1 a murderer (especially one who kills a prominent political figure) who kills by a treacherous surprise attack and often is hired to do the deed; "his assassins were hunted down like animals"; "assassinators of kings and emperors" [syn: assassinator, bravo]
2 a member of a secret order of Muslims (founded in the 12th century) who terroriszed and killed Christian Crusaders
- Rhymes: -æsɪn
- One who is motivated by political reasons or money to intentionally kill a particular person.
- Any ruthless killer.
- italbrac historically A member of the historical Ismaili Muslim militant group.
One who, motivated by political reasons, intentionally kills a particular person
Any ruthless killer
A member of the historical Ismaili Muslim militant group.
- German: Assassine
- To assassinate.
Assassination is the targeted killing of a high-profile person. An added distinction between assassination and other forms of killing is that the assassin (one who performs an assassination) usually has an ideological or political motivation, though many assassins (especially those not part of an organization) also demonstrate insanity. Other motivations may be money (contract killing), revenge, or a military operation.
The assassination euphemism targeted killing (extrajudicial execution) is also used for the government-sanctioned killing of opponents. 'Assassination' itself, along with terms such as 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter', may in this context be considered a loaded term, as it implies an act in which the proponents of such killings may consider them justified or even necessary.
It is speculated that the assassins were under the influence of hashish and opium during their killings or during their indoctrination; assassin may derive either from hasishin, the influence of the drugs, or hassansin, after their leader, Hassan-i-Sabah. Hashishinnya was an offensive term used by its Muslim and Mongolian detractors to characterize the cult.
The earliest known literary use of the "assassination" is in The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1605).
Definition problemThe definition of "assassination" varies among sources, the The American Heritage Dictionary defines "to assassinate" thus:
- ... to murder [a prominent person] by surprise attack, as for political reasons;
- The action of assassinating; the taking the life of any one by treacherous violence, esp. by a hired emissary, or one who has taken upon him to execute the deed.
There is dispute whether the term assassination should include killings wherein the primary motivation is attracting attention to a political cause, and wherein the victim is of secondary importance (and might be famous, but unrelated to the dispute, or even an unknown). This leads to a number of possible definitions - which may however not all apply in any specific case:
- the killing of someone by treacherous violence
- the killing of someone in the public view (i.e. someone notable)
- the killing of someone for political, moral, or ideological reasons
For the purposes of this article, the third definition predominates, even though the second is often used, and the first would often be found in colloquial use.
Use in history
From Ancient to Medieval times
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, and Julius Caesar can be noted as famous victims. 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. An example of this is Jing Ke's failed assassination of Qin Shi Huang. The ancient Indian military adviser Chanakya wrote about assassinations in detail in his political treatise Arthashastra.
In the Middle Ages, regicide was rare, but with the Renaissance, tyrannicide – or assassination for personal or political reasons - became more common again. The reigns of French kings Henry III and Henry IV, and William the Silent of the Netherlands ended with assassination.
In Modern history
As the world moved into the modern day, the killing of important people began to become more than a tool in power struggles between rulers themselves, and was also used for political symbolism, such as in the propaganda of the deed. In Russia alone, four emperors were assassinated within less than 200 years: Ivan VI, Peter III, Paul I, and Alexander II.
In the U.S., Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy died at the hands of assassins, while many other presidents survived attempts on their lives. 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 Serbian nationalist insurgents is blamed for igniting World War I after a succession of minor conflicts, while belligerents on both sides in World War II used operatives specifically trained for assassination. Reinhard Heydrich was killed by Czech partisan killers, and knowledge from decoded transmissions allowed the U.S. to carry out a targeted attack, killing Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto while he was travelling by airplane. Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, was almost killed by his own officers, and survived various attempts by other persons and organizations (such as Operation Foxley, though this plan was never put into practice).
India's "Father of the Nation", Mohandas K. Gandhi, was shot to death on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, for what Godse perceived as his betrayal of the Hindu cause in attempting to seek peace between Hindus and Muslims.
In the Cold War and beyondDuring the Cold War, there was a dramatic new increase in the number of political assassinations, likely due 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.
Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan was assassinated by Saad Akbar, a lone assassin in 1951. Conspiracy theorists believe his conflict with certain members of the Pakistani military (Rawalpindi conspiracy) or suppression of Communists and antagonism towards the Soviet Union, were potential reasons for his assassination.
During the Kennedy era (which, as noted before, ended in an assassination itself), Cuban President Fidel Castro narrowly escaped death on several occasions at the hands of the CIA. At the same time, the KGB made creative use of assassination to deal with high-profile defectors.
Most major powers were not long in repudiating Cold War assassination tactics, though many allege that this was merely a smokescreen 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 (who survived an assassination attempt himself) ordered the Operation El Dorado Canyon air raid on Libya in which 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.
