Back to archive
Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Soleimani's death: can state actors also be terrorists?

08 Jan 2020 - 15:58

Soleimani is no more. The mourners in Iran are in deep grief, while many in for instance Israel and the US feel relief. People all over the planet hold their breath. Nobody knows what could be next.

My friends in Iraq have mixed feelings, most are extremely concerned. They have had their share of violence and uncertainty and do not need another conflict. Those responsible for the killing claim that the world is a safer place since the beginning of this new year. The UN and others call for de-escalation.

In the events leading up to the elimination of Soleimani, there were several incidents. Some of them  were indicative of rising tensions between Iran and the US. According to Republican sources In Washington the red line was crossed when a US contractor was killed in an attack on a US military base in Iraq.

It is increasingly becoming the new normal to have private companies do the dirty work in conflict areas, and the US is not alone

The fact that it was a contractor may seem like a detail, but maybe it is not. Somebody who was paid to fight for the US was killed. It is indicative of the way the US outsources its warfare that not a military person was killed in the incident but a contractor. It is increasingly becoming the new normal to have private companies do the dirty work in conflict areas, and the US is not alone.

The presence of Russian paid armed groups in the Central African Republic and Mozambique for instance shows that the model is copied. It is a success. The state hires private non-state actors to kill.

Even Soleimani was, in a certain sense, hired by the regime to commit some of the atrocities that he signed for. After all, the regime was not sure if they could trust the army, so they organised the Revolutionary Guard to protect the revolution: like a private army for the regime.

On the other side of the equation are the illegal armed non-state actors. There is a whole range and variety of them. Some go under well-known names like ISIS or DAESH, Boko Haram or Al Qaida. Some are less known to the public but not necessarily less threatening to the security of the general population in unstable environments.

Armed groups, militias, self-defence organisations, warlords, you name it. In places where people feel unsafe, they organise themselves and find ways to defend their interest. Gangs, hooligans and violent mafia are common in some environments. Civil defence groups as a response mechanism as well. In fact, there are quite some environments where the government is not seen as a major security supplier or guarantor and where the use of violence is privatised as a consequence.

Soleimani is no more. He was a leader of militias: the external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He was a state actor in Iran, but what was his status in Iraq? Was he a non-state actor or an illegal state actor?

Soleimani makes an interesting merge between the world of illegal violence and the privatised legal violence

He also fought the other non-state actor, ISIS. Fighting terrorism while he was also a terrorist. Soleimani was on the list of `persons, groups and entities subject to application of specific measures to combat terrorism` of the European Union. He was also listed as a terrorist in the US.

Soleimani thereby makes an interesting merge between the world of illegal violence and the privatised legal violence. Just like the US contractor, he was a bit of both worlds. Yet, both sides feel that they have sufficient ground and justification to kill the other. Exactly the way that self-defence groups justify their actions, and the way Russian armed groups and militias do.

What makes today’s debate so confusing is that it is not just about the question whether there was sufficient reason to eliminate Soleimani. It is also, and even mainly, about the question whether the killing improves the situation in the region and whether it will lead to more human suffering and global or regional instability. It is all about de-escalation and peoples’ own private concern and hope that there will be no war.

Apparently, state actors can also be terrorists

But what worries me most is the blurring of demarcations. Apparently, state actors can also be terrorists. Apparently, violence can be used against state actors outside the context of a direct armed conflict. Apparently, the phrase `imminent threat` is sufficient to justify the use of violence and to ‘list’ a person. One simply has to utter the words.

What distinguishes Soleimani from a warlord or the leader of a self-defence group? What distinguishes a private contractor from any other non-state actor?

The proliferation of actors in the area of security is a headache not only because the legal frames are insufficient to regulate behaviour and to call actors to justice. It also becomes increasingly unclear what the status and value of the labels are that people use to commit violence. Too many actors claim they have every right.


Peter Knoope
Senior Associate Fellow at the Clingendael Institute