North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are the latest members of a select
Without Borders has roots that go back, in the modern era at least,
to the policies of the Soviet Union, Chile, Israel, Bulgaria, and the
United States. All of these countries share a single trait. They were
willing to defy international law in order to assassinate their
critics and opponents in other countries.
fair assessment of evidence. No due process.
rub them out at a distance. Like Saudi Arabia had done —
reportedly — to one of its domestic critics.
Saudi regime had been unhappy about journalist Jamal Khashoggi for
some time. The Washington
columnist had previously been a regime loyalist before he decided
that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had crossed a line. He
decamped to the United States and began to launch long-distance
attacks. The regime decided to reciprocate in kind.
was no obscure dissident. He knew the secrets of the regime. And he
was prominently placed — both in the mainstream media and in
social media with close to 2 million Twitter followers — to do
maximum PR damage.
Saudi authorities already discussed
to lure Khashoggi back to the country for a kangaroo trial. But when
he entered the consulate in Istanbul to obtain wedding papers,
Khashoggi walked into something else: interrogation, torture,
and execution by a 15-person
dispatched from Riyadh.
one thing for Riyadh to kill its critics through a dubious court
process at home, as it did the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. That was a
“sovereign” matter. It has also gotten away so far with
killing thousands of Yemenis, with U.S. assistance. But Yemen is
about as poor and obscure as a country can be these days.
a well-known journalist with lots of high-placed friends in the
United States: now that’s
the Trump administration has had to pretend to take this matter very
seriously, although Trump himself has suggested that maybe it was a
band of killers
that somehow broke into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to do the job
and that, as with Brett Kavanaugh, everyone
until proven guilty (except for Khashoggi, of course, who was
declared guilty and executed without any proof of guilt offered).
assassination is a ruthless gamble. But other countries have gotten
away with it. No doubt that Saudi Arabia expects that the tempest
will blow over, and the world will once again flock to Riyadh in
pursuit of oil, investments, and geopolitical intrigue.
all, that’s what has happened with North Korea. In the absence
of oil, nuclear weapons will do in a pinch if a regime needs
Korea and Russia
year, the Kim Jong Un regime sent agents to Malaysia to take out Kim
Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s older half-brother. These
agents in turn hired Indonesian and Vietnamese accomplices, who say
that they thought it was a prank for reality TV, to apply in
succession the components of VX nerve agent to the hapless brother.
He died on the way to the hospital. According to South Korean
intelligence, from the moment he took control of the country, Kim
Jong Un wanted his brother dead. It took him six years to accomplish
was global outrage at the assassination. The two women accomplices
are on trial in Malaysia, still declaring
Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, is meeting with world leaders, like
Moon Jae-in in South Korea and Donald Trump in Singapore. He might
even share a Nobel peace prize if he plays his cards right.
Arabia no doubt took careful notes.
has been more aggressive in its pursuit of critics. Russian agents
used polonium to poison and kill former KGB agent Alexander
Litvinenko in London in 2006. It employed a nerve agent in an attempt
to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, an
attack that even Donald Trump now
was likely a Kremlin plot. Russian opposition activist Vladimir
Kara-Murza has fallen
deathly ill twice
from poisonings, both on trips back to Russia.
Putin doesn’t believe in just killing one person as a warning.
He does everything to excess. Consider Mikhail Lesin, the founder of
the Russia Today network. He was about to spill the beans to the FBI
in Washington, DC in 2015 when he was discovered, just before the
scheduled interview, dead in his hotel room. Initially, DC police
attributed the death to a drunken fall down stairs. But FBI agents
believe that he was actually bludgeoned
to a Buzzfeed
last year, several other deaths of vocal Putin critics in England
attributed to suicide or natural causes were actually hits, including
oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2013, whistleblower Alexander
Perepilichnyy in 2012, Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili in
2008, and cofounder of the Yukos oil conglomerate Yuri Golubev in
attempt on Skripal finally seemed to get the notice of the UK. The
May government has called
EU economic sanctions against Russia and brought charges against two
members of Russian military intelligence after discovering
of the Novichok nerve agent in the room they rented in London. But
the UK is on the verge of leaving the EU and the two operatives are
safely back in Russia.
Arabia might be calculating that Russia, despite a series of overseas
hits, is not an international pariah — so maybe Riyadh can get
away with one such job.
1940, Stalin finally got his wish: the assassination of one of his
most vocal opponents abroad, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico. Stalin would
only live another 13 years and Stalinism effectively died with him.
1976, agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet assassinated
Orlando Letelier, former ambassador to the United States under the
leftist Allende government. Pinochet would fall from power and
eventually died under house arrest with numerous charges of human
rights violations pending. The Chilean government has indicted
Armando Fernandez Larios for his involvement in the assassination and
has called for his extradition from the United States to Chile for
1978, Bulgarian agents used the poisoned tip of an umbrella to kill
dissident writer Georgi Markov in London. Bulgaria’s Communist
regime of Todor Zhivkov lasted only another 11 years.
Pinochet, Zhivkov: history does not look kindly upon them. On the
other hand, Saudi Arabia might be looking at a different set of
for instance, has assassinated a large number of would-be citizens of
its state, namely Palestinians.
recently, Israel has killed over
of Gaza who began protesting last March the conditions in the enclave
and demanding the right to return to their expropriated land. Going
back to the 1950s, it also
a West German rocket scientist working for Egypt, a Libyan embassy
employee in Rome, an Egyptian nuclear scientist in Paris, a Brazilian
colonel in Sao Paolo, a Canadian engineer in Brussels, a number of
Syrian military men, and several Iranian scientists. And yet no one
has been brought to trial for any of these killings.
United States, meanwhile, has attempted, supported, and occasionally
succeeded in killing overseas leaders. But it was only in 2011 that
it assassinated U.S. citizens. That year, the Obama administration
authorized a drone strike in Yemen that killed two U.S. citizens —
Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan — and then another strike two
weeks later that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. The Obama
administration did not face any consequences for this extrajudicial
Saudi government probably felt that it could get away with this
assassination of Khashoggi because of its close relationship with the
Trump administration. It had also been successfully wooing America’s
liberal elite. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for instance,
garnered rave reviews from journalists like Tom Friedman, who
the reform agenda of the likely next Saudi king to be an “Arab
it’s also not hard to conclude that Saudi Arabia felt that it
could take out a journalist because of a more general lawlessness
that is pervading the international community. Russia’s
innovative mixture of government policy and mafia operations is part
of it. So is the Trump administration’s overall disregard for
human rights. Then there’s the open season that’s been
declared on journalists, many of them like Daphne Anne Caruana
Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia targeted for their
reporting on corruption.
a time when right-wing populists want to shut down borders to prevent
migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from finding safe refuge,
another type of border crosser is having an easier time of it: the
assassin. If Saudi Arabia gets away with its latest atrocity, the
club of Assassins Without Borders will soon be inducting many new
This commentary was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus