non-Shi’a groups by threatening Sunni and Kurdish legislators.[19] So, while Iran continues to exert influence, increased threats of violence, dichotomous spokesmen, and multiple commanders reflect a struggle to maintain organizational resilience. Hence in the short-term, eliminating Soleimani has had negative effects which support his designation as a strategic center of gravity.  

Iran’s Way Forward

Soleimani and al-Muhandis may have been the epicenter of Iranian influence in Iraq. But the significance of Soleimani’s death in particular had wider regional implications. It threatened the very cohesion of the anti-U.S. “axis of resistance,” a Tehran-backed coalition of mostly Shia groups operating in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.[20] Outside of Iraq the most notable of these groups are Lebanese Hezbollah. Inside Iraq that position goes to Katai’b Hezbollah.

It was not surprising then that Tehran’s immediate response to the assassinations was to publicly emphasize unity among its allies as it earnestly worked to appoint replacements capable of maintaining cohesion within the PMF ranks without sacrificing battlefield success against U.S. forces. Tehran’s strategy was and remains further complicated by political paralysis in Baghdad. Tehran has more influence in Baghdad than the U.S., whose policy is inconsistent at best and needs a complete retooling at worst. Yet Tehran struggled to advance a candidate for the premiership capable of unifying a Shia political bloc with wide support among laypersons. This is of critical importance considering that a principle aim of the months-long Iraqi protest movement is expelling all foreign influence from the country, not just the U.S. Tehran’s effort to bring influential Iraqi-Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr into the fold as a unifying voice (but not a candidate) in mid-January was vigorously resisted by a significant elements of the anti-government movement, Shia Muslims included, who saw Sadr and his backers as directly responsible for violent reprisals against protestors.

In early April Iraqi president Barham Salah, hoping to end months of political gridlock, nominated Mustafa al Kazimi, the director of the country’s national intelligence service, to be the country’s next prime minister. Washington approved, seeing Al Kazimi as a committed Iraqi nationalist. But KH accussed al Kazemi of being pro- American, anti-Iranian, and culpable in the assassinations of Soleimani and al Muhandis. It then threatened war. Nevertheless, other pro-Iranian Shia parties in Baghdad backed the nomination. So too did the Iraqi parliament’s largest Sunni bloc, the Coalition of Iraqi Forces.[21] On May 7, after the Iraqi parliament approved most of his cabinet pics, al Kazimi was sworn in as prime minister. Together, the fissure within the pro-Iranian Shia establishment in Baghdad, the new Iraqi government, the Iraqi parliament’s rejection of KH’s threats, Tehran’s acceptance of al Kazimi, may indicate that Iran’s grip over the country is loosening.[22]

Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, the new head of the IRGC-QF is an old friend and aid to Soleimani. Qaani may lack Soleimani’s extensive accolades but is nonetheless accomplished. He is perhaps best known for working with Afghan units in the Iran-Iraq War and later overseeing his country’s efforts to topple the Taliban. He retains extensive experience in intelligence operations. However, serious doubts remain as to whether he retains the charisma and interpersonal skills necessary to navigate Iraqi Shia politics. This is particularly important when one considers that Tehran’s main goal is to continue to consolidate Iraq’s PMFs at a time when signs of fragmentation exist and tensions with the U.S. continue to rise.

The PMF, by its very nature, was never a fully cohesive force. Many groups begrudgingly accepted al-Muhandis and Soleimani as “kingmakers.” Again, this speaks to the political acumen and power of the two men.[23] But without them, old fissures have reappeared and in some cases deepened. Within weeks of the assassinations pro-Iranian elements of the PMF appointed Abu-Fadak al-Muhammadawi as al-Muhandis replacement. Abu Fadak, the former Katai’b Hezbollah General Secretary, was a close friend of Soleimani. He was also top aide to Hadi al-Amiri, the secretary general of the Badr Organization, arguably Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shia political parties and U.S. designated terrorist organization.  Currently, those loyal to the Najaf-based Ayatollah Sistani, often described as one of the most powerful senior cleric in Shia Islam and whose 2014 fatwa legitimized the formation of the PMF, did not embrace the appointment. Sistani has grown weary of Iranian interference in Iraq.[24] In mid-March four Sistani-aligned PMF groups— the Imam Ali Brigade, Imam Ali Combat Division, Al-Abbas Combat Division, and Ansar of Al-Murj'ayia­­—announced their intent to withdraw from the PMF and integrate into the country’s official security forces.[25] Since the initial friction, the fissure between the two factions of the PMF has only grown. In early April, Sistani and Muqtada al Sadr both allegedly refused to meet with Qaani.[26]

