Was Qassem Soleimani a terrorist?

Tensions in the Middle East being what they are, America’s recent foray into the region is not going down well. The word ‘tinderbox’ has been thrown around a fair bit. That’s probably about right.

One of the questions that has surfaced in recent days is whether Qassem Soleimani is a terrorist. It has largely come up because that is how the USA have justified their assassination of him. The Iranians insist he was a government official on diplomatic business in neighbouring Iraq.

Now, before I go on, it bears saying I am not (and do not claim to be) an expert on this. I do, however, have some qualifications in the relevant area for this question. I have an undergraduate degree in History & Politics that focused principally on Northern Ireland and also looked at comparative peace processes round the world. My dissertation looked at the political development of the UDA and UVF and included trips to Northern Ireland to look at source materials as well as interview those involved in those groups.

My academic work to date has largely centred on Loyalist Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. My Religious Studies PGCE gives me some insight into the question of comparative religion and my MA in Theology included a thesis on Evangelicals and the politics of Northern Ireland, including whether Evangelicals have been involved in paramilitarism. I have also written in recognised academic journals on the Northern Irish troubles and Evangelical interpretations thereof.

Now, apart from some of the comparative peace process work and a bit of the comparative religion stuff, none of that directly relates to the question at hand. But I would venture it gives me enough claim to know what terrorism is. It also gives me a reasonable handle on history and politics in general.

Apart from academia, I now lead a church which reaches a significant number of Iranian people. We work closely with Iranian asylum seekers and those who have been granted leave to remain in the UK. I work with both Muslim and Christian Iranian people. Again, whilst by no means giving me perfect insight into these things, I think it fair to say it gives me some knowledge. Both my grandfather, and my father, served in the Navy which, again whilst not perfect insight by any means, gives me some understanding of the issues among the armed forces.

Now, before I go on to offer my view, I think this video is hugely valuable. It is from the Politics Live programme on the BBC. The key interview starts at 15:30 with Michael Clarke, a fellow and former director of the Royal United Services Institute. He essentially outlines the issue and where we are at now. I agree with his assessment of the matter here.

It bears noting that there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. However, given they are the only people making the case that Qassem Soleimani is a terrorist, it bears looking at America’s own definition. Taken from the FBI’s site:

International terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).

Domestic terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.


It is worth noting that the American definition stops short of suggesting that state officials themselves are terrorists. Whilst there is such a thing as ‘state sponsored terrorism’, Iran’s funding of Hezbollah being one such example, the state themselves are not terrorists and nor are their officials.

It is notable that Michael Clarke makes it abundantly clear that Qassem Soleimani was neither a warlord nor a military leader, he was an Iranian government official. He was effectively the Foreign Minister and Chief of the Army. He goes on to insist that America’s defence of the killing has no real basis in law and was categoric that their actions were illegal. He is equally clear that they would not have been illegal if Soleimani was, indeed, a terrorist or some such. If this is found to be an illegal killing, by definition, that would mean Soleimani is not, and cannot be, a terrorist because such a killing would be legal.

The problem with the American determination that Soleimani and the Quds Forces as terrorists is several fold. First, almost nobody in the rest of the world affirms that claim. Essentially, America are making a claim of terrorism that nobody else believes. Second, as soon as you start labelling recognised government officials as terrorists, you break down the basic order of international relations. The Iranians, for example, declared in response that the American army are a terrorist organisation, which would necessarily undercut any reasonable definition of the word ‘terrorist’. If we want to insist that Soleimani is a terrorist, despite only ever acting on behalf of the state as a recognised state official, we open the door to almost anybody working for any state that does something anybody else doesn’t like being labelled the same way. The word ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ suddenly loses all meaning altogether.

Something being illegal cannot be the basis of claiming terrorism. Somebody can be a terrible, nasty individual who has acted illegally without that person necessarily being a terrorist. Somebody who is part of a recognised government and acting as a legitimate official in that state leadership cannot, by definition, be a terrorist. They may act as a state representative in ways that are illegal, they may even sponsor terrorist organisations – who are definitionally terrorist – in order to further their national interests, which would mean they participate in state sponsored terrorism i.e. the state is funding those who are themselves terrorists, but the state and its officials are not terrorists. They are internationally recognised state officials acting as representative of their nation. They may act legally or illegally, and can legitimately be brought to book for their actions, but they are not terrorists.

Consider any of the major 20th Century dictators. Each of them were heinous people. Nobody mourns the passing of Pol Pot or Josef Stalin. Any dictator you may care to mention has acted in particularly heinous ways, often against their own people, but no less so against those outside of their country. Many of their actions, without doubt, break international law. Many of them faced trials in which they were found guilty of crimes against humanity or, in other cases, war crimes. It is entirely right and legitimate to hold such people to account. But it is notable that nobody refers to such people as terrorists, essentially because they do not fit any credible definition of that word. They were recognised state leaders. They broke the law, they committed horrific atrocities at home and abroad, but what they were not was terrorists.

Nobody with any sense will mourn the passing of Qassem Soleimani. Michael Clarke was right when he said he was a brutal, nasty man. All of my Iranian friends hate him. When your social media fills up with Iranian people falling over themselves to say, ‘thank you, Mr Trump’ you know that Soleimani is not well liked. It is similar to my Kurdish friend who said his hero was Tony Blair for ridding his country of Saddam Hussein. Whether we were right to do it or not, whether it was strategically clever or not, whether it was illegal or not, there is no denying such men are brutal people whose death will no doubt come as a relief to many.

So we need not label people terrorists in order to find them repugnant. The only reason to label Soleimani a terrorist is to avoid the conclusion that America has sanctioned an illegal killing of a state official. That Michael Clarke was quite prepared to go onto national TV and, without hesitation, insist that there really is no legal grounds for this makes its own point. That no other state, as yet, has affirmed the USA’s interpretation also speaks volumes. That the US definition of terrorism itself undercuts their claim that Qassem Soleimani is a terrorist is a difficult one to sidestep too.

Ultimately, whatever you want to call Soleimani, he was not a terrorist. I can’t say I am sad that he has been killed. Many of my Iranian friends are relieved. One of my Iranian friends said this:

For many Iranians Qassem Soleimani was a warmonger who caused massive casualties in Syria. He was no hero to average Iranians who chanted against the country’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Unfortunately Western media misses the point by glorifying Soleimani– He was the common enemy for people in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. His Involvement in crackdown against university students in late 1990s was another black mark against him.

He was not a man to admire. The world may well be a better place without him. But he is not a terrorist (though he sponsored terrorists). His death may not be a great sadness for most of us, and a relief to many Iranians, but it was nonetheless against international law.

Why does it matter? Surely labelling a terrible man as a terrorist and executing him is fine? Well, not really. Not because Soleimani is great, but because in so doing we undercut the very essence of international law. If we tolerate this, there is nothing to stop others absurdly labelling those they do not like as terrorists and then doing the same to them. We may not care all that much about the Middle East because it is quite far removed from us, but the moment Iran label the CIA a terrorist organisation (which they have done) or they decide our government officials are terrorists and treat them accordingly, we may realise just how significant this is.

The very working of international relations relies on proper recognition of these things. That America have chosen to undercut them has just made international relations significantly trickier and the world considerably less safe as a result.