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  • Intelligent kill: The dirty art of secret assassination

    State-sponsored foreign assassinations of military, religious, ideological and political figures are an ugly reality of world history.

    By means of sudden, irregular or secret attack, there is even a common euphemism in international law which bluntly describes the practice: targeted killing.

    According to a UN special report on the subject, targeted killings are “premeditated acts of lethal force employed by states in times of peace or during armed conflict to eliminate specific individuals outside their custody”.

    And it works something like this.

    A state deems a certain individual wanted or a danger to its national security. After ruling out any feasible attempt to bring them to their own jurisdiction, usually because they are based in a third country, it deems itself responsible with silencing them by whatever means necessary.

    The operational dynamics are then conducted under the auspices of one of two possible dimensions.

    Either to eliminate the target under a fog of plausible deniability, in order for the state authorities to wash their hands clean of any discreditable action in a foreign land, and by extension any prosecution should its agents be captured; or to have blatant disregard to the norms of international law by reference to domestic constitutions that empower them to act under the guise of self-defence – in order to protect themselves from imminent threats of attack.

    The use of targeted killing has become quite common in the aftermath of 9/11. U.S. Predator drones strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and the Yemen, Israeli airstrikes against Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories and Russian targeting of Chechen separatists in the Caucasus — are just a few recent examples.

    But the covert practice of this art has always been a lot murkier.

    In 1942, formerly secret memos now reveal how the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) secretly trained Czechoslovakian volunteers to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most feared men in Nazi Germany, in a daring ambush on his motorcade.

    Alternatively, the main security services of the Third Reich, the RSHA, had in place its own clandestine unit which planned to target Allied soldiers with poisoned coffee, chocolate and cigarettes; as part of a ruthless terrorist campaign.

    During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the CIA, the KGB, poisoned two of its dissidents abroad, once by firing a tiny Ricin-infested pellet from a specially designed umbrella into the target’s leg; and on another occasion by a spray gun firing a jet of poison gas from a crushed cyanide ampoule.

    But even when the intended targets happen to miraculously survive a surreptitiously planned death, the devil that’s in the detail can be just as intriguing.

    The CIA attempted to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on numerous occasions by utilizing everything from exploding cigars, mafia contractors and femmes fatales — albeit without success.

    On another occasion, the CIA unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Republic of Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, using a tube of doctored toothpaste which would have left him dead, apparently of Polio.

    In 2004, Ukrainian opposition leader Victor Yushenko was poisoned with TCDD, the most toxic form of Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins, otherwise known as Dioxins, by what is largely suspected were pro-Russian individuals within the state’s security apparatus.

    Although many of the shrewd techniques that have been secretly used in the murder of dissidents and enemies abroad have long been acknowledged in the post-cold war era, many practices may still be eluding us by virtue of remaining shrouded in anonymity, even to this day.

    But generally speaking, secret state-sponsored targeted killings are still synonymous with booby-trapped car bombs, sniper hits, exploding cell phones and even small arms fire.

    In recent years, however, the art of these smart assassinations – designed in the most part to make a person’s death look somewhat natural – have now been refined by the most unthinkable of materials.

    And you don’t have to look beyond what happened to Alexander Litvenenko, a former officer in Russia’s internal security force, FSB, and critic of Vladimir Putin’s rule, in London on November 2006.

    After meeting what he ostensibly thought were two former KGB officers for tea in a hotel bar, within hours he was hospitalized with mysterious symptoms including progressively severe hair loss, vomiting and diarrhea for three weeks — before he ultimately succumbed to his horrible death.

    His post-mortem finally furnished us with details. He was poisoned it turns out, with tiny a nuclear substance, the radioactive isotope, Polonium-210. Its acute radiation syndrome that he ingested virtually meant he had no chance of survival.

    The UK authorities were able to piece together trails of the material as left by the culprits, incidentally right back to Russia itself, where almost all the world’s polonium is produced.

    The logic of administering such toxic materials was in fact deliberate. Polonium-210 is something which is normally undetectable; as a rare radioactive isotope it emits alpha particles, not the common gamma radiation that standard radiological equipment would detect in hospitals.

    The accused culprits may have underestimated the determination of the British authorities to uncover the whole plot, but simultaneously the incident also told us something; the Russians were not going to play by the old rules – they were going to rewrite them.

    It would be wrong to assume, however, that biological poisons, chemical agents and nuclear materials are the only things used in smart killings. In fact, the use of materials designed for rudimentary medical procedures have also taken on a new course.

    Israel’s Mossad, long considered the most effective intelligence agency in the world per magnitude, and no stranger to the world of targeted killing in foreign countries, has two shiny examples.

    In September 1997, Mossad agents sprayed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal with the poison Levofentanyl – a modified version of the widely-used painkiller Fentany – by using a small camera which served as a trajectory. Although the agents were later apprehended, and eventually exchanged the antidote (following lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations before it was eventually given to the victim), the audacity of the materials they used spoke volumes: it was designed not to leave any visible or tell-tale signs of harm on the target’s body.

    In January 2010, Hamas military commander Mohammad Al Mabhouh was found dead in his Dubai hotel room in what initially appeared to be death by natural causes.

    However, upon thorough investigation, not only were 26 suspects (believed to have emanated from Israel) fingered, but the circumstances surrounding his death also soon transpired.

    Al Mabhouh was injected in his leg with Succinylcholine, a quick-acting, depolarizing paralytic muscle relaxant. It causes almost instant loss of motor skills, but does not induce loss of consciousness or anesthesia. He was then apparently suffocated — ostensibly to quicken the pace of his death.

    In his bestselling book, Gordon Thomas, author of Gideon Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, gives a chilling and detailed account of how the Mossad uses Biochemists and genetic scientists in order to develop lethal cocktails as bottled agents of death.

    This includes the development of nerve agents, choking agents, blood agents, and blister agents – including Tuban (virtually odorless and invisible when dispensed in aerosol or vapor form), Soman (the last of the Nazi nerve gasses to be discovered which also has a slightly fruity odour and is invincible in vapour format), blister agents (which include chlorine, phosgene and diphosgene, and smell of new-mown grass) and blood agents (including those with a cyanide base).

    The point to extrapolate is clear. States that employ the practice of smart assassination techniques see them as effective strategies that are justified. They don’t need to admit to carrying them out, but we know they are happening.

    An obvious concern raised here is that their almost pathological unwillingness to answer questions about the consequences of resorting to such assassinations – or covert targeted killings – will result in the practice becoming more widespread.

    The arbitrary stretching of legal justifications for such assassinations, premised on what an individual country recognizes as self-defence, indirectly renders them to be bound by no limits — and by extension may serve as encouragement for other nations to follow suit, if they interpret their national security considerations being failed by international treaty and cooperation.

    Just last month, British Police warned two outspoken Rwandan dissidents of threats to their lives by the Rwandan government, which could come in ‘any form’ or by ‘unconventional means’.

    Find this story at 19 June 2012

    By Mohammad I. Aslam
    Tuesday, 19 June 2012 at 3:00 am