Meanwhile, Prime Minister al Kazimi has signaled his intent to reign in the PMF in accordance with the 2016 PMF Law and the 2019 PMF Decree. The 2016 Law, among other things, states that the PMF is under the command of the prime minister and outlaws their participation in economic and political affairs.[27] In Iraq’s May 2018 parliamentary elections several factions of the PMF, including KH, united as the Fatah Coalition, which secured 47 parliamentary seats.[28] Leaders have since used their political power to increase the PFM budget and the salaries of their fighters. The PMF has also been acussed of, among other things, stealing oil and running protection racquets.[29]  It should be no surprise then that the tension between the prime minister and segments of the PMF is rapidly increasing.[30]

“New” Shia militias also have emerged. In March Usbat al Thayireen claimed responsibility for an attack against U.S. forces. The PMF quickly denied any connection to the group.[31] However, on April 8, 2020 MEMRI cited a report from the London-based al-Quds al-Arabiya newspaper that claimed the group was trained and funded by the IRGC.[32] Schisms within any radical group can emerge over a range of issues. On the other hand, the decision to field additional non-PMF groups in Iraq could be meant to provide Iran plausibility deniability. Nevertheless, the group’s origins and affiliation(s) are still unclear.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s threats against U.S. and Iraqi personnel that collaborate with Washington persist. So too have PMF-perpetrated attacks against U.S. forces. There are a few explanations as to what this increasingly complicated dynamic means, none of which needs to be mutually exclusive. An initial explanation may be that Iran’s grip over the PMF and Shia politics in Iraq is indeed splintering and attempts by Qaani and his backers in Tehran to maintain unity are failing. The lack of control over splinter groups seeking legitimacy may lead to miscalculations resulting in an escalation with Washington. Increased confrontation between the PMF and US forces only serves to undermine Iran’s long-term goal of getting the U.S. out of Iraq. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in a recent interview with MEMRI, indicated as much.[33] Perhaps more importantly, Defense Secretary Marc Esper, speaking just after the assassinations, stated the U.S. had no plans to leave Iraq.[34]

A second possibility is that continued Iranian threats and attacks against Washington are meant to distract attention from Iranian efforts to maintain cohesion by (re)establishing the common villain. Again, such a strategy is delicate and difficult to control. It is only a matter of time until continued low-intensity conflict spirals out of Tehran and Washington’s control. And like always, the Iraqi people will suffer the worst.

Third, Iran is using actual and threatened violence in Iraq to distract attention from the coronavirus epidemic in Iran. No country was prepared to respond to the pandemic. However, Iran, under the weight of crippling sanctions, low oil prices, and the decision to prioritize expanding influence abroad at the expense of providing basic health service, was acutely unprepared. If this is the case, Iran is not just risking an escalation with Washington, but also another round of domestic upheaval similar to that which occurred in late 2019. 

Iran’s operations are unclear but it goals remain consistent -- continued consolidation of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, diminished US regional presence, and the exportation of Iran’s Islamic militancy. However, these objectives collide with the US, who refuses to pull back its “maximum pressure campaign.” Hence, the current state of affairs has significant implications for US interests. 

Implications for US Interests in Iraq and Beyond

The implications of Soleimani and al-Muhandis’ deaths are far reaching and fluid. It is quite possible that the strike was the Trump Administration’s attempt to declare victory paving the way for the US to extricate itself from Iraq.   However, US strategy encompasses somewhat contradictory messages with regard to influence and interest in Iraq. Second, tactical shifts within Iraq including apparent competition among Iranian-backed militia are creating a new dynamic of conflict. Finally, the elevated role of Lebanese Hezbollah both in Iraq and generally, raises the spectrum of broader regional and global retaliation against American interests and the US itself.

According to Ranj Alaaldin at Brookings, US strategic policy is going through a “tectonic shift” which is best explained as declining interest in state-building which affords Iran an opportunity at consolidation.[35] Notwithstanding Alaaldin’s regional expertise, actions on the ground and contradictory policy directions from Washington do not wholly support this prognosis. While the administration might like to disengage from Iraq, it is loath to abandon the Iraqi government and face the blowback of ceding Iraq to Iran. Moreover, ISIS, despite what the Trump administration says, remains a threat. In 2017, Lt. General Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), said the US should stay to avoid another Iraqi meltdown.[36] At Davos, in January 2020, the Trump administration apparently laid out a strategy of limiting investment in Iraq but maintaining a military posture in the Kurdistan region, where various PMF forces operate in “disputed” areas.[37] The March 2020 United States Central Command (CentCom) posture statement, although less explicit than Townsend’s personal comment, defines its key task as working with partners to neutralize Iran’s “malign activity.”[38] When combined with CentCom’s announcement of KH as a main target, [39] and Defense Secretary Esper’s previously noted comments, a quick US exit seems remote.

Continuing tit-for-tat escalation further ensnares the US in Iraq while increasing the opportunity for miscalculation resulting in a more costly conflict. Soleimani’s death was preceded by a series of strikes and counterstrikes but following Iran’s response on January 8, against the Ain al-Asad base, other Iranian-backed militia forces took action. For example, in February 2020, the PMF-affiliated Harakat al-Nujaba launched missiles at the Green Zone in Baghdad and additional attacks followed on March 2. On March 11, an attack on Camp Taji killed two US and one UK soldier and wounded fourteen others. The US retaliated against KH storage facilities across Iraq and firmly identified KH as a primary target. While commending the attack on Camp Taji, KH sought to distance itself by calling on the perpetrators (the aforementioned Usbat al-Thayireen claimed responsibility) to identify themselves and accept KH protection.[40]

KH’s distancing from the attack allowed other groups to seek to increase their local and Iranian support. Al-Nujaba accused the US of hitting Iraq headquarters and a civilian airport and calling for retaliation. [41] In an effort to attract sympathy, al-A’taba al-Hussieyia, a website covering activities related to Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala and affiliated with al-Sistani, commented on the US bombing the Karbala airport, a project sponsored by al-Sistani.[42] Perhaps most disconcerting is the emergence of Lebanese Hezbollah as a player with in Iraq with IRGC-QF support. Hezbollah’s presence raises a number of unanswered questions – is the IRGC-QF relying on Hezbollah capabilities which have been honed during its conflict in Syria? Does Hezbollah provide Tehran with level of plausible deniability as it pursues increasing violence through its proxy? Third, did the death of Soleimani mean that IRGC-QF internal security had been compromised and Hezbollah offered a more secure avenue to action? All of these remain to be answered. However, Iranian-backed militia and US forces maintain a low intensity conflict as the militias seek to define their status; the IRGC-QF remains a critical weapon supplier, instigator, and benefactor in Iraq; and continuing US involvement in Iraq seems likely.

The third dynamic impacting US policy is regionalization and possible globalization of conflict. Regionally, the use of Russian SA-6 surface-to-air missile against Saudi aircraft and the disruption of an attack on a Saudi oil tanker off Yemen are indicative of continued Iranian support for the Houthis.[43] In Syria, Iranian–backed militia have reportedly clashed with US allies in Syria and are in close proximity to the small US force near Deir al-Zour and Bukamal in eastern Syria.[44]

Regional clashes are a concern. But they are not the only one, Iran remains a patient adversary with multiple options, including striking within the US. In the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, Homeland Security warned of potential cyber strikes on the US.[45] Iran has had a history of asymmetrical responses that provide sufficient plausible deniability to usually avoid overt US responses. One such effort is using the IRGC’s offensive cyber operations as an extension of foreign policy. These attacks have a variety of targets and attack vectors. In 2018, nine members of the Mabna Institute were indicted for conducting numerous intrusions on behalf of the IRGC.[46] Also in 2018, two Iranians, operating in Iran, were indicted for Ransomware attacks that resulted in $6 million in payments and $30 million in damages.[47] Judging from the sophisticated nature of “SamSam Ransomware” it is highly likely the perpetrators were IRGC agents.

Additionally, the Iranians maintain an active intelligence presence in the US. In 2013, former USAF intelligence officer, Monica Witt defected to Iran. In a more recent incidents, Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, a dual citizen of Iran and the US and Majid Ghorbani, an Iranian with permanent US residency, were charged with collecting information on US citizens who were members of the Iranian-opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq and Merdad Ansari was extradited to US for illegally exporting dual-use technology.[48] His co-conspirator Frank Foomanie remains at-large.[49]

Another concern is the disruption that Lebanese Hezbollah could cause on Iran’s behalf. In April 2020, the US offering of a $10 million reward for information on Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharni.[50] This is indicative of both Hezbollah’s influence in Iraq and US concerns with it. Hezbollah also potentially threatens the US domestically. The Hizballah aka Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) FBI report, declassified in 2008, documented Hezbollah’s role in anti-US behavior internationally and domestically for a 20 year period. The IJO is reasonable for coordinating Hezbollah intelligence and operations outside of Lebanon.[51] In 2009, four men were arrest in Pennsylvania for attempting to purchase heavy weapons for Hezbollah.[52] In 2011, IJO plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in a Washington DC restaurant.[53] In 2013, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms broke up $400 million Hezbollah illegal cigarette smuggling ring operating between North Carolina and Michigan.[54] In 2019, the indictments of sleeper cell members, Ali Kourani and Alexei Saab, were made public.  Although unconnected, the two recruited for Hezbollah in the US, conducted surveillance on domestic targets, and attended Hezbollah military camps in Lebanon to enable further violent activity.[55] A third individual Samer EL-Debek also started work for Hezbollah’s IJO in 2007.[56] Kourani was placed in the US shortly after the US killed IJO commander Imad Mughniyeh, for whose death Hezbollah pledged revenge. His assignments included finding domestic weapon dealers who might be sympathetic to Hezbollah’s needs and to identify Israelis in the US for potential targeting.  Saab, a naturalized US citizen who held a teaching position at Baruch College, was trained in bomb-making and critical infrastructure surveillance.[57] El-Debek, who was paid by Hezbollah, was responsible for surveilling US targets outside of the US.[58] Finally in early 2020, Mariam Taha Thompson, a contract linguist In Irbil, Iraq, passed the names of confidential US informants on to Hezbollah.[59] The extent of Hezbollah’s US network is not publicly known; however, from available information it appears to be active and perhaps a source of domestic violence if properly inspired.

The implications facing the US are diverse and require a multi-faceted approach.  Regionally, US appears to be consumed with countering Iran with a combination of deterrence and targeted strikes. Deterrence is the credible threat of sufficient retaliation in response to an attack that a rational actor will avoid hostilities.[60] US efforts at deterrence, or perhaps response to escalation, are visible in the diversion of sea-based assets from European Command and deployment of the Harry S. Truman carrier group to the Arabian Peninsula.  U.S. troops also are renewing operations in Saudi Arabia, where officials hope that F-15 jets, along with protection from a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and Patriot missile batteries, in hopes of deterring September’s assault on Saudi oil facilities.[61]

 A second part of US strategy is the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. In addition to withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and sanctions, two operational approaches are evident. The first is an intentional blurring of the distinction between IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. While not recognized as the same organizations, a counter-strategy that draws limited differences in operational and tactical actions serves the broader strategic goal of weakening Iranian influence. Related to the first, are efforts at compressing the IRGC and Hezbollah’s operational space through more traditional counterterrorism approaches – counter-financing and targeting senior leadership.  The US is investing up to $15 million to obtain information that can be used to disrupt the IRGC’s financial mechanisms.[62] Although he survived, Abdul Reza Shahlai, the commander of the attack on the Saudi ambassador in DC in 2011 and a key IRGC financier, was targeted on the day Soleimani was killed.[63] The reward for information on Kawtharani is meant to identify location where he can be eliminated or exfiltrated. 

It is the US perspective that international operations serve to weaken Hezbollah’s threat to the homeland. Notwithstanding, the continued detection and prosecution of illegal activities such illegal cigarette smuggling is important. Third, intelligence gathering and sharing among law enforcement entities in order to identify and disrupt Hezbollah sleeper cells and sympathizers remains critical.


The assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis in January 2020 contributed to increased discord in the PMF, challenged the IRGC-QF efforts to increase influence in Iraq and arguably has increased the low-intensity conflict in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere.. Strategically, US policy seems focused on deterring with Iran complemented by a proportional decline in interest in nation-building in Iraq. Notwithstanding, the unintended consequence of the Iran first strategy is a continued presence of US forces in the region which may stop Iraq from descending into sectarian conflict again. Within this context, the current events in Iraq raise multiple questions regarding US Iraq policy going forward. First, can a strategy of deterrence be successful?  Second, how effective was the decapitation strategy? Third, and most importantly, what are the US goals in Iraq going forward?

Efforts at deterrence are outlined above but part of a successful deterrence strategy is the contingency plan and willingness to execute it if deterrence fails. The US retains the capability to inflict significant damage on Iraqi PMF and Iran itself. In the former, striking the PMFs without a follow-on requiring significant US troops is a recipe for Iraq descending into anarchy again.  In the latter case, it may be better to allow the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran’s aging theocratic leadership, and pain of sanctions to erode the regime’s control rather than uniting Iranians behind a disliked regime because they have been attacked by the US. Thus, understanding what is to be done if deterrence fails is critical.

Second, as discussed herein, decapitation has tactical advantages as a deterrent strategy but the inability to control its ripple effects weaken its strategic application in the short and long-term. In removing Soleimani, the US eliminated an Iranian center of gravity in Iraq and disrupted Iranian influence but its strategic benefit has been less clear. Iran is having difficulty replacing Soleimani and al Muhandis. Yet attacks against U.S. forces have persisted largely unabated. Regional instability and potential broad geographic reprisals are unknown variables. Until the factors of regional instability and the potential for more global violence are clearer, it is difficult to assess whether the decapitation offered more strategic results.

Third, Washington, now more than ever it must figure out what is worth fighting for in Iraq and what is not. The Islamic State has not been defeated. It has simply evolved into a low-level insurgency. Iranian-backed attacks and COVID-19 fears have led to a drawdown and repositioning of U.S. assets. Fighting to prevent a resurgence of ISIS is worth it. So too is working to strengthen the country’s official security forces at the expense of the PMF. Fighting for control over the Iraqi government to the same extent that Iran has is a lost cause. But there are signs of optimism on this latter front. Many see the current candidate for prime minister as a patriot and honest broker among whose primary concerns is his country’s sovereignty. Regardless, the chief policy goals in Iraq, which can only be achieved in coordination by treating Baghdad as equal partners, should revolve around 1) what future role U.S. forces will play in counterterrorism efforts and 2) how official Iraqi security forces will factor into this equation, both as partners and protectors.[64]

[1] Natasha Turak, “‘The Puppet Master is Dead’: Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s Power and Why his Death is such a Big Deal,”, January 3, 2020, accessed April 9, 2020,

[2] Ariane M. Tabatabai, “After Soleimani: What’s Next for Iran’s Quds Force?” CTC Sentinel, January 2020, pp. 29, accessed April 9, 2020,

[3] Ahmad al Asani, Spokesman for Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, quoted in “General Soleimani to Assist Mosul Operations,” Financial Times, August 7, 2016, accessed April 8, 2020,

[4] Ranj Alaadin, “What will happen to Iraqi Shiite Militias after one key Leader’s Death?” Brookings Institution Order in Chaos (blog), March 3, 2020, accessed April 8, 2020,

[5] See Michael Knights, “Soleimani is Dead: The Road Ahead for Iranian-Backed Militias in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, January 2020, pp. 1-10, accessed April 8, 2020,

[6] Karl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. And trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton Press 1976

[7] Robert Dixon. (2015).”Clausewitz, Center of Gravity, and the Confusion of a Generation of Planners.” Small Wars Journal online at accessed 3/29/20.

[8] See Patrick B. Johnston. (2012); Jenna Jordan (2009) When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation, Security Studies, 18:4, 719-755, DOI: 10.1080/0963641090336906; Price, B. (2019). Targeting Top Terrorists: Understanding Leadership Removal in Counterterrorism Strategy. New York; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/pric18822.

[9] Daniel Byman in Around the halls: Experts react to the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, Brookings 1/3/20 accessed 3/30/20.

[10] Michael McKnight (2020). “Soleimani is Dead: The Road Ahead for Iranian-backed Militias in Iraq”. CTC Sentinal Volume 13 Issue 1. West Point, NY.  January 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Waliuallah Rahmani, “Afghanistan’s Veteran Jihad Leader: An Interview with Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad” Terrorism Monitor Jamestown Fdn 5/3/07 accessed June 2007.

[14] The Ingush Jamaat: identity and Resistance in the North Caucasus. Jamestown Fdn 8/1/07 accessed September 2007.  

[15] “Conflict with Iran” (2020). The Economist January 11 p. 15.

[16] Reuters Staff (2020). Inside Soleimani’s plot to attack US forces in Iraq. January 4. online @ accessed March 31, 2020.

[17] Frederick Kempe (2020). 3 reasons slain General Soleimani is irreplaceable loss for the Iranian regime. CNBC January 11. accessed March 31, 2020 and Mehdi Parpanchi (2020). Analysis: Slain Quds Force Commander ‘Irreplaceable’ for Iran. RFE/RL January 3 accessed March 31, 2020.

[18] Missile Attack Targets U.S. Embassy As Shi'ite Factions Escalate Threats Against U.S. For Designating Militia Leader As Global Terrorist MEMRI 3/2/20 and accessed March 4, 2020.

[19] Battle For Iraq's Premiership: Iran-Backed Shi'ite Factions Seek To Marginalize Al-Sistani, Obstruct Appointment of Pro-U.S. Intelligence Chief Al-Kadhemi As PM, And Reinstate Pro-Iran Abdul Mahdi MEMRI 3/3/20 20 accessed March 4, 2020.

[20] Seth Frantzman, “Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance” after Soleimani,” Austrailia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, February 3. 2020, accessed April 8, 2020,

[21] Alex MacDonald, “Iraq’s intelligence chief named as new Prime Minister-designate,” Middle East Eye, April 9 2020, accessed April 13, 2020,

[22] Eli Lake, “How Iran is losing its grip in Iraq,” Gulf News, May 11, 2020, accessed May 23, 2020,

[23] Michael Knights, “Soleimani is Dead: The Road Ahead for Iranian-Backed Militias in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, January 2020, pp. 5-6, accessed April 8, 2020,

[24] Suadad al Sulhy, “Iran and Najaf struggle for control over Hashd al-Shaabi after Muhandi’s killing,” Middle East Eye, February 16, 2020, accessed April 8, 2020,

[25] “Anti-Iran political forces in Iraq move to free Iraq from decades-long submission to Iranian Hegemony,” MEMRI Special Dispatch 8648, March 19, 2020, accessed April 8, 2020,

[26] “Report: Sistani and Sadr refused to meet with Qaani,” Rudaw, April 8, 2020, accessed April 15, 2020,

[27] Ali Mamouri, “Iraqi Prime Minister stressed PMU should be Iraqi Institution under State Authority,” Al Monitor, May 22, 2020, accessed May 23, 2020,; “Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr’s bloc wins Iraq Elections,” BBC News, May 19, 2018, accessed May 23, 2020,

[28] Damian Doyle, “Iraq’s evolving Paramilitaries will have an Impact on State and Society,” E-International Relations, April 29, 2019, accessed May 23, 2020,

[29] Nabih Bulos, “In Iraq, Iran-affiliated Militias that helped route Islamic State wield growing Clout,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2019, accessed May 23, 2020,

[30] Ali Mamouri, “Iraqi Prime Minister stressed PMU should be Iraqi Institution under State Authority,” Al Monitor, May 22, 2020, accessed May 23, 2020,

[31] Tom O’Connor, “New Iraq Group Claiming Attacks on U.S. Troops says it can strike Israel,”, March 19, 2020, accessed April 13, 2020,

[32] “Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor Weekend Summary: Week of April 4-11, 2020,” MEMRI, Special Announcements No. 895, April 11, 2020, accessed April 13, 2020,

[33] Former Iraqi PM Ayad Allawi: Iran Does Not Want Iraq To Have a Strong Army; The Americans Will Not Leave Iraq; The Int'l Coalition, Not Iran, Defeated ISIS,, April 5, 2020.

