The Ruthless Assassins of History: From Brutus to ISIS-K

Assassins have always walked among us. From revolutionaries to madmen and state-run organizations, assassins and assassinations come in many forms and shapes.

Nov 23, 2021By Michael Burleigh, British Author and Historian; winning the Pollard, Dolley, Sir William Mayer, and Samuel Johnson prizes
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Assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo


For much of our (pre-) history on Earth, homo sapiens have been hunter-gatherers, albeit evolving from prey into top predators in the last 10,000 years or so. That fundamental fact about our incredibly violent species partly explains why the subject of assassins and the assassinated enjoys so much currency in our story-telling, whether as books or films. We can vicariously enjoy the thrill of the chase from our armchairs.


Assassins as Hunters in Modern Culture

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A scene from Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), via New York Times


Sometimes the hunting theme is so explicit one might miss it. In the late 1980s, a brilliant BBC director called Alan Clarke made a short film called Elephant though it has nothing to do with pachyderms. The movie uses Steadicams, which were novel at the time, to follow pairs of young men walking along backstreets in Northern Ireland, where assassinations were an almost daily occurrence with nearly 4,000 people slain. Throughout, one hears their footsteps rather than any dialogue. Each of the 18 pairs of killers then goes on to shoot someone in taxi cab offices, warehouses, and workshops, or in one case, in the changing rooms of a public swimming bath. The camera then lingers rather too long for comfort on someone dead or dying. After the noise of gun bursts, the next shots are of the men walking quickly away to a car which intercepts them for their getaway. It is an obscure film which deserves to be better known.


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Il Cacciatore (2018- ), via IMDB


The theme of hunting is also explicit in a recent Italian TV series called Il Cacciatore (The Hunter). This is based on the memoirs of Alfonso Sabella, a real anti-mafia prosecutor in mob-dominated Palermo, who in the early 1990s caught and jailed 300 members of the Corleone crime family. It was a dangerous time since the Cosa Nostra had just taken out the two top anti-mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. In such circles, having eradicated one or two hundred people in a criminal career was unexceptional.


As a boy, Alberto had learned to hunt wild boar, courtesy of an older teenager, who, as it happened, became a prominent mafia hitman. The series explores how the prosecutor applied hunting techniques to track down his prey, including a powerful mafia boss who lived almost in plain sight in the Sicilian capital. Eventually, it is the magistrate, who relies on extreme patience and sundry tactical ploys, to lure into the open his main target, who is captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. This is the fugitive Leoluca Bagarella—who modeled himself on Marlon Brando’s rendition of  Don Corleone in The Godfather. Now aged 79, Bagarella will never emerge from special maximum-security prisons, first in Sardinia and currently in Parma.

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The Assassination of Julius Caesar

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The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1825-29, via Wikimedia Commons


Assassination is as old as humanity itself. I begin my book Day of the Assassins with the ‘classic’ example, an elite’s mob-like stabbing of the 56 years old Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BCE. World-famous writers, including Dante and Shakespeare, immortalized the victim and some of his assassins. It exemplifies one type of assassination, namely an elite conspiracy by highly-ranked and ambitious men in their 30s and 40s. They resented not just Caesar’s spectacular success as a politician and general but feared what they thought he intended to become; a God-Emperor perhaps. The murder happened on the eve of a major campaign he was about to embark on against wealthy Parthia (modern Persia), which would have further boosted Caesar’s ability to pay troops and to spread his largesse among Rome’s humble plebian citizenry.


Ostensibly the conspiracy was designed to conserve Rome’s centuries-old Republic from dictatorship or imperial rule, though Brutus had few scruples about imperial rule himself. It also drew on heavily mythologized ancient Greek and Roman history, which justified tyrannicide, though most of Rome’s early kings were exiled rather than assassinated. The net effect of Caesar’s slaying were years of civil war as the conspirators dispersed and raised their own armies. War also erupted between the triumvirs who vowed to avenge Caesar, even as they tracked down and slaughtered Caesar’s assassinators. One of them, Octavian, would emerge triumphant over such rivals as Mark Anthony, becoming the Emperor Augustus. Thirteen years after Caesar’s death, Octavian/Augustus caught up with the last of the conspirators, a minor poet and admiral, who was killed amidst his manuscripts in Athens.


