19 June 2023
Introduction & Details
Assassination is a tactic used by insurgent groups to achieve political, military, and/or ideological goals. It describes the selective and intentional killing of a prominent person for these aforementioned reasons (8). The National Counterterrorism Center further adds that individuals who are targeted by this tactic "represent the political, economic, military, security, social, religious, media, or cultural establishments" within the state or polity (9).
Assassinations may be carried out by insurgent groups or by lone actors and while this report focuses on their use by the former, examples of ones carried out by individuals may be given to highlight certain strategic and methodological elements.
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
Assassinations have been carried out throughout history, dating back thousands of years with references to assassinations even found in biblical texts. Groups that have carried out assassinations strategically as part of a larger violent campaign include, among others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and the Shining Path (12).
LTTE, which represents the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, has waged an assassination campaign against the state’s political leadership and the Sinhalese majority for approximately 30 years since the 1980s (11). According to the Global Terrorism Database, the group carried out 122 assassinations between the years 1988 and 2008 resulting in over 300 deaths (14). While the majority of attacks were targeted and resulted in only one death the use of suicide bombers, such as for the assassination of an opposition leader during a rally, drastically increased the number of bystanders killed (1).
ETA, a Basque separatist group, carried out its most notable assassination in 1973 when the group detonated a bomb under the car of then Prime Minister Carrero Blanco, thus landing a significant blow against the Franco government (13). The group carried out over 360 assassinations between 1972 and 2009 with its deadliest year being 1979 in which 56 people were killed (14).
The Shining Path, a Maoist rebel group operating in the Peruvian highlands, began in 1980 and carried out nearly 750 assassinations since then (14). While the group largely targeted government and state representatives such as the police and military, they also attacked religious figures, tourists and private citizens (14). The group’s exceptionally violent campaign resulted in over half of the nearly 70,000 deaths during the Peruvian civil war (6).
Recent examples of high-profile individual assassinations include the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov by an off-duty Turkish police officer in 2016. President of Haiti Jovenel Moïse who was shot in his residence by a group of foreign mercenaries in 2021. And lastly the assassination of former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe by an individual with a homemade firearm in 2022 (2).
Purpose of Use & Details
Assassination is used by insurgent groups to achieve political or ideological goals. Primarily, this tactic can be viewed through the lens of asymmetrical warfare, whereby the insurgent group attempts to target high-value individuals as a means to have more of an impact than by striking random targets. It carries the advantage of not relying on attrition which may be especially difficult for numerically weaker insurgencies (12).
Assassinations can fulfill both symbolic and militarily or politically relevant objectives. On the one hand, they are capable of affecting mindsets and challenging physical power by highlighting the vulnerability of the target and thereby the group, organization or institution that they represent. The symbolic influence of assassinations on opponents of the insurgency is one of challenging their power, legitimacy, and security, while supporters of the insurgency may see such an act as inspiring or liberating. However, within the general population assassinations may be intended to generate a climate of fear and uncertainty and can thus be viewed as acts of terrorism (3). Additionally, political and military objectives may be achieved by preventing or promoting political or social change through the ‘removal’ of specific individuals who may be in positions of leadership within an organization. Factors that can facilitate the likelihood of higher-profile assassinations include weakly-regulated succession, centralized political power, oppressed minorities, and the length of tenure (12).
Considering that ‘assassination’ as a singular tactic describes the action rather than the method, a wide variety of methods (or approaches) may be used to carry out an assassination. Attackers will typically choose the options that provide the most utility while minimizing risks (10). Prior to their attack, a group and/or a potential assassin will likely aim to identify the target’s patterns of life and movement, any potential countermeasures that may be employed by the target (or their security personnel), and factors in the environment that will influence the selection of the most effective weapons system. This includes considerations such as the risk of detection prior to the attack and the accessibility of the target (10). Considerations here include the proximity to the target but also ways of ingress and egress such as major roads leading to the location. In high-security areas, the attacker may opt for a suicide option as an escape is less likely (7). It should be noted that regardless of the method chosen, assassinations are inherently more resource-intensive than attacks on random targets, for they require a thorough reconnaissance of the target.
Additionally, a group’s financial capabilities and access to certain weapons can influence the approach chosen. Certain weapons may also increase the chances of the perpetrators escaping, whereas others make an escape far more difficult. For example, the use of a handgun may have the lowest barrier to entry for an insurgent group in terms of cost and ease of use when compared to a complex assassination which uses more sophisticated weaponry, such as an explosively-formed penetrator or a sniper attack as these require more planning and technical ability, as well as access to less common weapons (12). The benefit of these, however, is that the attack may be more precise and imposing, therefore displaying the capabilities of the group for propagandistic purposes and allowing for escape, as the assassins will be stood off from their targets. Evidence for the propagandistic benefit of a complex attack can be seen, for example, in media descriptions of the 1989 attack on Chairman of the Deutsche Bank Alfred Herrhausen, who was killed when a hidden EFP detonated next to his armored limousine. The perpetrators have been described as “professionals” and the attack as “flawless” (5).
Finally, considerations of lethality may dissuade an attacker from opting for melee or similar weapons, which is reflected in the overwhelming popularity of firearms for assassinations (12)(14).
The most visible countermeasures to assassinations are defensive tactics, such as the use of bodyguards, body armor and armored vehicles. These methods are referred to as passive measures as they merely harden the targets without actively seeking to minimize the threat posed by groups or other would be perpetrators (7). However, these measures are expensive and may thus not be available to all targets, notably in times of conflict or instability. Other countermeasures are based on the gathering of intelligence, which can help to identify and pre-empt potential threats, as well as prevent attacks from occurring. Such countermeasures attempt to improve operational security to reduce the likelihood of potential attackers from having too much knowledge of the target’s movements and protective measures. This can also include acting on intelligence and raiding potential attackers before being able to act on their plans (7).
Furthermore, security forces may attempt to disrupt the supply chain of weapons and explosives used by insurgent groups. However, the effectiveness of this may be dampened by a determined attacker able to circumvent the lack of professional weapons, as seen in the assassination of British MP Jo Cox with a modified .22 rifle and knife (4). Additionally, political measures, such as the resolution of conflicts and addressing of grievances in communities, can address the root causes of political violence and reduce the motivation for assassinations (12).
Open-Source Intelligence & Field Examples
Assassination attempt targeting Argentinian Vice President Fernández fails due to handgun not firing.