Was America’s assassination of Qassem Suleimani justified?

A fierce debate swirls on its legality; and on whether it will be good for America

IT WAS, ACCORDING to David Petraeus, a former American army general and director of the CIA, “more consequential” than the killing of Osama bin Laden or of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Few bemoaned the demise of the jihadist leaders of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. But the killing on January 3rd by drone strike of Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign-operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has sparked a furore over the legality and the impact of his assassination.

The American authorities dislike the word “assassination”, because it implies a flouting of international and humanitarian law. Indeed, some human-rights lawyers see the use of drones to kill people as almost always unlawful. Agnès Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has argued that “outside the context of active hostilities, the use of drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal….lethal force can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat.” She has deplored the “kill lists” of what the Americans call “specially designated global terrorists” since they have no way of proving their innocence, and in effect face a sentence of death without due process of law. She has criticised the Trump administration for killing General Suleimani.

The Trump administration has argued that General Suleimani indeed posed an “imminent threat” but will find it hard to present evidence that satisfies its critics. It can also point as precedents to the activities of its predecessors. At the end of 2016, just before he left office, Barack Obama issued a report on the legal framework guiding the United States’ use of force (which had included a raid on Pakistani territory in 2011 without the local authorities’ knowledge to kill bin Laden). It says: “Using targeted lethal force against an enemy consistent with the law of armed conflict does not constitute an ‘assassination’.” Assassinations, it notes, are unlawful under an executive order signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 (which updated those by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). But today there is “a new and different kind of conflict against enemies who do not wear uniforms or respect geographic boundaries and who disregard the legal principles of warfare.” For the Trump administration, even though General Suleimani was an official of the Iranian state, the Shia militias that he oversaw and cheered on in Iraq and elsewhere fall in the terrorist category; in April the Trump administration formally designated the IRGC a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

The campaign against international terrorism falls in the grey area between policing at home and waging war abroad, with few of the well-established laws and norms that attempt to govern them. In the Pentagon’s latest rulebook, it lets armed forces operate as they do in conventional war zones and hit terrorist targets at will in places designated “areas of active hostilities”, including parts of Yemen, Pakistan and Niger, and all of Somalia. The Americans have unleashed hundreds of drone strikes, air strikes and ground raids.

In many ways, America is following the precedent set by Israel, the state that over the past half-century has surely most actively pursued a policy of hunting down and killing foes abroad—not least when it sought to exact retribution against those responsible for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. According to Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist whose history of the subject, “Rise and Kill First”, was published in 2018, Israel’s security services have carried out some 2,700 assassinations. The killing of Palestinians suspected of planning or perpetrating violence against Israelis has been relentlessly conducted also in the West Bank and Gaza, territories controlled by Israel that seek to become an independent Palestinian state.

The Israelis were at first criticised by Western governments for violating international and humanitarian law. But after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America in September, 2001, the American administrations of both George Bush and Mr Obama, and more recently the British and French governments, followed their example in tracking down and killing enemies abroad, sometimes including their own citizens, by using drones.

Particularly in the past decade or so, the Americans (and their Israeli allies) have sought to apply more elastic rules, while broadly invoking the principle of “self-defence against non-State actors on the territory of another State.” Due process, it is argued, cannot be applied when responding to an imminent attack or when the capture or extradition of a suspected enemy is not feasible.

Definitions of “self-defence”, “active hostilities” and “imminent” are endlessly argued over. Philippe Sands, a human-rights lawyer who has charged both the American and British governments with violations of the laws of war, has argued that it all hinges on whether a situation of armed conflict (war) exists. “If it doesn’t, extrajudicial executions are a total no-no in all circumstances. If armed conflict exists, then every case turns on the facts.” So each case must be judged on its merits. The snag here, in the Israelis’ view, is that they are locked in “an armed conflict short of war”, that their survival as a nation cannot depend on the niceties of the law, and that in any case the situation in Gaza and the West Bank in legal terms “falls somewhere in the middle”. The Americans may apply a similar fuzziness to the state of animosity between the US and Iran, seeing that General Suleimani’s men—including elite units sent abroad, undercover agents and proxies—have been held responsible for numerous attacks on Western and Israeli targets, as far afield as Argentina and Bulgaria.

But does it work?
If the legality of assassinations is endlessly debated, so is the question of their effectiveness. Clearly a successful assassination works in one sense, of doling out retribution and punishment. But, to use General Petraeus’s term, how “consequential” is it in deterring and defeating the enemy? In the long and varied history of assassination, the results have often been disputed, and the consequences unintended. It is generally accepted, for instance, that a bullet fired by a Serbian nationalist started the first world war and even paved the way towards the second, though the bonfire which this ignited in 1914 was ready to be lit.

