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30 June 2021

Why assassination doesn’t work

“Targeted killing” is as old as mankind, but such murders rarely achieve their ends or change the course of history.

By Jonathan Powell

We are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war on terror, and the campaign has degenerated into tit-for-tat assassinations: we assassinate terrorists using drones or by special forces raids, and terrorists assassinate random innocent people on our streets. With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the last attempt to address the underlying problems that caused this war has been abandoned, and we are left with a senseless pattern of reciprocal murder.

Michael Burleigh’s Day of the Assassins reminds us that political murder is as old as mankind. It is not constant, however: we go through phases. In the thousand years the Roman empire survived in Constantinople, 65 out of its 107 emperors were assassinated. In Venice in the 15th and early 16th centuries 200 assassinations were plotted for foreign policy reasons. One prospective assassin presented the governing Council of Ten with a price list ranging from 500 ducats for the Grand Turk to 100 ducats for the Pope. During the wars of religion in 17th-century Europe, assassination became the political tool of choice. The Enlightenment, however, led to a rethink. State-sponsored assassination ceased to be normative, and between 1672 and 1792 only one major figure was killed.

Burleigh’s approach is to work through history, first describing each assassination, and then giving the backstory of the assassin, and the plot, if there was one, with lengthy detours into the politics or criminal underworld of the time. The detail, as always in Burleigh’s books, is conveyed with great brio. He describes how Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, boasted of having scaled Mont Blanc, where he had acquired an ice axe whose long handle had to be shortened to perform the deed. I had always wondered why an ice axe was the weapon of choice in boiling hot Mexico City.

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It is remarkable how often assassins were inspired by literature. John Wilkes Booth appeared in a Broadway performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shortly before shooting President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and both his father and his brother were named Junius Brutus, after one of Caesar’s assassins. Both Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish far-right mafioso who shot Pope John Paul II, and Yigal Amir, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer, were obsessed with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, about an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle, on whose life there were some 30 real-world attempts by Algerian pieds-noirs of the paramilitary group the Organisation Armée Secrète.

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Burleigh doesn’t spare us his personal views, commenting, for example, on “the slightly deranged feel of modern American life, with its obsession with conspiracies and guns and murderous racial undercurrents…” on his final page. He does, however, correctly give short shrift to the conspiracy theorists who have wound out ever more elaborate skeins of explanation for the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II. Nearly always the obvious conclusion – that a deranged loner did it – is the right one.

There are, of course, sometimes good reasons for political murder. Plato and Aristotle argued that tyrannicide could be justified. John of Salisbury, a friend of Thomas Becket, justified the taking of a king’s life in his treatise Policraticus. Burleigh contends that few would now complain if Georg Elser, a Swabian carpenter, had succeeded in assassinating Hitler in 1939 at the annual celebration of the Munich Putsch. The bomb blew up after Hitler had left, but Elser came closer to success than any of the later attempts. The Nazis tracked Elser down and Himmler took personal pleasure in kicking him during his interrogation. They kept him alive until 1945, when Hitler ordered his execution a few weeks before he himself took his own life.

Many leaders, however, have been morally appalled at the idea of assassinating their rivals or enemies, or concerned about its practical implications. JFK was afraid of the way assassinations might escalate: “We can’t get into that kind of thing or we would all be targets.” When the then British foreign secretary Charles James Fox was approached with a plan to assassinate Napoleon in 1806, he had the plotter arrested and revealed the plan to his French counterpart.

Beyond the question of whether assassination is ever morally justified is the question of whether it works. Benjamin Disraeli declared in 1865, after the murder of Lincoln, that “assassination has never changed the history of the world”. It is true that many high-profile assassinations change very little – JFK’s, for example, did not end the war in Vietnam. And even those we think did change things, such as the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand before the First World War, are not necessarily determinative – Burleigh argues the Austro-Hungarians would have invaded Serbia anyway.

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But some political murders patently did alter the course of history, from the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC to the Phoenix Park murders of two key reform-minded British officials in Ireland in 1882, which ended the moderate Home Rule approach and set us on the path to a violent separation. Sometimes the significance of an assassination is manipulated after the event. Stalin used the murder of his potential rival Sergei Kirov in Leningrad by a discontented stranger in 1934 as an excuse to begin his first great purge. And sometimes assassinations are deliberately planned to provoke further murder, as in the shooting down of the plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, which was likely designed to trigger the genocide of almost a million Tutsis in Rwanda.

More often assassinations have unintended consequences. The Israelis killed the leader of Hezbollah in 1992, only for him to be replaced by the harder-line Hassan Nasrallah. The Americans killed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006, which led not to the end of terrorism in Iraq but to the creation of Isis. Trying to eliminate terrorist groups by “decapitation” almost never succeeds. Burleigh believes the assassination of the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in 2020, while seen as a bold stroke by President Trump at the time, will lead to Iran exacting hard revenge for years to come, and recent events suggest that he is right.


