Analysis: The How and Why of Modern Assassinations

Bomb blast site in New Delhi, India


Reports on the discovery last week of a synchronized plan to attack Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia, and Thailand, are still unfolding. At least four people —including the wife of an Israeli diplomat— were injured in New Delhi, when a bomb ripped through a van belonging to the Israeli embassy there. Another bomb was defused by Georgian counterterrorist forces after it was found fastened under an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in Tbilisi. And in Bangkok, two Iranian nationals were arrested after a bomb they were manufacturing exploded prematurely in a rented house in the Thai capital. In an interview I gave this past weekend to The Journal, one of Ireland’s most popular newsmagazines, I noted that the use of targeted assassinations as a means of achieving broader political goals is, of course, not new. But there are definite trends that we have been able to see developing during the past decade or so. For starters, even though the methods of assassination vary greatly, there are common trends one can point out, particularly in the organizational infrastructure of state-sponsored assassination operations. There is, to be precise, an increasing complexity in the way these operations are planned prior to their execution by specialized hit teams. I told The Journal’s interviewer, Susan Ryan, that the increasing sophistication of these types of operations can be appreciated by comparing older examples with case studies that are more recent. Take, for instance, the Black September killings, conducted by Israeli intelligence in response to the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. These were —for the most part— pretty crude undertakings, relying on relatively small, dedicated teams of operatives, which involved plenty of rudimentary tactics and even luck (or criminal stupidity, in the case of the 1973 murder of Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki in Norway). Contrast these case studies with more recent assassinations, such as those of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London, and of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. Both were extremely sophisticated and involved a lot more preparation than similar operations conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. In the case of al-Mabhouh, I told The Journal that I estimate the involvement of close to 40 operatives on the ground, including intelligence collection, surveillance, non-destructive entry, transportation, logistics, and weapons procurement teams. There is, in other words, a high degree of compartmentalization and specialization, which is employed to contain the possibility of operational failure. Furthermore, I note that the details that have emerged from last week’s planned attacks in India, Georgia, and Thailand, seem to indicate that the operatives involved carried them out in a hurry, without having done their homework, which may indicate that they were acting under political pressure from their superiors. Finally, I stress that, according to relevant academic studies, so-called “decapitation operations”, even when tactically successful, rarely achieve their strategic aim, namely the neutralization of targeted groups. The complete interview is available here.

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