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Assassination is the murder of a political figure or other important individual. An added distinction between assassination and other forms of killing is that an assassin usually has an ideological or political motivation, though many assassins (especially those who are not part of an organised movement) also show elements of insanity. Other motivations may be money (as in the case of a contract killing), revenge, or as a military operation.

The euphemism targeted killing is also sometimes used for sanctioned assassinations of opponents, especially where undertaken by governments.<ref>Commentary: Targeted killing... - Cohen, Ariel, Washington Post, Thursday 25 March 2004</ref> Assassination itself, along with terms such as terrorist and freedom fighter, is often considered to be a loaded term.



Main article: Hashshashin

The term 'Assassin' is thought to be derived from its connections to the Hashshashin, a militant religious sect of Ismaili Muslims, thought to be active in the Middle East in the 8th to 14th centuries. This mystic secret society killed members of the Abbasid elite for political or religious reasons.

It was said that they were drugged during their murders, often with materials such as hashish and opium. The name assassin is derived from either hasishin for the supposed influence of the drugs, and disregard for their own lives in the process, or hassansin for their leader, Hassan-i-Sabah. The above, however, relies heavily on second-hand information from crusader-authored histories which have been traditionally very unreliable for information about native cultures.

Today, it is known that hashishinnya was an offensive term used to depict this cult by its Muslim and Mongolian detractors; the extreme zeal and cold preparation to murder makes it unlikely they ever used drugs. As far as is known they only used daggers, rarely survived their attacks, even when successful (unlike in many tales, where they are silent, invisible killers) and it seems that they rarely acted against westerners during the Crusades, partly because the crusading orders were not as affected by losing individual leaders as were the autocratic local regimes of the time.<ref>Passports to paradise - review of the reissue of The Assassins by Lewis, Bernard in The Guardian, Saturday 22 September 2001</ref>

Definition problems

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, to assassinate is:

" murder (a prominent person) by surprise attack, as for political reasons."<ref>Assassination (from the American Heritage Dictionary)</ref>

Unlike some topics, such as terrorism, wherein there is a substantial grey area and often bitter controversy between which specific instances qualify or even what standards should be used, the "common sense" classification of assassination stated at the outset of this article seems to stand with few objections.

There are however a few problems regarding motivation - for instance, as to whether a murder should be considered an assassination only if the victim is a political leader or public figure hostile to the agenda of the killer, or whether the term should also include killings where the primary motivation is to attract attention to a cause or for purely personal reasons, with the target itself being of secondary importance.

File:Death of Inejiro Asanuma.jpg
Assassination of Japanese politician Inejiro Asanuma, caught on camera.

Notable instances in which this definitional problem has come into effect include the attempt on the life of United States President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, who was determined subsequently to have serious psychological problems and publicly stated his intent was to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster rather than make any political statement. The killing of former Beatle John Lennon posed a similar problem — despite Lennon's outspokenness on many liberal political issues, his killer does not seem to have been more than an unstable fan. The use of the term "assassination" to describe Lennon's murder is a matter of some additional debate, since Lennon was primarily an entertainer, not a political figure, and it could be argued that describing his killing as an assassination is no more appropriate than, for example, using the term to describe the murders of singers Selena Quintanilla or Marvin Gaye. The issue is further complicated by the fact that although Lennon was likely as outspoken politically as Reagan (and certainly as famous), Reagan was an elected official at the time, possibly requiring different criteria for Lennon's case.

One can take one of three positions (note that this consideration is of necessity based upon language, not law):

  • that the killing of someone only for political, moral, or ideological reasons constitutes an assassination (hence neither Reagan nor Lennon were the victims of assassins' attacks, while Ford was),
  • that the killing of someone serving in politics or public office counts (thus Reagan's and Ford's attackers were would-be assassins, while Lennon's killer was not),
  • or that anyone with a significant level of political involvement would be an assassination victim in the event of their murder (in which case all three instances would be assassinations or attempts).

For the purposes of this article, the first, most conservative definition predominates, even though it is likely that the second is the most popular. The third is generally considered to be too general in application.

Use in history

Ancient history

Assassination is one of the oldest tools of power politics, dating back at least as far as recorded history. Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, as well as Gaius Julius Caesar can be noted as famous examples. Emperors of Rome often met their end in this way, as did many of the Shia Imams. The practice was also well-known in ancient China like Jing Ke's failed assassination of Qin Shi Huang. The ancient Indian military advisor Chanakya wrote about assassinations in detail in his political treatise Arthashastra.

