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Assassin

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The term assassin is derived from the Arabic Hashshashin, describing medieval caravan raiders based in Alamut. See that article for details of the group.


In its most common use, assassin has come to mean someone who kills (assassinates) people selectively, usually for political reasons. The immediate motivation of an assassin may be money (in the case of a hit man[?]), personal belief, orders from a government, or loyalty to a leader or group. Assassins are distinguished from snipers, or other soldiers who may employ the same methods, in that the latter are engaged in declared war between nation-states. The distinction blurs when a sniper, soldier, or spy is given a specific target, or if the orders come through unofficial channels. Terms such as "death squad" came into use to describe such unofficial killing.

The definition of an "assassin", as with "spy" or "terrorist", is politically loaded, and most commentators do not believe it has an objective definition.

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Employed to promote policy

It has been common to the politics of most cultures to use strategic killings as a tool of policy, in particular to win or avoid wars, and paid killers have always been felt necessary to this practice.

Political killings are thus usually referred to as "assassinations" as it is difficult to distinguish motivations (money or loyalty, usually some of both being involved) for a clandestine act, or "covert action[?]", in the parlance of military intelligence.

Profit motive

Individually, too, people have always found their reasons to arrange the deaths of others through paid intermediaries. The term "hired killer" or "hitman" is most often used to distinguish an assassin with no political motive or group loyalty, killing only for money.

Entire organizations have sometimes specialized in assassination as one of their services. Besides the original Hashishim, the ninja clans of Japan were rumored to perform assassinations. In the United States, Murder Incorporated, an organization with ties to the Mafia, was formed for the sole purpose of performing assassinations for organized crime.

Political motive

As there are few or no assassins who would kill friends or family strictly for money, it is argued, most could be said to have a political motive, or at least some significant inhibitions based on political or personal loyalty.

Before a United States executive order by President Gerald Ford in 1976, the United States federal government, in particular its Central Intelligence Agency, trained, hired, and employed assassins. The ban in 1976 came "following revelations by the Church Committee of CIA involvement in planned or actual assassinations of, among others, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, Chilean President Salvador Allende, Dominican President Rafael Trujillo, and Che Guevara." (Human Rights Watch)

It was deemed at that time that the liability of engaging in this activity led in general to a reduced level of personal security for elected leaders of democratic countries, who are in general much more vulnerable to retaliation. President Ford himself had been the target of an assassination attempt, by a member of the Charles Manson Family[?], although her motives were not deemed to be financial or political. The still-controversial assassination of President John F. Kennedy thirteen years earlier in 1963 may also have been a factor in President Ford's executive order.

Moral high ground

Beyond this practical concern, there was the issue of moral equivalence: no state that deliberately trained, hired, sanctioned or harbored an assassin operating outside the rules of war could reasonably expect support even from its allies when caught--particularly those allies suffering "terrorism" against civilian targets, also outside the rules of war.

For democratic nation-states to claim to be better rulers than their less democratic opponents, they could not seem to be employing any assassin against leaders of political movements--thus acknowledging inability to compete with their leadership ideologically--a fatal weakness for any democratic government.

The public pose of democratic governments in general, with the notable exception of the state of Israel, was to disdain "trial, conviction, and death by intelligence." (Anonymous US military officer).

Assassination as military doctrine

The general view among most military analysts is that assassination has little utility as a military tactic. There is a belief that military and political systems are resistant against the loss of individuals and killing targeted individuals does not reduce the general ability of the military to fight. Moreover, assassination contains the risk that it will eliminate the political and military leaders who can negotiate and conduct a surrender, making it more difficult to achieve a military victory.

Killers by proxy

However, the practice of training, hiring, and harboring assassins remained a common practice of many democratic governments and most undemocratic leaders through the 1990s. The School of the Americas, operated by the United States at Fort Benning, Georgia, trained many individuals from Latin American nations in the exact techniques that were no longer legal for Americans to employ. Israel employed weapons from the United States to attack specific individuals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who it believed sponsored suicide attacks. An assassin could be armed, trained, hired, hidden and harbored--but not openly and directly--by a developed nation.

Also, as CIA spokesman Bill Harlow asserted in 2001, "The CIA has never turned down a field request to recruit an asset in a terrorist organization." Such groups are known to execute people in custody, attack civilians, and employ banned weapons, raising the issue of whether the CIA or other nation-state military intelligence agencies recruiting them are morally liable for these actions, especially if they are committed after recruitment.

Executions in custody

Current "international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as U.S. military and police doctrine, flatly prohibit executing anyone in actual or effective custody or targeting anyone who is not a combatant. To flout this prohibition during armed conflict would be a war crime." (Human Rights Watch, September 20, 2001).

Just another soldier?

However, during the 2001 Afghanistan War[?], local troops equipped, fed, and in some cases paid by the United States executed prisoners in their custody -- without sanction -- raising the question of moral and legal liability for this.

Some questioned whether the United States had avoided employing its own troops simply to avoid taking casualties -- and over-exposing its opponents, the Afghan Taliban[?], to atrocities from its Afghan Northern Alliance[?] allies, their bitter enemies. The issue in general got little attention.

Patricia Zengel, in "Assassination and the Law of Armed Conflict", 1991, is summarized by Calder as concluding "...that there is no longer any convincing justification for retaining a unique rule of international law that treats assassination apart from other uses of force."

This conclusion is controversial, obviously, and rarely stated in public. The debate on the definition and use of the term "assassin" is inseparable from the similar debates surrounding freedom fighter, terrorist, guerilla, spy, saboteur, provocateur[?], double agent[?] and other terms which are commonly used to describe players in asymmetric warfare. It is only seemingly neutral when no loyalty or political motive is claimed or assumed, and only money motivates.

See also: List of assassins, List of assassinated persons, Hashshashin, assassination market, asymmetric warfare, terrorism, espionage.

External links


Assassins is also the name of a musical by Stephen Sondheim; see Assassins (musical).



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