The killing in 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister, often blamed on the CIA, helped set that country on its post-colonial path to mayhem. The murder in 1966 of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, led to a dreadful civil war. And the killing in 1994 of Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, set off Africa’s worst genocide.

In the Middle East, similarly, assassinations have also changed the course of history. The killing of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in 1981 chilled the peace that he had negotiated with Israel. The murder of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish fanatic in 1995, severely dimmed the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

More recently the Saudis and the Iranians have both made clear that they will kill perceived enemies of the state at home or abroad: witness the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul because of his criticism of the country’s crown prince, Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Israeli governments remain wedded to the idea that assassinating their enemies keeps them on the defensive and disrupts their plans. That, too, must be the understanding of Mr Trump. But the result has not always been what was desired. Israel’s botched assassination on Jordanian soil in 1997 of Khaled Mashal, who went on to become leader of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that has carried out myriad suicide attacks, was a costly fiasco. The killing of other Hamas figures, including the movement’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has had little obvious impact on the movement’s popularity or capabilities.

After the Israelis assassinated Abbas al-Musawi, leader of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement in 1992, he was succeeded by the cleverer Hassan Nasrallah, who has been even more of a thorn in Israel’s flesh—with the encouragement and close-co-operation of General Suleimani.

Yet the idea of organisational decapitation remains seductive to would-be strategic assassins: cut off the leader and watch the body twitch through its death throes. In a book published last November, Jenna Jordan of the Georgia Institute of Technology examines more than 1,000 cases involving the killing or capture of leaders of terrorist or insurgent groups. She says three factors contribute to a group’s resilience afterwards: its degree of

  1. bureaucracy,
  2. ability to draw on local resources and
  3. ideological zeal.

These qualities ensure that its mission does not depend on a single leader.

The death last October of Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State, who blew up himself (and two of his children) to avoid capture by American forces in Syria, has disrupted IS, but perhaps not in a lasting manner. IS ranks highly on all three of Ms Jordan’s factors. It has kept meticulous records and exported its procedures to international franchises that can apply them independently. Though it no longer pulls in $1m a day, as it once did, it still has deep pockets, and is likely to benefit from local Sunni disaffection in Syria. Its ideological purity resonates independently of Baghdadi, to whom a successor was named within days. It has proved its resilience before. It is notable that Mr Baghdadi rose to the top because two predecessors were killed in American strikes in 2006 and 2010.

General Suleimani will no doubt be hard to replace. He was the right-hand man to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and no obvious candidate can take that role. But like Baghdadi, he had created something much bigger than himself that does not depend on him alone. His network will still have much the same capabilities as when he was alive. And because it has been so active across the Middle East, says one former British security official, the Quds Force has “a pool of talent…a battle-hardened cadre” of people used to waging asymmetric campaigns. And for a while at least, outrage in Iran at the assassination is fuelling a thirst for revenge and has drowned out anti-regime protests.

Then there is the impact on Iraq. The killing of General Suleimani at the country’s international airport plainly flouted that country’s sovereignty, enraging many Iraqis who had previously welcomed American troops on their soil. If, as some fear, the jihadists of Islamic State revive in Iraq in the absence of American forces that had previously beaten them down, the new balance could tilt against America. And if the Iraqis do kick the Americans out, summarily or under a more sedate timetable, his assassination will have produced just the result that General Suleimani would have hoped for.

Right-Wing Views for Generation Z, Five Minutes at a Time

Dennis Prager believes teenagers are more open to conservative ideas than millennials. With PragerU, he’s making a play to get around their professors.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Will Witt walked through the University of California campus doing what he does professionally, which is trolling unwitting young liberals on camera.

He approached students who seemed like good targets: people with political buttons on their bags, androgynous clothing, scarves. It was safe to say that the vast majority here in the heart of progressive culture would be liberal. Mr. Witt, whose bouffant and confident smile make him look like a high school jock from central casting, told the students that he had a question for them. If they agreed to answer, and they usually did, the game was on.

“How many genders are there?” Mr. Witt asked before turning and staring deadpan at the camera. Some people laughed and walked away. Most, knowing the camera was rolling, engaged.

“As many as you want?” a recent Ph.D. student responded, a little confused to be confronted with this question.

After some of the footage was edited in the back of an S.U.V. in a parking lot nearby, the video headed to Prager University, a growing hub of the online right-wing media machine, where Mr. Witt is a rising star and the jokey, Ray-Ban-wearing embodiment of the site’s ambitions.