Elite Conspiracies 

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French president Charles de Gaulle with German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, 1963, Via Das Bundesarchiv


The murder of Julius Caesar is the archetypical assassination as a result of an elite conspiracy. They tend to be impermeable to detection since the conspirators are bound together by elite codes of honor, with ostracism as a powerful binding agent (think of the elite figures who for years plotted undetected against Hitler).


Many assassinations have been the products of elite conspiracies, some of which are as easy to unravel. A more contemporary example would be the 33 attempts on the life of President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). Having vowed in 1958 to protect what was an integral part of metropolitan France against an armed secular Arab national liberation movement called the FLN, within four years de Gaulle granted Algeria independence. Nationalist army officers and right-wing settlers waged their own counter-terror campaign to thwart this outcome. This also included serial attempts to assassinate the President, against whom they also launched a putsch that saw dissident paratroopers landing on Corsica. The French state also waged a dirty war against these fanatics, in addition to the one it fought against the FLN.


Most of the military traitors involved in the OAS (Secret Army Organisation) rebellion were tracked down by France’s excellent security forces.  They boasted of what they had essayed when questioned. That included men involved in the 33 attempts to kill de Gaulle with roadside gun attacks or bombs.


These efforts inspired a highly successful thriller, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, which he wrote in 35 days in early 1970 after having spent time in Paris as a Reuters correspondent. It is unusual for a thriller in the sense that readers know that de Gaulle died peacefully in his bed. The novel relies on a double-hunting story, with ‘The Jackal,’ the code name for a hired English assassin tracking de Gaulle, while the French authorities urgently track him and shoot him just as he takes a second shot.


Forsyth’s book itself was avidly read by the Turkish fascist who shot Pope John Paul II in May 1981 and by Amir Yigal, the religious fanatic, who assassinated Israeli premier Yitschak Rabin in 1995. ‘Carlos the Jackal’ also became the nom de guerre of the Venezuelan master terrorist, Illich Ramirez Sanchez (born 1949), who is currently serving multiple life sentences in a French prison. It has stuck in popular culture. For example, a British tabloid once launched a hunt for an ‘IRA Jackal’ who had almost blown up Prince Charles and Diana. As it happens, I was a friend of the man concerned who was called Sean O’Callaghan—who had earlier assassinated three people—after he became the most damaging double agent for the Irish (and British) security services before becoming a pretty good writer. He drowned in his daughter’s swimming pool in Jamaica a few years ago.


Political Assassinations & Conspiracy Theories

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Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by T. M. McAllister of New York, c. 1900, via Heritage Auctions


Most political assassinations are not the product of elite conspiracies, save occasions where a state decides that someone has to go, one way or another. Many are the handiwork of alienated and marginal men (and a few women) who think they can give history a helping hand, while winning their fifteen minutes of fame. The best accounts of such people are by the great American novelists Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo. Mankind’s inability to accept that major events have random causes connected to the psychological oddities of lone individuals means that conspiracy theories often prove ‘compelling’ even when the facts do not warrant it.


There are ‘Lincoln Truthers’ who still believe that Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1865 by Roman Catholics rather than by a small gang of resentful supporters of slavery led by the actor John Wilkes Booth who had a thing about Shakespeare’s Brutus. Sixty-one percent of Americans still aver that John F Kennedy was killed by a CIA and/or Mafia conspiracy, even though Lee Harvey Oswald had used the same mail order Mannlicher Carcano rifle to shoot the right-wing General Edwin Walker seven months before JFK. No one suggests there was a ‘deep state’ conspiracy to kill Walker, as he sat doing his tax returns one night when a deflected bullet merely grazed his arm. If there was a deep conspiracy, it is odd that unlike the many putative killers of de Gaulle, no one has ever boasted of it in a bar or on their deathbeds.



