Global Affairs

A brief account of murders by the state

Targets have been killed with an ice pick and a poison-tipped brolly; one was smothered with a pillow. Methods vary but not the aim - state-sponsored murders of political opponents, ordered by those in power.

LONDON • Two weeks after it was perpetrated, the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, continues to puzzle criminal investigators.

But what happened at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia fits into a pattern of state-sponsored murders stretching back thousands of years. Some assassinations changed the course of global events irrevocably, but others did not; a few are remembered as the most odious turns in history, while others are now recalled in a positive, even sympathetic, light.

What can be said with certainty, however, is that each one of these assassinations had its own logic, and many of the methods used to carry out such political murders were every bit as spectacular as those that ended Kim Jong Nam's existence.

Political assassinations were always an important element in the life of monarchies, if only because the personal succession to the throne was, ultimately, the essence of power.

The antics of China's emperors, as well as those of their mothers, wives and concubines, and their brothers and sons, all hatching plots against real or imagined enemies, dominate the country's history.

But the history of the Roman Empire, which ruled most of Europe and whose imprint can still be seen in all European cultures today, is no different. Just think of Livia Drusilla - the wife of a Roman emperor, the mother of another and the grandmother of a further three emperors - who allegedly decided the succession by attending dinner parties with each one of her enemies, and then awaited the announcement of their death the morning after.

And then, there is the Ottoman Empire, which ruled for centuries all of the Middle East and North Africa, where succession rules were not based on inheritance by the first son, but on the survival of the fittest son. That meant that murder was not only an instrument of power, but also an institution in itself: Every Sultan who ascended the throne ordered the murder of his brothers and half-brothers, usually by manual strangulation with a silk cord.


It is difficult to underestimate the power that these assassination tales still have over our collective memories today; when people visit the halls of Beijing's Forbidden City or the ruins of ancient Rome, they often think of nothing else.

The term "brutal" in most European languages, signifying something savagely violent or cruel, comes from the name of Marcus Junius Brutus, the Roman senator who led the plot against Julius Caesar, Rome's leader at the time, and who betrayed Caesar's friendship by delivering the fatal stab wound. The date of that assassination, March 15 in 44 BC, is still infamous in most Western cultures as the Ides of March, the day of ultimate betrayal.

And what real history no longer produces, movie producers offer instead: The hugely successful Game Of Thrones television series blends Eastern and Western cultures of murder into one, with characters like Cersei Lannister, who very much resembles a scheming dowager empress in imperial China or the notorious Livia of ancient Rome.

Most monarchies are gone, and those that remain are usually of the constitutional variety, with well-established succession rules supervised by Parliaments, rendering assassinations superfluous. But the practice of murdering an opponent in order to determine the political succession continues to thrive in countries ruled by personal dictatorships and particularly communist regimes that like to call themselves "people's democracies".


Soviet leader Joseph Stalin usually preferred "judicial murders"; he charged his opponents with a variety of imagined crimes, and had them executed after brief show trials. But for his leading opponents, he preferred assassination - that is what happened to Leon Trotsky, a Marxist thinker and one of the fathers of the Bolshevik Revolution; he was murdered in faraway Mexico in 1940.

The reasons for Trotsky's murder are startlingly similar to those that might explain the recent Kim Jong Nam murder. By the time Trotsky was assassinated, he had already been in exile for almost two decades, and was hardly a direct threat to Stalin. But he was a latent threat and, with World War II then in full swing, Stalin calculated that it was better to take no chances by eliminating him.

The same applies to Kim Jong Nam, who died not because he was a direct threat to his half-brother, the current ruler of North Korea, but more because he was the only one who enjoyed the historical legitimacy of the ruling family, and who could therefore be used by a country like China - on whose territory he had spent most of his time - as part of a push for "regime change" in Pyongyang. Like Trotsky, Kim Jong Nam died because of what he could represent, rather than what he represented at the time of his death.

And far from belonging to the past, state-ordered assassinations are a versatile weapon whose use is on the increase today. Sometimes, the purpose is not to decide who rules a country but, rather, just to destabilise an enemy nation. That was the reason for the 1974 attempted assassination of South Korean president Park Chung Hee, perpetrated by a North Korean agent. Mr Park did not die then, but his wife did, and the episode overshadowed the presidency of their daughter, who came to grief and was impeached recently because of behaviour that arguably had been influenced by the ghoulish events she experienced in her youth.

There are plenty of other cases around the world - and particularly in the Middle East - of governments engaging in the destabilisation of their neighbours by sponsoring assassination attempts.

Israel has long practised the elimination of what it considers leaders of terrorist movements. For decades, it was criticised for such policies by most of the world's governments, including that of the United States, its chief ally. But the US is now the world's biggest user of what are euphemistically called "targeted assassinations" of top terrorists. Nobody claims that this will defeat terrorism, but eliminating top leaders at least keeps terrorist movements under constant pressure and deprives them of talent.


But why are many of the recent state-ordered murders so complex? Why bother to kill someone with exotic substances and plots, when a simple bullet would do? There are at least two perfectly logical explanations for the bizarre difficulty of some of the methods chosen.

One explanation is that, the more complex an assassination method is, the greater the chance of avoiding the apprehension of the culprits or identifying the government behind them.

Take Georgi Markov, a leading anti-communist critic, who was murdered on the streets of London in 1978. He was poked with an umbrella that released ricin - just a milligram of the poison is enough to kill an adult. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who fled to Britain, died in 2006 after being exposed to polonium, a rare and highly radioactive metal, ingested after he foolishly accepted an invitation from some Russian friends to a casual lunch at a nondescript London sushi bar.

In both cases, the novelty and complexity of the plots allowed the culprits to escape, a calculation that apparently also played a part in Kim Jong Nam's murder.

But an equally viable explanation for the complexity of some assassination methods is that the aim is not merely to terminate the lives of individuals, but also to sound a warning to others. Trotsky, Stalin's enemy, was assassinated with an ice pick that cracked his head in two; the use of the unusual instrument was designed to frighten others, but was also symbolic, since his brain was Trotsky's most famous asset.

The Israelis also engage in baroque, almost farcically complex assassinations - sometimes by detonating the personal mobile phones of terrorists that they had booby-trapped days beforehand and sometimes, as in the 2010 assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader, by injecting the target with a muscle relaxant and then smothering him with a pillow. The Israeli agents who perpetrated that murder were seen entering their target's hotel bedroom, but they seemingly never left the room thereafter - yet another trick intended to serve notice on all enemies that Israeli agents are infinitely resourceful and that their reach is, allegedly, limitless.

None of these episodes makes the recent events at Kuala Lumpur International Airport justifiable. But they at least explain why such a murder took place, and why its alleged perpetrators used such strange techniques.

And they serve as a reminder that state-sponsored assassinations, however reprehensible, are set to continue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'A brief account of murders by the state'. Print Edition | Subscribe