Last year PragerU videos racked up more than one billion views, the company said. The Prager empire now has a fleet of 6,500 high school and college student promoters, known as the PragerForce, who host on-campus meetings and gather at least once a year for conventions. And this year, the company is expanding its scope. PragerU executives are signing stars of the young new right to host made-for-the-internet shows to fuel 2020 content, including a book club and a show geared to Hispanics called Americanos.

The goal of the people behind all of this — Dennis Prager, the conservative talk show host and impresario of this digital empire, and the venture’s billionaire funders — seems simple: more Will Witts in the world. More pride in American history (and less panic over racism), more religion (specifically in the “Judeo-Christian” tradition), less illegal immigration, more young people laughing at people on the left rather than joining them.

Mr. Witt, 23, said he was raised in a relatively liberal home by his mother, and when he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he was already leaning conservative. But he found his zeal for the culture war on campus. One of his classes offered students extra credit for going to a political protest. Mr. Witt submitted that he would go to a nearby speech hosted by the right-wing star Milo Yiannopoulos. The teaching assistant told him that would not count, he said.

He was frustrated, feeling lonely and at home watching videos on YouTube. The site prompted him with a bright animation made by PragerU. He can’t remember the first video he saw. Maybe railing against feminism, he said.

“I must have watched every single one that night,” Mr. Witt said. “I stopped going to class. Pretty much all the time I was reading and watching.”

He did not graduate from college.

The videos are five minutes each, quick, full of graphs and grand extrapolations, and unapologetically conservative. Lessons have titles like: “Why Socialism Never Works” (a series), “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy,” “Where Are the Moderate Muslims?” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”

To the founders and funders of PragerU, YouTube is a way to circumvent brick-and-mortar classrooms — and parents — and appeal to Generation Z, those born in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

ImageMr. Witt dropped out of college after watching PragerU videos that railed against campus politics.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney for The New York Times

Mr. Prager sees those young people as more indoctrinated in left-wing viewpoints than any previous generation, but also as more curious about the right. For these teenagers, consuming conservative content is a rebellion from campus politics that are liberal and moving left.

“We find more of them are open to hearing an alternative voice than many of their elders,” Mr. Prager wrote in an email. “Many suspect they have been given only one view, and suspect that view may often be absurd.”

The way PragerU presents that “alternative voice” is in the measured tone of an online university, carefully avoiding the news cycle and President Trump. That is part of its power.

“They take old arguments about the threat of immigration but treat them as common sense and almost normative, wrapping them up as a university with a neutral dispassionate voice,” said Chris Chavez, the doctoral program director at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

PragerU’s website has a fine-print disclaimer that it is not an actual academic institution.

“PragerU’s ‘5 Minute Ideas’ videos have become an indispensable propaganda device for the right,” the Southern Poverty Law Center warned on its blog, citing videos like “Blacks in Power Don’t Empower Blacks,” hosted by the Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, who is black.

Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, said he has noticed an impact from PragerU’s content. “It sits at this border between going off a cliff into conspiracy thinking and extreme kinds of prejudices in the name of anti-political correctness,” he said.

On PragerU’s website, there is little differentiation between its video presenters. So the late Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer appears on the same page as Michelle Malkin, the commentator who has defended overtly racist elements of the right. There’s Bret Stephens, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist; Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host; George F. Will, the anti-Trump conservative commentator; and Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader. For a teenager approaching the site, each headshot in the same size circle, it would be hard to tell the difference between them all.

PragerU began in 2009 as a nonprofit to promote the conservative religious values of Mr. Prager, a popular talk radio host and author of books on Judaism. Originally, the idea was to build an actual physical university. Allen Estrin, his producer, would spearhead it.

But a physical building was prohibitively expensive.

“Just to get started would be $250 million,” Mr. Estrin said recently while driving through Los Angeles. “You have to buy property, a building, do a faculty, years to start, years to raise money, and then at the end what do you have? One thousand students in the first graduating class?”


Allen Estrin getting his makeup done before taping a show at PragerU.
Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Mr. Estrin had another idea. He was obsessed with internet video. Mr. Estrin taught screenwriting, but the conservative content he saw online was rambling and baggy. The sets were bad (a lot of old men at whiteboards). He pitched the early PragerU group: They could make a right-wing university online, in tight five-minute courses.

“We used to say in the early days, ‘Give us five minutes, and we’ll give you a semester,’” Mr. Estrin said.

Marissa Streit, who had been a Hebrew tutor for another PragerU backer, joined as the company’s chief executive in 2011, and videos started going out.

“We released a video and had 35,000 views,” Ms. Streit said, “and I still remember Allen looked over to Dennis and said, ‘Can you imagine a classroom of 35,000 people?’”