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The “umbrella man.” via MUBI


A psychological state called “Apophenia”–common among schizophrenics–is often involved in seeing linkages where there are none, like the face of one’s dog or cat in the coffee grounds or the voice of God from the radiator in the case of the seriously deranged. A classic example of apophenia would be that of the ‘umbrella man’ on the Dallas sidewalk when Kennedy’s car crawled past. By opening the umbrella, he was allegedly signaling to more shooters lurking on the grassy knoll as Kennedy came within range.


But what if he was making an allusive protest involving JFK’s appeaser father Joe, by referencing Neville Chamberlain’s famous umbrella, to damn the current president for ‘appeasing’ the Soviets by withdrawing missiles from Turkey after they pulled theirs out of Cuba? That indeed was what insurance salesman Louie Steven Witt was doing when he was captured in the famous Zapruder cine film. The film director Oliver Stone wrapped many of the most egregious conspiracy theories into his JKF, including it should be noted (and one derived from attorney-general Jim Garrison – that some cabal of right-wing New Orleans homosexuals had plotted to kill Kennedy as the epitome of the virile heterosexual man.


Rather than get lost in the weeds of such conspiracies, which have their own scholarly literature, my book Day of the Assassins focuses on two areas: first, the assassins themselves and secondly, whether or not assassination ‘works’?


Modern Career Assassins


Most modern assassins are actually paid employees of states, though organized crime groups have often gone down this route too. In Naples, Calabria and Sicily or Mexico, career criminals have gone to war with the state, recently murdering 34 mayors in the latter case. Mexican drug cartels have successfully militarised themselves.  After one cartel recruited former special forces commandos, who became the fearsome Zetas cartel themselves, their rivals recruited Guatemalan special forces troops (many of them Mayan Indians) who are probably among the most terrifying killers on the planet.



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NKVD leader Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, 1938, via Wikimedia Commons


The most professionally competent assassins in my book were the killers of the Soviet-era NKVD who went after dissident Marxists and Ukrainian nationalists in a variety of global contexts from civil war-torn Spain to Mexico via Central Europe.


The NKVD was the second iteration of the original Bolshevik secret police, the Extraordinary Committee or Cheka, which in its early years was led by Poles, Latvians, and Jews–many of them with crippling injuries from being tortured by the Tsarist Ochrana who were no angels themselves. The first ethnic Russian to lead the NKVD was Stalin’s appointee Nikolai Yezhov whose two years tenure (before he was shot) involved the Great Purge in which 600,000 people perished. With reason, the Cheka itself feared assassination plots. One involved a Russian aristocratic lawyer called Boris Savinkov (1879-1925), who was in charge of assassinations of Tsarist officials by the Socialist Revolutionary Party at the turn of the nineteenth century. The targets of the killers Savinkov set in motion (for he never soiled his own hands) included Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve and the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.


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Boris Savinkov in court, 1924, via


In 1917 Savinkov briefly acted as deputy defense minister in Kerensky’s provisional government. After the Bolshevik coup, he remained underground in Russia and then Poland trying to orchestrate the ouster of men he blamed for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ceded huge tranches of European Russia to the Germans. In 1921 he was exiled from Poland to France, where he tried to organize anti-Bolshevik plots on behalf of the White Generals. Through the bewilderingly tricky ‘master spy’ Sidney Reilly, he had contacts with British intelligence. Though a morphine addict, Savinkov tantalized the likes of Winston Churchill, with plots to coordinate Anglo-French military intervention with the assassination of the entire Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin and Trotsky. Though a nationalist-fascist by this stage, Savinkov fell for a Cheka feint designed to lure him back to the Soviet Union. After being captured and sentenced to death, he believed that the Bolsheviks might pardon him and appoint him to an important position. That he was kept in a deluxe prison within a prison, with outings to good restaurants, suggests he had some grounds for this delusion, though it ended when in 1925 he fell or jumped from a high prison window in Moscow.