One question Burleigh does not address is the impact of assassination on peace processes. Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator in Palestine, was killed by Jewish extremists just as he was putting forward a peace plan, in 1948, and the chance of peace died with him. As usual with assassinations, unintended consequences tend to prevail. President Santos of Colombia ordered the killing of the Farc leader, Alfonso Cano, in 2011 on the basis that he was an opponent of peace. Afterwards, it turned out he was one of the strongest supporters of peace in the seven-man secretariat that led the Farc.

Sometimes assassination is a form of revenge, as when the US attacked Muammar Gaddafi’s home in Tripoli in response to the deaths of off-duty American servicemen in the Libyan bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin in 1986. The American bombs killed Gaddafi’s 15-month-old daughter. When I visited Tripoli with Tony Blair as his chief of staff in 2004, Gaddafi insisted our motorcade be diverted to the site in a form of pilgrimage, despite our categorical refusal in advance to go there.

Burleigh also considers the impact of a policy of political assassination on state institutions. He particularly laments the transformation of the CIA from an intelligence-gathering organisation into a paramilitary one, not once but twice. First, as a result of the Cold War, as presidents gradually slipped into authorising killings. Eisenhower agreed “we will have to do whatever is necessary to get rid of him” when Patrice Lumumba came to be seen as a communist threat in Congo, and he was eventually shot after various more complicated efforts (including an attempted poisoning) failed. That was followed by repeated unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro under successive presidents.

The policy became totally out of hand in Vietnam with the Phoenix Program, which aimed to identify and kill Viet Cong on an industrial scale. The CIA denied it was an assassination programme – a claim belied by Nixon’s protests when cuts to Phoenix were threatened: “We’ve got to do more of this. Assassinations. That’s what they [the Viet Cong] are doing.” It all became too much. President Ford issued an executive order banning assassination by agents of the US government. But that wasn’t the end. The US continued to find ways of getting round this injunction with “targeted killings” rather than assassinations, and the second paramilitarisation of the CIA took place during the war on terror.


Of course, the Russians are far worse, with a history of political murder going back to at least the revolution. Even killing people with nuclear material is not new – the Soviets tried to assassinate a defector, Nikolai Khokhlov, in 1956 with radioactive thallium. Vladimir Putin doesn’t try to hide his intentions, saying “things always end badly for traitors” in the context of the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in Britain. While Burleigh says we should be careful not to attribute every murder to Putin himself, it is hard to believe he had no part in the assassination of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny with a new type of Novichok nerve agent last year. As long as we let Putin get away with political murder, others will imitate him, as Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have done with the grizzly dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Burleigh saves Israel for last. Its record goes back to the assassination of Churchill’s friend Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944 and the blowing up of the British headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. Other than probably the CIA, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, holds the world record for external assassinations with an estimated 2,700 victims (although Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, may have overtaken it). Even Mossad makes mistakes however. It killed many of the wrong people in its search for revenge on the militant Palestinian group Black September for the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. In the agency’s disastrous attempt to kill the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan in 1997, it had to supply the antidote to the poison it had administered to him in order to get its agents back. Now, Burleigh says Mossad appears to have embarked on a semi-acknowledged campaign of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. For most countries acts such as this would be casus belli, but not, it seems, for Israel.

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The question that should bother us most is the one Burleigh comes back to at the end of the book. What do such assassination campaigns do to us? After 9/11, everything became possible. The CIA Counterterrorism Center went from 300 to 2,000 staff, or 12 per cent of the CIA workforce. The use of drones, which now account for a third of all US military aircraft, makes it easy to sit in Nevada or Langley and push a button to assassinate an enemy. Drones have killed between 7,584 and 10,918 people since 2010. Usually they get the right person, but often they also get a group of innocent children.

Assassination by drone avoids putting the lives of Western soldiers at risk, just as the nuclear weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in the Second World War. But does the use of political murder make us as bad as the enemy? Doesn’t it risk endless expansion – if we can kill a drug overlord in Afghanistan by drone, why not do so in Colombia or Mexico? When the list of terrorist leaders runs out, we just extend it, engaging in an unceasing task of “mowing the grass”, in which we create two terrorists for every one we kill. The process of assassination becomes an end in itself and a way to avoid trying to solve the underlying problem by negotiating with our enemies. If we ever want to bring the war on terror to an end, we are going to have to stop relying on assassination alone and do what we did with the IRA, the PLO and now the Taliban: sit down and talk to the terrorists. l

Jonathan Powell is CEO of Inter Mediate, an NGO that works on ending armed conflicts around the world, and author of “Talking to Terrorists” (Vintage)

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder
Michael Burleigh
Picador, 448pp, £25