[34] Tom Bowman, “Pentagon Chief says there is no plan for U.S. Forces to leave Iraq,” NPR Morning Edition (audio transcript), January 7, 2020, accessed April 13, 2020,

[40] Special Dispatch No. 8634. Iraqi Leaders React with Concern and Some Relief to U.S. Airstrikes; Iran-Backed Militia: 'America Has Proven Its Failure, Its Weakness in Its Response' MEMRI Daily March 16 2020.

[42] Special Dispatch No. 8634. Iraqi Leaders React With Concern And Some Relief To U.S. Airstrikes; Iran-Backed Militia: 'America Has Proven Its Failure, Its Weakness In Its Response' MEMRI Daily March 16 2020

[44] Ibid.

[45] CISA Alert AA20-006A 1/6/20.

[51] US v. Samer El Debek, Southern District of NY, 18USC subsect 2339B 2339D, 371, 924 and 2 and 50 USC 1705 May 31, 2017.

[52] Klein, M. & Dorn, S. (n.d.). (2019)  Alexei Saab allegations highlight disturbing hiring pattern at CUNY. Accessed April 12, 2020.

[53] US v. Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri; Southern District of NY; 18 USC subsect 117, 1958, 2 2332a, 2332

[54]  “The Problem.” (2016). The Problem, RAI Services Co. Accessed April 18.

[55] US District Court Southern District NY US v. Ali Kourani Indictment 1:17-cr-00417-AKH and US v. Alexei Saab; US District Court Southern District of NY Indictment 19 cr.

[56] US v. Samer El Debek, Southern District of NY, 18USC subsect 2339B 2339D, 371, 924 and 2 and 50 USC 1705 May 31, 2017.

[57] Coughlin, K. (n.d.). Morristown man indicted on terrorism charges, allegedly scouted NYC targets for Hezbollah|Morristown Green. 2019. Retrieved April 12, 2020, from

[58] US v. Samer El Debek, Southern District of NY, 18USC subsect 2339B 2339D, 371, 924 and 2 and 50 USC 1705 May 31, 2017.

[60] Schelling, T.C. (1960). The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

[64] See Michael Knights, “Iraq goes from Zurfi to Kadhami: U.S. policy Implications,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch 3295, April 9, 2020,

About the Author(s)

Ms. Ava Sullivan is a junior at The Pennsylvania State University majoring in Global and International Studies with a focus in Global Conflict and minors in Arabic and Spanish Language. Her main research interests are in Middle East conflicts and terrorism. 

Dr. Gregory J. Kruczek is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Penn State University.  His research interests include second-order minorities, ethnic conflict, stateless nations and homeland claims, Middle Eastern Christians.

Dr. Forster is a professor emeritus of Security & Risk Analysis in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), and an affiliate professor in Penn State’s School of International Affairs. As a member of a number of research centers, he studies risk and crisis management, situation awareness, social network analysis, counterterrorism policies and strategies. His work includes using simulations and tabletop exercises to improve command and control in counterterrorism and engaging government and civil society in addressing terrorist threats. Dr. Forster is the co-chair of the NATO/OSCE Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), co-editor of NATO’s Counter Terrorism Reference Curriculum and co-course academic director of NATO's Defence Against Terrorism course. 

Dr. Forster’s primary areas of interest are terrorism/counter-terrorism, risk and crisis management, and national and homeland security. Forster has co-developed a course on cybersecurity for the US government, facilitated international counterterrorism tabletop exercises and led grants exploring process and technology integration to improve law enforcement’s situational awareness.   He is the co-author of Multinational Military Intervention, Stephen J. Cimbala & Peter K. Forster 2008 and Cognitive Systems Engineering Michael D. McNeese & Peter K. Forster, 2017, has authored articles on using technology in counter-terrorism, extremist recruitment models in the United States, understanding distributed team cognition in crisis situations, and American foreign policy and interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Dr. Forster holds a PhD. in Political Science (International Relations) from Penn State.




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