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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.