In the Middle Ages, regicide was rare, but with the Renaissance, tyrannicide - or plain assassination for personal reasons - became more common again. Rulers like Henry III and Henry IV of France fell to it. The Hashshashin, a Muslim group in the Middle Ages, was well-known for using assassinations. The word assassin was derived the name of their group Hashshashin.

Artist's depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Lincoln and assassin John Wilkes Booth on the right.

Modern history

As the world moved into the present day and the stakes in political clashes of will continued to grow to a global scale, the number of assassinations concurrently multiplied. In Russia alone, five emperors were assassinated within less than 200 years - Ivan VI, Peter III, Paul I, Alexander II and Nicholas II.

In the USA, President Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy died at the hands of assassins, while many other presidents survived attempts on their life. Most of these assassinations however turned out to have no more than nebulous political backgrounds, adding a new threat - the mentally deranged assassin.

In Europe the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serb nationalist insurgents finally triggered World War I after a period of building conflicts, while World War II saw the first known use of specifically trained assassination operatives since the original Assassins. Reinhard Heydrich was killed by British-backed killers, and knowledge from decoded transmissions allowed the US to carry out a targeted attack, killing Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto while he was en-route in an airplane. Adolf Hitler meanwhile was almost killed by his own officers, and survived numerous attempts by other individuals and organizations.

Senator Ninoy Aquino, murdered by a bodyguard of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

Cold War and beyond

The Cold War saw a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, likely due in large part to the ideological polarization of most of the First and Second worlds, whose adherents were often more than willing to both justify and finance such killings.

During the Kennedy era, Cuban President Fidel Castro narrowly escaped death on several occasions at the hands of the CIA, some allege that Salvador Allende of Chile was another - successful - example of such US tactics. At the same time, the KGB made creative use of assassination to deal with high-profile defectors and Israel's Mossad used them to eliminate Palestinian guerrillas and politicians.

Most major powers were not long in repudiating Cold War assassination tactics, though many allege that this was merely a smoke screen for political benefit and that covert and illegal training of assassins continues today, with Russia, Israel and other nations accused of still regularly engaging in such operations.

In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered the Operation El Dorado Canyon air raid on Libya where one of the primary targets was the home residence of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi escaped unharmed, however his adopted daughter Hanna was one of the civilian casualties.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the United States also struck many of Iraq’s most important command bunkers with bunker-busting bombs in hopes of killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Since the rise of al-Qaeda and similar organizations, who themselves often engage in assassination tactics, both the US administrations of Clinton and Bush have backed 'targeted killings', mostly directed against terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden, elected political leaders and opponents like Mullah Omar. Most of these attempts were undertaken with remote-controlled missiles and similar tactics, often using remote surveillance for the decision where and when to strike as well. One of the most well-known examples of recent assassinations carried out by the United States was the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, both as a result of two guided bombs on a safehouse outside of Baghdad.

See also: War on Terrorism

Outside of the larger-scale conflicts of Cold War and the War on Terrorism, Assassinations due to internal or historical conflicts did not cease either. For example, in India, two Prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, were both assassinated for political reasons in the 1980s.

Further reasons

As military doctrine

Assassination for milit purposes has long been espoused - Sun Tzu argued for such in The Art of War, as did Machiavelli in The Prince. In medieval times, an army and even a nation might be based upon and around a particularly strong, canny or charismatic leader, whose loss could paralyze the ability of both to make war. However, in modern warfare a soldier's mindset is generally considered to surround ideals far more than specific leaders, while command structures are more flexible in replacing officer losses. While the death of a popular or successful leader often has a detrimental effect on morale, the organisational system and the belief in a specific cause is usually strong enough to enable continued warfare.

There is also the risk that the target could be replaced by an even more competent leader or that such a killing (or a failed attempt) will "martyr" a leader and support his cause (by showing the moral ruthlessness of the assassins). Faced with particularly brilliant leaders, this possibility has in various instances been risked, such as in the attempts to kill the Athenian Alcibiades during the Peloponnesian War. There are a number of additional examples from World War II, the last major total war, which show how assassination was used as a military tool both tactical and strategic levels:

  • The American interception of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto airplane during World War II, after his travel route had been decrypted.
  • The American perception that Skorzeny's commandos were planning to assassinate Eisenhower during the Battle of the Bulge played havoc with Eisenhower's personal plans for some time, though it did not affect the battle itself. Skorzeny later denied in an interview with the New York Times that he had ever intended to assassinate Eisenhower during Operation Greif and could prove it.<ref name="Skor">Commando Extraordinary - Foley, Charles; Legion for the Survival of Freedom, 1992, page 155</ref>
  • There is also mention<ref name="Skor"/> of a planned British commando raid to capture German General Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (also known as "The Desert Fox"), which might have had strategic effects in removing one of the most skilled Axis commanders.
  • The British in turn decided not to try to assassinate Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), because to do so was considered risking to improve the service and to remove an officer who was plotting to remove Hitler from power.

