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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.