NKVD officers were dispatched abroad on Stalin’s authority to kill anyone still loyal to the exiled Leon Trotsky as well as the leaders of Ukrainian nationalist-separatists. One special field of endeavor was war-torn Spain in the 1930s. Apart from the enemy ‘fascist nationalists,’ the republican side itself was a bewildering coalition of leftist and anarchist groups, as were the International Brigades which had volunteered to aid them. Stalin’s NKVD killers were there to aid the dominance of the Spanish Communist Party, which consisted of Stalinist loyalists. They even brought a mini-crematorium to facilitate the disposal of their victims, who were many. Their stint in Spain enabled them to perfect their Spanish, to the extent that killers who were Russified Lithuanian Jews in origin could thenceforth plausibly pass themselves off as Costa Ricans or Cubans.


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Trotsky on his deathbed after getting tracked down in Mexico, 1940, via RMY Auctions


Their cover stories were so dense that even someone as notorious as Ramon Mercader, who killed the exiled Leon Trotsky in his Mexico City residence with an ice axe in 1940, was able to conceal his real identity for ten years despite being interrogated by Mexican forensic psychiatrists for 6 hours, every day, for six months. He simply adapted his real life story-notably his relationship with his mother Caridad who was his getaway driver and an experienced killer herself—including his dreams, without revealing that he was not Frank Jacson (sic) or Jacques Mornard, the first two of five false identities the NKVD constructed for him. Only a chance visit to Barcelona by the Mexican police eventually revealed his Catalan origins ten years after the event, when the officer showed his Spanish colleagues a mugshot of ‘Mercader,’ who, like his mother, had been with the NKVD in Spain in the 1930s.


Deadly Lone Wolves

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Portrait of François Ravaillac, murderer of King Henri IV, Christoffel van Sichem I, c. 1810-1824, via British Museum


Not all assassins have been professionals, though the military intelligence Russian GRU and FSB successors of men like Mercader leave something to be desired in terms of competence in deception since everyone knows the identities of the FSB officers who in 2006 killed Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in London or the GRU team who in 2018 tried to murder Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent in Salisbury. The same unit has killed a lot of others too, across Europe. But enough of the professional state killers, who obviously had their American, British, French, and other analogs. What about the ‘lone wolves,’ a term that requires some qualification, for even the most lonesome wolves operate within a wider ideological context.


The question of whether ‘random’ assassins are mad often recurs. We know an extraordinary amount about the Catholic assassin Francois Ravaillac who in 1610 stabbed King Henri IV of France on a Paris street since interrogators and torturers extracted a remarkable amount of information from this lowly figure. Similarly, English judges carefully pondered the sanity of Henry Bellingham, the disgruntled merchant who shot prime minister Spencer Percival in 1812 in the lobby of the House of Commons. They even commissioned reports from psychiatrists who had treated Bellingham, though these arrived after Bellingham was hanged.


Assassinating the Apartheid

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South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, 1960, via National Archive of the Netherlands


Assassins can be both gravely mentally ill and entirely rational in their political reasoning though this confounds how we think ourselves. Take the two men who attacked South African premier Hendrik Verwoerd, the Dutch-born architect of apartheid which was based on the idea of ‘separate racial development’ and led to a system where officials used special hair combs to establish whether or not someone was a tiny bit Black though seemingly White. The ruling Afrikaners were so right-wing that the man who headed their state broadcaster christened his son ‘Izan,’ which is ‘Nazi’ spelled backward, and that was indeed where their sympathies were in the Second World War.


One unsuccessful assassin was a millionaire English farmer called David Pratt, who in 1960 ineffectually shot Verwoerd in the face at the Rand Agricultural Show. Pratt (who was chauffeured to the show in a luxury limousine) was suffering from depressive illness, but he was also appalled at how Black South Africans were being harassed by the police. Pratt allegedly hanged himself in an asylum.


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Dimitri Tsafendas’ photograph in the newspaper ‘Die Volksblad,’ 1966, via the Greek Herald


Six years later, a bulky Greek-Mozambican merchant seaman, Dimitri Tsafendas, stabbed Verwoerd to death at the state opening of parliament in Pretoria. Tsafendas was almost certainly mad since he had been in multiple mental asylums in six countries, the best way he found to overstay his sojourns in any country. But he had also learned how to tantalize psychiatrists with tales of a tapeworm in his guts which gave him orders. That meant better care since he then had scientific novelty value for ambitious shrinks who could write learned papers about him. Since the South African security bosses did not wish to try white men for attacking Verwoerd, they declared Pratt unfit to stand trial, while after months of torture, Tsafendas was imprisoned – despite being declared insane. This included a stint next to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island – and other regular jails before he was hospitalized in 1994, where he died five years later. Like Pratt, Tsafendas, who had a Communist background, had perfectly rational grounds to kill Verwoerd for devising one of the most inhuman political regimes of our times.


Do Political Assassinations Work?

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Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, by Achille Beltrame, 12 June 1914, via Wikimedia Commons


The fact that Verwoerd was succeeded by the even more fanatical John Forster raises the issue of whether assassination ‘works.’ The British premier Benjamin Disraeli was sure that it did not when he addressed this subject shortly after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The Vice President, Andrew Johnson, simply took up the reins. If you kill a monarch, you just get another with an extra numeral or a different Christian name, Alexander III of Russia, instead of Alexander II. But even with what we have covered so far, I am not so sure whether we should conclude that assassination does not work. Caesar’s death inaugurated four centuries of imperial rule and much longer in the Byzantine East, albeit often tempered by assassinations. Lincoln’s slave-owning successor Johnson also deliberately retarded the proper emancipation of African-Americans in terms of employment or voting rights, so as to ensure White Democrat political hegemony in the South.


More often, assassinations have terrible unforeseen consequences, as the ancient historian Herodotus already knew, usually civil strife, war, and chaos. The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 did not ‘cause’ the First World War in any immediate sense, but it certainly gave those European leaders who thought time was running out to win a major war the opportunity to have one, even if the four years war they got (with 10 million military dead) was not the short one they imagined. A war, moreover, which in parts of Europe continued to be waged at a national level into the early 1920s.


Lone Wolves Are Not So Lone

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Israelis mourning the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, via DW


We must revert to the issue of ‘lone wolves,’ a phrase familiar too from contemporary discourse about assassins. Even when any conspiracy is really tiny, like that orchestrated by John Wilkes Booth, or the handiwork of a single person, like Lee Harvey Oswald who shot dead Kennedy, it is often the case that the assassin is indeed acting in line with a substantial tranche of public opinion. A not so ghostly army of the like-minded stands behind them.


Booth represented a substantial body of Southern Confederate opinion that regarded Lincoln as a tyrant for advocating African-American emancipation and blamed him for destroying their pseudo aristocratic plantation way of life. The lone gunman who shot Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 could plausibly claim that a substantial number of Israeli right-wingers who regarded Rabin as a traitor were willing him to act. After all, they had visually depicted him wearing a Palestinian chequered keffiyeh scarf or, indeed an SS dress uniform. The younger Bibi Netanyahu was very much involved in these slanders.


Throughout History, assassinations have followed an identifiable logic, most often that two Caesars or Khalifs are one too many and an invitation for chaos, for as the pioneering Harvard sociologist Pitorim Sorokin observed, rulers often have a different moral compass from mere mortals like us. That especially applies to those who also demolish the rule of law, thereby making themselves effectively unaccountable for their worst actions.


Political Murder in Polarized Societies

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Philip II, King of Spain, Reproaches William I, Prince of Orange, in Vlissingen upon his Departure from the Netherlands in 1559, Cornelis Kruseman, 1832, Rijksmuseum


Political killings also spike during unusually fraught historical epochs or when, as we have seen, societies are bitterly polarised as we have seen recently in the cases of Congresswoman Gabby Gifford or the British MP Jo Cox and the German one Walter Lübcke.


One such era was during the early modern wars of religion in Europe when kings actively hired assassins to kill ‘heretical’ rivals. There was a certain logic to this since the confessional allegiances of kings determined those of their subjects unless they wanted to go into exile. The most Catholic Spanish monarch Philip II paid big money to men who tried to, or in the end, did shoot the Calvinist Dutch ruler William the Silent. Learned theorists justified ‘monomarchy,’ namely the killing of Catholic or Protestant rulers, whose deaths would bring about the confessional reorientation of entire states. Interestingly it only took a generation or so for their successors to ostentatiously eschew political murder, partly under the impact of a developing body of law, but also because their personal moral codes happily coincided with the ability to judicially murder their opponents through treason trials and the like.


Revolutionary Assassins: The Case of Joseph Fieschi

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Death of Joseph Fieschi after his execution, by Jacques-Raymond Brascassat, 1836, via Paris Musee


Revolutionaries have always believed in the wonder-working effects of assassination, a sure route of avoiding impotent irrelevance. One striking example of this occurred in Paris in 1835. A Corsican shepherd called Joseph Fieschi whose glory days were when he served as a sergeant in Napoleon’s legions had since fallen on hard times which included a long term of imprisonment which denied his honor. Fieschi existed by fraud and sponging, though he acquired a pretty mistress whose fourteen-year-old daughter he promptly seduced. She lacked three fingers and was blind in one eye. Heavily in debt, Fieschi was prevailed on by his creditor to attempt the assassination of Louis Philippe, the Bourbon king and leader of the Orleanist party. He built an ‘infernal machine,’ consisting of 25 musket barrels arrayed within a wooden frame in his third floor apartment. On 28th July, this device was fired at the king and his entourage as they passed by in the street simply by lighting the touch papers from a smoldering log. Many of Louis Philippe’s close associates were among the 18 dead and 22 seriously wounded. As for Fieschi, he made his escape down a rope, although thanks to a few misfires, his skull was impacted and half of his jaw was a bloody mess. Two fingers had to be amputated. He was soon captured, and after delivering a command bluff-soldierly performance at his trial, was executed along with his two accomplices. Fieschi had many copycats.


A second spike in assassination would occur towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was partly because rulers and politicians became more visible, obliged to venture into galleries, theatres, and the opera houses, or if they traveled, with newspapers unhelpfully giving precise details of their routes. Gavrilo Princip and Co did not have to do more than read a newspaper to discover which streets in Sarajevo Franz Ferdinand would be driven along. An extraordinary number of politicians and rulers were cut down in this period: US Presidents Garfield and McKinley, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and King Umberto I of Italy, and Russia’s premier Piotr Stolypin among them.


The transformation of religious sectarianism into modern ideological derangements also saw widespread resort to assassination in the aftermath of World War One. Some countries were actually in a state of war, while virtual civil wars raged on the streets of others, from Ireland to Italy and Germany. The Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins was so impressed by the assassinations of Tsarist officials by Finnish and Polish revolutionaries that he formed his own twelve strong team of assassins who killed a lot of British officials in Dublin in the 1920s.


The murders of the NKVD were joined by those of Italian Fascists, notably the slaying of the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 and the National Socialists, who in June 1934 murdered their own Stormtrooper leadership and several others, including ex-chancellor Schleicher. Chancellor Dollfuss of Austria was shot too. But what if Hitler had been killed, not by aristocratic plotters in 1944, but by the lowly leftist craftsman Georg Elser, who in 1939 came within minutes of blowing Hitler to pieces with an elaborate bomb behind the podium on which the dictator had been speaking? Hitler eluded death by about fifteen minutes. What hecatombs of deaths might have been preempted had the Nazis been unable to find a similarly charismatic leader, assuming these generals had not carried out the putsch they might have much earlier contemplated in 1932?