Many have claimed that a successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden might have prevented the September 11 attacks. Israel uses targeted killings both for vengeance purposes and to paralyze the activities of its opponents, in a similar style as Russia has done during the wars in Chechenya.

As tool of insurgents

Insurgent groups have often employed assassination as a tool to further their causes.

The Irish Republican Army guerrillas of 1919-1921 assassinated many RIC Police Intelligence officers during the Irish War of Independence. Michael Collins set up a special unit - the Squad - for this purpose, which had the effect of intimidating many policemen into resigning from the force. The Squad's activities peaked with the assassination of 14 British agents in Dublin on Bloody Sunday in 1920.

This tactic was used again by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969-present). Assassination of RUC officers and politicians was one of a number of methods used in the Provisional IRA campaign 1969-1997. The IRA also attempted to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by bombing the Conservative Party Conference in a Brighton hotel. Loyalist paramilitaries retaliated by killing Catholics at random and assassinating Irish nationalist politicians.

Basque separatists ETA in Spain have assassinated many security and political figures since the late 1960s, notably Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. Since the early 1990s, they have also targeted academics, journalists and local politicians who publicly disagreed with them, meaning that many needed armed police bodyguards.

The Red Brigades in Italy carried out assassinations of political figures, as to a lesser extent, did the Red Army Faction in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.

Middle Eastern groups, such as the PLO and Hezbollah, have all engaged in assassinations, though the higher intensity of armed conflict in the region compared to western Europe means that many of their actions are either better characterized as guerrilla operations or as random attacks on civilians - especially the technique of suicide bombs.

In the Vietnam War, assassinations were routinely carried out by communist insurgents against government officials and private individuals deemed to offend or rival the revolutionary movement. Such attacks, along with widespread military activity by insurgent bands, almost brought the Diem regime to collapse, prior to the US intervention.<ref>Viet Cong - Pike, Douglas, The MIT Press; New Ed edition, Wednesday 16 December 1970</ref> Later in the war, the USA engaged in the Phoenix Program to assassinate Viet Cong leaders and symphatizers.

For money or gain

Individually, too, people have often found reasons to arrange the deaths of others through paid intermediaries. One who kills with no political motive or group loyalty who kills only for money is known as a hitman or contract killer. Note that by the definition accepted above, while such a killer is not, strictly speaking, an assassin, if the killing is ordered and financed towards a political end, then that killing must rightly be termed an assassination, and the hitman an assassin by extension.

Entire organizations have sometimes specialized in assassination as one of their services, to be gained for the right price. Besides the original hashshashin, the ninja clans of Japan were rumored to perform assassinations - though it can be pointed out that most of what was ever known about the ninja was rumor and hearsay.

In the United States, Murder, Inc., an organization partnered to the Mafia, was formed for the sole purpose of performing assassinations for organized crime. In Russia, the vory (thieves), their version of the Mafia, are often known to provide assassinations for the right price, as well as engaging in it themselves for their own purposes. A professional hitman is called "cleaner" in Russia; he is used to clean away the target. The Finnish as well as the Swedish underworld uses the word "torpedo" for a contract killer.


A major study about assassination attempts in the US in the second half of the 20th century came to the conclusion that most prospective assassins spend copious amounts of time planning and preparing for their attempts. Assassinations are thus rarely a case of 'impulsive' action.<ref name="SS"/>

However, about 25% of the actual attackers were found to be delusional, a figure that rose to 60% with 'near-lethal approachers' (people apprehended before reaching their target). This incidentally shows that while mental instability plays a role in many modern-age assassinations, the more delusional attackers are also less likely to succeed. The report also found that around 2/3rds of the attackers had previously been arrested for (not necessarily related) offenses, that around 44% had a history of serious depression, and that 39% had a history of substance abuse.<ref name="SS"/>


Ancient methods

It seems likely that the first assassinations would have been direct and simple: stabbing, strangling or bludgeoning. Substantial planning or coordination would rarely have been involved, as tribal groups were too small, and the connection to the leaders too close. As civilization took root, however, leaders began to have greater importance, and become more detached from the groups they ruled. This would have bought planning, subterfuge and weapons into successful assassination plans.

The key technique was likely infiltration, with the actual assassination via stabbing, smothering or strangulation. Poisons also started to be used in many forms. Death cap mushrooms and similar plants became a traditional choice of assassins especially if they could not be perceived as poisonous by taste, and the symptoms of the poisoning did not show until after some time.

Modern methods

With the advent of effective ranged weaponry, and later firearms, the position of an assassination target was more precarious. Bodyguards were no longer enough to hold back determined killers, who no longer needed to directly engage or even subvert the guard to kill the leader in question. Additionally the engagement of targets at greater distance dramatically increased the chances for survival of an assassin.

Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat, assassinated by a group using assault rifles and grenades in 1981.

Gunpowder and other explosives also allowed the use of bombs or even greater concentrations of explosives for deeds requiring a larger touch; for an example, the Gunpowder Plot could have 'assassinated' almost a thousand people.

Explosives, especially the car bomb, become far more common in modern history, with grenades and remote-triggered landmines also used, especially in the Middle East and Balkans (the initial attempt on Archduke Franz Ferdinand's life was with a grenade). With heavy weapons, the rocket propelled grenade (RPG) has became a useful tool given the popularity of armored cars (discussed below), while Israeli forces have pioneered the use of aircraft-mounted missiles for assassination,<ref>Hamas leader killed in Israeli airstrike - CNN, Saturday 17 April 2004</ref> as well as the innovative use of explosive devices.

A sniper with a precision rifle is often used in fictional assassinations. However, there are certain difficulties associated with long-range shooting, including finding a hidden shooting position with a clear line-of-sight, detailed advance knowledge of the intended victim's travel plans, the ability to identify your target at long range, and the ability to score a first-round lethal hit at long range, usually measured in hundreds of meters. A dedicated sniper rifle is also expensive and relatively rare, often costing thousands of dollars due to the high level of precision machining and hand-finishing required to achieve extreme accuracy.<ref name="Austria">Iraqi insurgents using Austrian rifles from Iran - The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 13 February 2007</ref>

However, many hunting rifles are accurate enough in the hands of an experienced marksman to fatally hit a man-sized target at up to 300 meters (330 yards) or more, such as the Savage Arms Model 111 rifle that was recently tested as having a calculated effective range on a human torso of over 500 yards (450m).<ref>Packages: Remington, Savage Square Off in Value Showdown - Gun Tests, February 2006, Vol. XVIII No. 2, pp. 11-15</ref> Modern hunting cartridges also have a flat enough trajectory to not require the shooter to compensate for bullet drop for targets up to about 250 meters (275 yards) and are powerful enough to penetrate most types of body armor with relative ease. The difficulty for an assassin lies thus more in gaining the required marksman skills, than in procuring a suitable weapon.

Despite their comparative disadvantages, easy-to-acquire and hard-to-trace handguns are much more commonly used. Of 74 principal incidents evaluated in a major study about assassination attempts in the US in the second half of the 20th century, 51% were undertaken by a handgun, 30% with a rifle or shotgun, while 15% of the attempts used knives and 8% explosives (usage of multiple weapons/methods was reported in 16% of all cases).<ref name="SS"/>

A 2006 case in the UK concerned the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko who was given a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210, possibly passed to him in aerosol form sprayed directly onto his food. Litvinenko, a former Soviet spy, had been granted asylum in the UK in 2000 after citing persecution in Russia. Shortly before his death he issued a statement accusing Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, of involvement in his assassination. President Putin has denied any involvement.<ref>Putin 'Deplores' Spy Death - Sky News Friday 24 November 2006</ref>


Early forms

One of the earliest forms of defense against assassins is without doubt the bodyguard. He acts as a shield for the potential target, keeps lookout for potential attackers (sometimes in advance, for example on a planned tour), and is literally supposed to put himself 'in harm's way' - both by his simple presence, forming a barrier in front of the target<ref name="SS">Assassination in the United States: An Operational Study - Fein, Robert A. & Vossekuil, Brian, Journal of Forensic Sciences, Volume 44, Number 2, March 1999</ref><ref>Lincoln - Appendix 7, Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, 1964</ref> and by shielding the target during any attack. He is also, if possible, to neutralize an attacker as fast as possible, and thus often carries weapons (where legal or possible).

This bodyguard function was often executed by the leader's most loyal warriors, and was extremely effective throughout most of early human history, leading to attempts via subterfuge, such as poison (which was answered by the food taster).

Notable examples of bodyguards would include the Roman Praetorian Guard or the Ottoman janissaries - although, in both cases, it should be noted that the protectors often became assassins themselves, exploiting their power to make the head of state a virtual hostage at their whim or eliminating threatening leaders altogether. The fidelity of individual bodyguards is an important question as well, especially for leaders who oversee states with strong ethnic or religious divisions. Failure to realize such divided loyalties leads to assassinations such as that of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

Modern strategies

With the advent of gunpowder, ranged assassination (via bombs or firearms) became possible. One of the first reactions was to simply increase the guard, creating what at times might seem a small army trailing every leader; another was to begin clearing large areas whenever a leader was present, to the point where entire sections of a city might be shut down.

As the 20th century dawned, the prevalence of assassins and their capabilities skyrocketed, and so did measures to protect against them. For the first time, armored cars or armored limousines were put into service for safer transport, with modern versions rendering them virtually invulnerable to small arms fire and smaller bombs and mines.<ref>How to choose the appropriate bulletproof cars (from website, includes examples of protection levels available)</ref> Bulletproof vests also began to be used, though they were of limited utility, restricting movement and leaving the head unprotected - as such they tended to be worn only during high-profile public events if at all.

Access to famous persons, too, became more and more restrictive;<ref name="Report">The Need For Protection Further Demonstrated - Appendix 7, Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, 1964</ref> potential visitors would be forced through numerous different checks before being granted access to the official in question, and as communication became better and information technology more prevalent, it has become next-to-impossible for a would-be killer to get close enough to the personage at work or in private life to effect an attempt on his or her life, especially given the common use of metal and bomb detectors.

Most modern assassinations have been committed either during a public performance or during transport, both due to weaker security and security lapses, such as with US President John F. Kennedy or as part of coups d'état where security is either overwhelmed or completely removed, such as with Patrice Lumumba and possibly also Salvador Allende.<ref>Salvador Allende Gossens (biography from the Encarta website)</ref>

The methods used for protection by famous people have sometimes evoked negative reactions by the public, with some resenting the separation from their officials or major figures. One example might be traveling in a car protected by a bubble of clear bulletproof glass, such as the Popemobile of Pope John Paul II (built following an extremist's attempt at his life). Politicians themselves often resent this need for separation - which has at times caused tragedy when they sent their bodyguards from their side for personal or publicity reasons, as US President William McKinley did during the public reception at which he was assassinated.<ref name="Report"/>

Other potential targets go into seclusion, and are rarely heard from or seen in public, such as writer Salman Rushdie. A related form of protection is the use of body doubles, a person built similar to the person he is expected to impersonate. These persons are then made up, as well as in some cases altered to look like the target, with the body double then taking the place of the person in high risk situations. Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as well as Fidel Castro are known to have used body doubles.<ref>It's Bin Laden ... or Is It? - Fox News, Thursday 20 December 2001</ref>

In the final analysis, counter-measures can never be fully effective. If the assassin is committed beyond reason (i.e. insane) or without concern for his own for self-preservation (suicide attacker), then the task of protecting a person will be made much more difficult.

Notable assassinations & attempts

The following is a list of some of the most notable assassinations and assassination attempts. It is not intended to be exhaustive.

Assassin Date Target Comments
Jing Ke 210 BCE Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang Failed
Marcus Junius Brutus 44 BCE Roman Dictator Gaius Julius Caesar Successful
Hassan-i-Sabah 1100 CE Various targets (assassinated by proxy) Founder of the Hashshashin sect
Guy Fawkes 1605 CE King James I of England, Parliament of England Failed
Charlotte Corday 1791 CE French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat Successful, later often seen as a patriotic act
John Wilkes Booth 1865 CE US President Abraham Lincoln Successful
Leon Czolgosz 1901 CE US President William McKinley Successful
Gavrilo Princip 1914 CE Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand Successful, considered the start of World War I
Claus von Stauffenberg 1944 CE German leader Adolf Hitler Failed, see July 20 plot
Nathuram Godse 1948 CE Political and Spiritual Leader Mahatma Gandhi Successful
Otoya Yamaguchi 1960 CE Japanese Socialist Leader Inejiro Asanuma Successful
Lee Harvey Oswald 1963 CE US President John F. Kennedy Successful (but Oswald's guilt is widely disputed)
Sirhan Sirhan 1968 CE US Senator Robert F. Kennedy Successful
Khalid Islambouli 1981 CE Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat Successful, a rare attack carried out by a group
Mehmet Ali Ağca 1981 CE Catholic Pope John Paul II Failed
See also: List of assassins

See also

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