Dan and Farris Wilks, hydraulic-fracturing billionaires from Texas, came in with donations. The conservative-leaning Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation joined, too — their goal in funding education is, in part, to “promote the teaching of American exceptionalism.”

PragerU started to spend on marketing on Facebook and YouTube.

“We just kept throwing more coal into the furnace,” Mr. Estrin said. “And we realized that we had created a distribution platform.”

In 2019, PragerU raised $22 million; next year, it estimates it will raise $25 million. Its budget comes almost entirely from donor contributions.

PragerU has expanded Dennis Prager’s reach, but it has not fundamentally changed his days.

One recent morning, Mr. Prager was recording an “Ultimate Issues Hour” radio segment. He’s written eight books (one is “The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code”), and since 1999 has hosted “The Dennis Prager Show” on the conservative Christian radio syndicate Salem.

Mr. Prager is 6-foot-4 and imposing, in a white button-down shirt, hunched over the microphone.

He read some promos for his sponsor Blinds.com. He took calls from listeners. He talked about the importance of children respecting parents (very important) and about how parents should not want their children to be the smartest in the class, but rather the most moral.

He carefully threaded the needle for listeners as he made the argument for Mr. Trump as a values leader. There are two types of values, micro and macro, he argued. One seems to do with the minutiae of one’s life (marital fidelity, religiosity, respect); the other, he says, is more important and relates to the general effect of one’s life.

“Donald Trump may not have terrific micro values, but I think he has terrific macro values,” Mr. Prager said.

When it comes to politicians, he said he marks a sharp divide between political life and personal life, and he argues that the president’s personal behavior is irrelevant to his public message.

This is a new line of argument for Mr. Prager, who spent much of his career focusing on those micro values. He is a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage, which he considers an effort to “destroy the foundation of our Judeo-Christian civilization.” An episode in his “Same Sex Issues” collection is titled, “Love Is Not Enough.”

Former fans of Mr. Prager’s work say they are confused by his Trumpist turn.

“In terms of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ of watching people become more Trumpian, these moral icons becoming shills, he is way up there,” said Charlie Sykes, the author of “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” and a former radio host who used to occasionally substitute on Mr. Prager’s show. “Now you have to put PragerU in the category of other very successful meme machines and low-rent conservative grifting.”

Mr. Prager’s desk is stacked with items including a refrigerated lunchbox, open and showing a slice of lemon cake, but he cannot eat it. He often fasts 20 hours a day. His back is bad, and he is in considerable physical pain as he moves through the world.

As he prepared to leave, he unzipped a large rolling suitcase. It was almost entirely full of old newspapers. He added the day’s Wall Street Journal and headed to the airport. He does not want to do an interview in person. He wants to email, and so he does. His answers are long and lucid and full of biblical references.

Mr. Prager, who is Jewish, sees his mission as spreading the message of one God, which he articulates as a cure for humans who are “basically not good.” He measures success in how well he spreads this cure.

“Radio, writing, and now the internet have made making this cure known beyond my dreams,” he wrote. “Only God knows how successful I will have been; Moses did not get into the Promised Land, nor will I. But I am not naïve. I obviously recognize that a billion views a year means more influence than a million views.”

The people chasing those billion views are in the PragerU headquarters in Los Angeles.

The office is typical millennial chic, full of midcentury modern sofas, standing desks and just a few hints at what’s made there, including a portrait of Ronald Reagan.

The team is about 50 people. The average staff member is about 30 years old. The site’s rapid growth puts desk space at a premium, but with a reporter visiting, few people were in the office.

“A lot of people stayed home because they were scared of being identified as working for Prager,” said the company’s chief marketing officer, Craig Strazzeri, laughing as he showed off another empty room.


Craig Strazzeri, PragerU’s chief marketing officer, in his office.
Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

By the reception desk is a bowl of Prager-themed buttons. One features the outline of a man’s hair, glasses, wide tie and cigar — enough to indicate it is Mr. Prager. Another features a small American flag. These few in the bowl are the last of the pins.

“The pin maker won’t make more,” said Ms. Streit, the chief executive. “Economic protest.”

This is an example of what the staff would call the intolerance of the left, a common theme of PragerU videos. But Prager leaders maintain that they are unfazed by it. For them, the work happens online, and it happens with people younger than the pin makers, younger even than their staff’s friends. The target audience is Generation Z.

“I feel somewhat sorry for millennials,” said Mr. Estrin. “They truly were indoctrinated. Now kids have access to a different point of view. It’s as close as their computer or their phone.”