In the Philippines, the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. triggered the eventual downfall of the 20-year autocratic rule of President Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino, a former Senator and a leading figure of the political opposition, was assassinated in 1983 at the Manila International Airport (now the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) upon returning home from exile. His death thrust his widow, Corazon Aquino, into the limelight and, ultimately, the presidency following the peaceful 1986 EDSA Revolution.
On August 17, 1988 President of Pakistan Gen. M. Zia ul Haq died along with his staff and the American Ambassador to Pakistan when his C-130 transport plane exploded in mid-air after taking off from Bahawalpur because of an on-board bomb. The CIA, KGB and Indian secret service RAW all have been implicated by various conspiracy theorists.
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.
Various dictators around the world, such as Saddam Hussein, have also used assassination to remove individual opponents, or to terrorize troublesome population groups. In return, in post-Saddam Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government has used death squads to perform countless extrajudicial executions of Sunni Iraqis, with some alleging that the death squads were trained by the U.S.
In India, Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (neither of whom were related to Mohandas Gandhi), were assassinated in 1984 and 1991. The assassinations were linked to separatist movements in Punjab and northern Sri Lanka, respectively.
In Pakistan, former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007, while in the process of running for re-election. Bhutto's assassination drew unanimous condemnation from the international community.
As military doctrine
Assassination for military purposes has long been espoused - Sun Tzu, writing around 500 B.C., argued in favor of using assassination in his book The Art of War. Nearly 2000 years later Machiavelli also argued assassination could be useful in his book 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 at both tactical and strategic levels:
- The American interception of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's 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 he said that he could prove it.
- There was a planned British commando raid to capture or kill the German General Erwin Rommel (also known as "The Desert Fox").
- During World War II, underground factions sympathizing with the Allies were known to assassinate rival underground leaders to ensure their chances of governing their nation upon liberation from the Axis, as opposed to their rivals. Naturally, the reason given to the assassin would be that the rival leader was an Axis sympathizer.
As tool of insurgents
Insurgent groups have often employed assassination as a tool to further their causes. Assassinations provide several functions for such groups, namely the removal of specific enemies and as propaganda tools to focus the attention of media and politics on their cause.
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 individual civilians 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 before the US intervention.
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), Russian organised crime syndicates, 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.
The use of assassinations for political or military reasons by sovereign states is an extremely contentious subject, with opinions ranging from people considering it a legitimate defense, especially against non-state actors like terror groups, to people calling targeted killings state terrorism itself. Both those for and against targeted killings are also often faced with accusations of being clearly partisan to one side of the discussed struggle.
- Pro: Various groups and individuals have supported assassinations such as those undertaken by Israel against opposed terror groups, claiming that the killing of people like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is justified due to the fact that people like him provide "both religious and political cover" (for terrorist groups to operate), and that the fact that they may not have been physically involved in such crimes does not reduce their role. However, even they sometimes question the tactical prudence of such actions, while arguing that the killings may produce leadership vacuums and disorganise their organisations. Some even argue that targeted killing should be continued for 'retribution and revenge', even though they accept that the killing has little effect on the number and severity of terrorist attacks, or may even increase them in the short and mid-term.
- Contra: Criticism of targeted killings focuses on a number of aspects, from being claimed to be against international law to being destabilising to local situations and thus causing more violence, an opinion also held by such intermediaries as Álvaro de Soto, former UN Middle East peace envoy. Criticism often also focuses on innocent victims of the more heavy-handed or failed targeted killings, in which civilians have sometimes died in large numbers.
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. 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 the 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 hard to acquire, often costing thousands of dollars because of the high level of precision machining and hand-finishing required to achieve extreme accuracy.
Despite their comparative disadvantages, easy-to-acquire and hard-to-trace handguns are much more commonly used than rifles. 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).
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 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 by 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.
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. 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; 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 all but 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 because of weaker security and security lapses, such as with US President John F. Kennedy and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, or as part of coups d'état where security is either overwhelmed or completely removed, such as with Patrice Lumumba and likely Salvador Allende.
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 U.S. President William McKinley did during the public reception at which he was assassinated. According to Joe R. Reeder, a former under secretary for the U.S. Army from 1993-1997 writing in Fox News, Fidel Castro had also used body doubles, though no details were specified.
In the final analysis, countermeasures 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.
- Assassinology.org a website dedicated to the study of assassination
- CNN A short article on the U.S. policy banning political assassination since 1976 from CNN.com/Law CENTER, November 4, 2002. See also Ford's 1976 executive order. However, Executive Order 12333 which prohibited the CIA from assassinations was relaxed by the George W. Bush administration.
- Kretzmer, David Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: Extra-Judicial Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence? (PDF)
- Luft, Gal The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killing Middle East Quarterly Winter 2003 • Volume X: Number 1
assassin in Afrikaans: Sluipmoord
assassin in Arabic: اغتيال
assassin in Bosnian: Atentat
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assassin in Korean: 암살
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assassin in Japanese: 暗殺
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assassin in Simple English: Murder#Assassination
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assassin in Yiddish: הינריכטונג
assassin in Chinese: 暗杀
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