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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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