He is right that Generation Z is a wary group. Young people are significantly less trusting of institutions and one another than older generations. About half are categorized broadly as “low trusters,” according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, while only 19 percent of adults 65 and older fall into that category.

“Our generation is whiny,” said Candace Owens, who is 31 — a millennial — and one of the right-wing stars who has found a home with PragerU. “We’re constantly complaining. Our generation is suffering from peace. We create meaningless problems.”

“Gen Z has a better sense of humor,” she said. “They love the memes.”

And the meme battle — the culture war — is where Ms. Owens sees her chance.

“If conservatives don’t jump into culture headfirst, we’re not going to make much of a difference,” she said, “and PragerU understands that.”

Prager leaders say many of their young fans come from liberal homes, and the key for their mission is to reach these people and rescue them from what they describe as liberal indoctrination.

Leaders in the Prager universe describe the current landscape like this: Young people in America today are being told that they need to learn to “check your privilege” — a phrase popularized by progressives. They are taught the bad parts of American history before the good parts.


Crew members preparing to film a new show at PragerU.
Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The PragerU viewer is a young American who is vaguely annoyed by all of this — the trigger warnings or the female “Star Wars” heroine — and is sick of being told to apologize. PragerU validates those feelings.

“What they’re trying to do is get away from this narrative that’s really out there that America’s bad, and it’s just this negative thing,” said Trevor Mauk, a 19-year-old Cal-Berkeley sophomore from Barstow, Calif., and a fan of PragerU. “They give the reasons why it’s good to be proud of the country and proud of where you’re from and who you are.”

He added, “They’re talking about things I was never taught.”

Until PragerU came along, some of the biggest platforms for young conservatives looking for content were Fox News and online message boards, where fringe conspiracy theorists reign.

PragerU’s own experience with Big Tech has only fueled its fans’ perceptions that conservatives are the losers of the culture war. The company is suing Google, which owns YouTube, arguing that the platform is suppressing its content by marking some of its videos as restricted — and in doing so, lumping videos about the Ten Commandments in with violent or offensive content.

In PragerU’s corner is Zach Vorhies, a former YouTube employee turned whistle-blower who says liberal employees at YouTube had the ability to censor conservative content creators.

Mr. Vorhies has promoted conspiracy theories like QAnon and spread anti-Semitic messages, a pattern first reported by The Daily Beast. He is not an employee of PragerU, but they count him as a supporter, an example of the soft barrier between PragerU’s mainstream conservative allies and fans and the vast land of right-wing conspiracy.

“PragerU was one of the reasons I blew the whistle on Google,” said Mr. Vorhies, who attended a recent hearing in PragerU’s ongoing court battle against Google, which has said the allegations in the suit are without merit.

In the physical world, the battlefront of the culture war is almost always the quad. PragerU’s leaders hope to turn the PragerForce, their college clubs, into an on-the-ground college outrage content machine, making videos and working to organize on-campus conservative counterprogramming.

Those on the left at a place like Berkeley are largely unfazed by these skirmishes.

“Billionaires have spent a fortune to promote this group, and yet it’s completely marginal, at most an annoyance,” said James Kennerly, the Cal Young Democratic Socialists of America co-chair.

But PragerU is gaining traction.

Cody Thompson is a 26-year-old undergraduate at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. He considered himself such a strong social justice-oriented leftist, he said, that when he once saw someone walking around campus wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, he alerted student affairs, saying he felt unsafe.

As he tells it, Mr. Thompson was with a conservative childhood friend who showed him a 2017 PragerU video, “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party,” hosted by Carol Swain, who at the time was a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is now retired.


Mr. Witt rallying with PragerU supporters after a hearing at the Santa Clara Superior Courthouse.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney for The New York Times

“The Democratic Party defended slavery, started the Civil War and opposed Reconstruction,” Ms. Swain, who is black, says in the video. She speaks slowly and straight to the camera as graphics flash by in the usual Prager style.

“I don’t know what it was, but when I watched that video I wanted to watch more,” Mr. Thompson said.

He talks about PragerU videos like a religious revelation. He said they opened his mind and repaired his relationship with his parents, made him anti-abortion and supportive of a border wall.

And when he went to see Mr. Witt speak, that sealed his new politics.

A few days after the Prager journey through Berkeley, the student Mr. Witt had buttonholed — the one who said there could be as many genders as he wanted — was still confused about the encounter.

“I was just hanging out on campus, getting the Berkeley energy,” said Pau Guinart, a 36-year-old from Barcelona who recently completed a doctorate in Latin American literature at Stanford. “When I started to sense what they were getting at, I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in the wrong place.’”

He hoped he had said the right thing, then asked: “Do you know where the video goes?”


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