On January 3, 2020, Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) elite Quds Force, was targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike. The Quds Force played a significant role in training the Taliban, Hizballah of Lebanon, as well as Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. These groups are responsible for maiming and killing thousands of Americans.
Hussein and Soleimani, an Identical Pair
Soleimani’s death rattled Iran for a number of cultural and religious reasons related to the country’s Shi’ite Muslim history. Some of the imagery that quickly began circulating online depicted Soleimani as a shahid (martyr). Apart from all the calls and declarations for revenge, people were immediately identifying the elite commander with great equivalency to Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad who died at the Battle of Karbala (today’s Iraq in the year 680). In a battle known for solidifying the Sunni-Shi’ite split, Hussein (Shia) was slaughtered by an army sent by the Umayyad (Sunni) caliph Yazid I.
For the Shi’ite Muslim, the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar) is considered a month of mourning, one commemorating the Battle of Karbala. On the tenth of the month (Ashura), there are processions of men who beat themselves in the back with chains and cut their heads open with knives and swords, spilling their blood throughout the barbaric demonstration.
In this bloody exhibition, they are showing their devotion to Hussein (a “martyr”). They are basically saying, “Oh, Hussein, if I had only been there with you at the Battle of Karbala, you would not have fallen. I would have defended you. I would have fought with you.”
By identifying Soleimani with Hussein, the Iranian Shi’ite Muslim population is saying his blood must also be avenged. They are remembering and celebrating his death just as they would have done for Hussein himself over 1,300 years ago.
And that is what the red flag flying over the Jamkaran mosque in Qom, Iran, represents. Red is a color that symbolizes the blood of the shahid. The raising of the flag represents a call to arms.
The flag, which is typically only raised over the mosque during the month of Muharram, has been raised since January 3. On the flag are Farsi letters which read, “Ya la-Tharat al-Hussein,” — translated in English as, “O ye avengers of Hussein.” Retaliation is their goal.
The village of Jamkaran is particularly significant for another reason. Twelver Shi’ite Muslims, the greater percent of all Shi’ites in the world, believe the 12th Imam — their Mahdi (eschatological redeemer of Islam) — disappeared in a well in Jamkaran as a child in the ninth century. From this well, it is believed he will re-emerge at the End of Times to usher in the Day of Judgment. Some of Iran’s top leadership, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and senior clerics like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, believe they can hasten the return of the Mahdi by instigating enough chaos, strife, and warfare that he will be compelled to come back and set all things right. And these are the same people who are driving for a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Avenging the Death of a “Martyr”
Apart from an eschatology that doesn’t bode well for Americans, the death of Soleimani brings another source of motivation for Shi’ite Muslims to the forefront. It’s easy to recall thousands of mourners from both Iran and Iraq chanting “America is the Great Satan” and “Death to America, death to Israel” throughout Soleimani’s multiple funeral processions and in the days to follow.
Within a few days of the targeted strike against Soleimani, Hizballah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said, “[U.S. forces] will pay the price, [stating] the suicide attackers who forced the Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased.” Dozens of other militia leaders echoed his words. The pledge to strike back against the U.S. remains in effect.
The death of the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force solidified his place akin to a martyr, as Iranians expanded on a narrative which began over 13 centuries ago. Soleimani’s name was written on posters in religious terms. He was not identified as “General, but as “Martyr and Pilgrim” (Shahid va Haj). Present-day Iranian leadership played the same tune of the people. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s official website posted an illustration depicting Soleimani in an embrace with Hussein.
On January 8, Khamenei tweeted “Enemies felt humbled by the magnificence of the Iranian nation’s turnout for the funeral of Martyr Soleimani.” The IRGC also made a public statement the deceased commander was, indeed, “martyred.” Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, also reinforced the rhetoric of Soleimani’s martyrdom, committing “to continue martyr Soleimani’s path with the same force and the only compensation for us would be us would be to remove America from the region.”
In another Twitter statement, Khamenei asserted “Martyrdom was the reward for [Soleimani’s] ceaseless efforts in all these years,” and declared three days of mourning following his death. “With him gone, God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped, but severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood and other martyrs’ in last night’s incident.” In a televised statement, the leader also stated, “All enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war.”
Iran plans to fulfill its vows to retaliate, most recently threatening to a “sneak attack” on U.S. forces in Iraq. As a result, U.S. commanders are preparing a campaign to “destroy” the Iraqi Shi’ite terror militias, which include Kata’ib Hizballah and its apparent offshoot Usbat al-Thairen.
No Credence to a Dangerous Ideology
The commitment to avenge Soleimani as Hussein himself is deeply ingrained in Shi’ite ideology far beyond the current geopolitical or geostrategic capabilities and considerations of the United States. While the U.S. continues to think in the very practical terms of militias, bases, and troops, Shi’ites are thinking in terms of theology and eschatology. And these deeper meanings have proven difficult for Westerners to comprehend. As a result, strategists do not understand how deeply ingrained this is for Muslims to seek retaliation.
While the West cringes at the sight of the bloody images of men flogging themselves and cutting themselves with knives and swords, Shi’ites are motivated by the demonstration. They are driven to avenge the death of the shahid, and their actions have long been justified by Islamic ideology and tradition. Time and time again, the failure to comprehend the motivation of the IRGC, Kata’ib Hizballah, Usbat al-Thairen, or any of the other Shi’ite proxy militias in the region will continue to create detrimental consequences for U.S. national security.
Terry Bishop specializes in the strategic influence of terrorism and subversion, counter-terrorism and national security. His many fields of interest and research include armed conflict and violence in South Asia with a specific focus on al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQS), the Taliban, and other Deobandi-linked terror groups.