Militarized Assassins

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Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro holds up a newspaper headlining the discovery of a plot to kill Castro, via Inside Hook


Of course, assassinations are not simply historical. In our lifetimes, assassins have gone to war, with soldiers transformed into spies and spies into soldiers, a dismal process that resulted in campaigns of militarized assassination during the Vietnam War as thousands of Vietcong cadres were assassinated by American and South Vietnamese death squads in the Phoenix program. During the so-called “War on Terror” following 9/11, the CIA has undergone a similar militarization, with the refinement that death increasingly comes from what have been inaccurately dubbed ‘snipers in the skies’ in the shape of Predator and Reaper drones where the pilot assassins sit behind consoles thousands of miles away in Arizona or Nevada. These allegedly hyper-accurate weapons have killed many innocent civilians, most recently in downtown Kabul where ten members of a family died after the US targeted a car carrying ISIS-K assassins en route to the airport. How soon before the human element is removed entirely, and how many more states will gain similar capabilities as China, Iran, Israel, and Turkey already have done? Relatively cheap Turkish drones, most recently demonstrated in action in Libya and Armenia, are so good that Nato members like Poland are seriously interested in buying them.


Throughout modern history, people have sought to curb and discourage assassination – starting with rulers who regarded it as dishonorable, though they simultaneously discovered the ability to judicially murder their opponents. In most wars, the assassination of enemy commanders was deemed off-limits, though some notorious exceptions were made in World War II.


During the era of President Gerald Ford, the US formally prohibited federal employees from engaging in assassination because of the exposure of the killings of Patrice Lumumba and Raphael Trujillo and the botched attempts to murder Fidel Castro, though legalized ‘workarounds’ have obviously been discovered in the interim, with the job of killing increasingly deputed to JSOC commandos if drones are not involved. This sets a dismal example for the world’s autocrats, especially those who have already liberated themselves from the rule of law. Whether it ‘works’ against these commanders, as Israel thinks it does, depends largely on how deep is the former’s “substitute bench” and the pools of expert bomb-makers and financiers.


Political Assassins Today

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Temporal Daphne Caruana Galizia Monument, via Wikimedia Commons


The current ubiquity of strongmen rulers, like Vladimir Putin, seems to have unleashed the assassins once again, and, unfortunately, this has proved catching, as the murder in Istanbul in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi killers showed. Worse, within the liberal democracies, there were evidently plenty of PR firms and journalists who are fully prepared to engage in the posthumous smearing of the victims because the Saudis have deep pockets. A combination of corrupt politicians and criminals also saw the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia blown up outside her home. Again, greedy libel lawyers, mainly in London, eagerly sought to bring actions in British courts against those Maltese journalists who had exposed the Maltese businessman thought to be responsible for ordering Daphne’s assassination. We will never stop the assassinations, certainly not by organized criminals or rogue states, but something more than sanctions or a slap on the wrist is surely required to make the reputational cost of this form of highly planned state murder more prohibitive.


Michael Burleigh’s Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder is published by Picador Macmillan on 27th May. He is the prize-winning author of fifteen books and a Senior Fellow at LSEIdeas, the world’s Nr 1 ranked university-based think tank.

Author Image

By Michael BurleighBritish Author and Historian; winning the Pollard, Dolley, Sir William Mayer, and Samuel Johnson prizesProfessor Michael Burleigh was educated at University College London. He worked as an academic for 18 years, including posts at New College, Oxford; the London School of Economics; Cardiff University, Stanford, and Rutgers. He has published many books including The Racial State; Death and Deliverance; Germany Turns Eastwards; The Third Reich; Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes; Blood and Rage; and Moral Combat: A History of WW2. These have been translated into 20 languages, including Italian. In 2001, he won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as three prizes for TV documentaries based on his work, notably a British Film Institute Award for Archival Achievement in 1991. He writes commentaries and reviews on international affairs for many newspapers from the Wall Street Journal and London Times to the Daily Mail.