Assassins in the spotlight

How does the recent murder of a Hamas militant compare with other high-profile assassinations?

The Dubai killing of the Palestinian militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh could be straight out of a spy thriller. The hit squad -- which, it emerged today, was travelling under the identities of real British citizens, and with false passports -- underwent physical transformations with wigs, beards and hats.

The assassins employed counter-espionage tactics such as travelling in separate taxis, using only cash and changing mobile phone frequently. And they trailed their target so closely that he actually had to steer his luggage trolley past one of his assailants within moments of arriving in Dubai.

It has been alleged that Israel played a part in the killing. State-sponsored assassinations are couched in secrecy, unless they explode into the press in this way. What was the diplomatic fallout from some of the other meticulously executed murders that have made it into the public domain?

1. Alexander Litvinenko

The former KGB officer and Russian Federal Security Bureau agent was living in the UK after gaining political asylum. But on 1 November 2006, he suddenly became ill and was admitted to hospital. He died three weeks later of acute radiation syndrome, after drinking a cup of tea poisoned with polonium-210. It was the first recorded case of anyone having this lethal nuclear isotope in their body.

Litvinenko had previously written two books critical of Vladimir Putin, and also wrote an article in the Daily Mail from his deathbed, accusing the then president of being responsible for the poisoning. Investigations into the affair damaged diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia. In July 2008, a British secret service source told BBC2's Newsnight: "We very strongly believe the Litvinenko case to have had some state involvement."

2. Rafiq Hariri

The former Lebanese prime minister was killed on 14 February 2005 when the equivalent of about 1,000kg of TNT exploded as his motorcade drove past the St George Hotel in Beirut. The investigation into his death is still ongoing, but its initial reports suggested that the Syrian government could be linked to the assassination. Syria was occupying Lebanon at the time, and had extensive intelligence networks in the country. Hariri had adopted an anti-Syrian stance after resigning from office in 2004.

A UN report found evidence that both Damascus and Lebanese officials were involved. In 2005 Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice-president, suggested on television that President Bashar al-Assad was involved, prompting Syrian MPs to demand treason charges. The mandate for the investigation has been repeatedly extended.

3. Zoran Đinđić

The Serbian prime minister was assassinated in March 2003 after efforts to rid his country of organised crime. The targeted crime groups had close ties to parts of the Serbian secret police, many of which were still loyal to the deposed leader Slobodan Milosevic.

At the command of Milorad Ulemek, a former commander for the Yugoslavian secret police and leading player in a top organised crime gang, a soldier, Zvezdan Jovanović, shot Đinđić from a building opposite the main government headquarters in Belgrade. The single bullet went straight to the heart, and he died nearly instantly.

Ulemek -- who had spent four years prior to the assassination travelling on a false passport stolen from the Croatian embassy -- was later convicted. Of the 12 men convicted of the crime, five are still on the run.

4. Operation Wrath of God

And finally, one that has been the topic of several films. Over a period of up to 20 years, units under the control of Mossad assassinated individuals alleged to have been involved in the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes.

With the authorisation of Prime Minister Golda Meir, secretive squads killed dozens of people suspected of involvement, in countries across Europe. This led to the mistaken murder of an innocent man in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1973.

Information about the way the crimes were organised is limited: given the covert nature of the operation, we must rely on just a few sources. Those assassinated include Mahmoud Hamshari, killed by an exploding telephone in 1972, and Hussen al-Bashir, killed in 1973 when a bomb hidden under his bed in a hotel in Cyprus was remotely detonated.

Mossad agents involved in the 1979 killing in Beirut of the Black September leader, Ali Hassan Salameh, had travelled on British and Canadian passports.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage