Science in the Crosshairs

Don Howard

Sometime over the weekend of September 28-29, Mojtaba Ahmadi, a specialist in cyber-defense and the Commander of Iran’s Cyber War Headquarters, was found dead with two bullets to the heart. Nothing has been said officially, but it is widely suspected that Ahmadi was targeted for assassination, some pointing the finger of blame at Israel. The method of the attack, reportedly assassins on motorbikes, is reminiscent of earlier assassinations or attempted assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists going back to 2007, those attacks also widely assumed to have been the work of Israeli operatives.

Noteworthy is the fact that, as with those earlier assassinations, this latest attack is receiving scant attention in the mainstream press. Nor has it occasioned the kind of protest that one might have expected from the international scientific community. This silence is worrisome for several reasons.

Were Iran in a state of armed conflict with an adversary, as defined by the international law of armed conflict (ILOAC), and if one of its technical personnel were directly involved in weapons development, then that individual would be a legitimate target, as when the OSS targeted Werner Heisenberg for assassination in WWII owing to his role at the head of the German atomic bomb project. But such is not the case. Iran is not in a state of armed conflict with any potential adversary. That being so, the silence on the part of other governments and the lack of protest from NGOs, professional associations, and other stakeholders means that we are allowing a precedent to be set that could have the effect of legitimating such assassinations as part of customary law.

Were this to become accepted practice, then the consequences would be profound. It would then be perfectly legal for a targeted nation, such as Iran, to retaliate in kind with attacks targeted against technical personnel within countries reasonably deemed responsible for sponsoring the original attack. Thus, were it to emerge that the US had a hand in these events, even if only by way of logistical or intelligence support, then any US cyberwarfare specialist would become a legitimate target, as would be any US nuclear weapons technical personnel. Quite frankly, I worry that it is only a matter of time before Iran attempts precisely that, and the US being a softer target than Israel, I worry that it may happen here first.

Technical professional associations such as IEEE or the American Physical Society have, I think, a major responsibility to make this a public issue and to take a stand calling for a cessation of such attacks.

The alternative is to condone the globalization and domestication of the permanent state of undeclared conflict in which we seem to find ourselves today. Critics of US foreign and military policy might applaud this as just desserts for unwarranted meddling in the affairs of other nations. That is most definitely not my view, for I believe that bad actors have to be dealt with firmly by all legal means. My concern is that these targeted assassinations, while currently illegal, may become accepted practice. And I don’t want our children to grow up in the kind of world that would result.