Assassinations and the Erosion of the Rules-Based Order

New normal: rescuers work at an apartment in Beirut where Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed in a blast on 2 January. Image: Bilal Jawich / Alamy

If a drone were ever to shoot dead a UK Cabinet minister in the royal box at Wimbledon, a Gulf potentate at Ascot, or a Chinese dissident in the stands at Wembley Stadium, we might look back at the 10 incremental steps that got us there and wonder why we let them happen when the West was still the dominant global force.

Assassination by nation-states used to be thought of as exclusively the domain of despots and rogues, but two significant moments in the past few weeks went largely unremarked.

First, Ukrainian ‘law enforcement sources’ told the BBC that Ilya Kyva, a former MP, had ‘been liquidated using small arms’. Earlier in 2023, Kyva had been convicted of high treason but had fled to Russia, where the assassins finally caught up with him. ‘Yes, we can confirm Kyva is no more. This fate will befall other traitors of Ukraine and puppets of Putin’s regime’, observed the spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence.

And second, the head of Shin Bet – the Israeli security service – allegedly vowed to eliminate Hamas everywhere, including in Turkey and Qatar. So here we have nation-states seemingly announcing assassinations. This is something new (Step One). Furthermore, both countries are allies of the West, the supporters of the much-vaunted ‘rules-based international order’.

Both Ukraine and Israel would doubtless respond that they are at war and that their actions are covered by the right of self-defence and the Laws of Armed Conflict. They would point to the many Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State ‘high-value targets’ killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan, the tribal areas on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, Iraq and Syria during the so-called Global War on Terror. The invention of drones made these attacks possible (Step Two).

Such killings had to be tested for proportionality, necessity and imminence of the threat. They also took place in areas where the rule of law did not operate – that is, where law enforcement authorities either did not exist or could not reasonably take the suspect into custody.

There has never been much speculation about which country has been responsible for the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years

The killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force – an influential division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – in 2020 by a US Reaper drone was defended because the US regarded the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. However, that killing felt different. It was not in the mountains or in the desert but at Baghdad International Airport, where a functioning Iraqi government operated (Step Three).

The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 took place inside Pakistan, not in the lawless tribal areas but in the garrison town of Abbottabad. The Obama administration calculated that it could not share details of bin Laden’s location with the Pakistani authorities. However, it was – in theory at least – a kill or capture operation rather than an assassination, although the capture element never seemed very likely. This aspect makes it Step Four.

One could argue that announcing assassinations is only a tiny advance from what has been happening of late. When Russia’s Military Intelligence Service, the GRU, tried to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the denials by the Russian government were deliberately feeble – just enough to provide ‘implausible deniability’ while also sending a clear message to any other Russian considering defecting to or spying for the West. Implausible deniability is Step Five.

Israel never went to great lengths to deny the assassinations of the members of Black September who attacked the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Operation Wrath of God killed at least 11 of the terrorists. Nor has there ever been much speculation about which country has been responsible for the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years. Appearing to give a Western ally a free pass is Step Six.

By contrast, the British government does not conduct assassinations. In Operation Foxley, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) hoped to kill Adolf Hitler during his daily walk from the Berghof, but the whole affair was half-hearted and never reached fruition. The SS leader Reinhard Heydrich was killed in Prague by Czechoslovak soldiers with the support of SOE. However, Operation Anthropoid was authorised by the Czechoslovak government in exile in London. It is not clear whether British ministerial approval was ever required, sought or given. Since the Second World War, there have been rumours of British plans to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, but no evidence of serious planning (let alone ministerial approval of them) has ever been presented.

The mixed messages on assassination buttress the view among emerging powers and the Global South that the West is hypocritical

However, it could be argued that the August 2015 killing of two British nationals by a Royal Air Force drone was a departure from this long-held tradition. Prime Minister David Cameron justified it on the basis of self-defence because of the threat of their planning to murder UK citizens. The first government-approved killing in modern times by the UK is Step Seven.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concerns in September 2023 that India might have been involved in the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June, a diplomatic row ensued. The case appeared to be escalating until the US announced that it had thwarted an assassination plot against another Sikh separatist and added that it had taken the matter up with the Indian government ‘at the most senior levels’. An irritant for India may have been not the lack of judicial authority in Canada, but rather the country’s seeming unwillingness to curtail the activities of Khalistani militants on its soil. Assassination out of frustration with judicial processes is Step Eight.

When Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly by the Saudi government, there was a huge outcry (partly due to the savagery of the killing and the Turkish recording of it) which severely affected Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West for several years until various factors restored Riyadh’s geopolitical importance. Sidestepping moral outrage for political convenience is Step Nine.

It would certainly be hard to tell the Israelis that Hamas leaders in Qatar should be free to continue their comfortable lives unmolested, with no chance that they will be arrested and prosecuted for their presumed knowledge of the 7 October 2023 outrage. Harbouring terrorist suspects is Step Ten.

The mixed messages on assassination buttress the view among emerging powers and the Global South that the West is hypocritical and that the ‘rules-based international order’ is just a tool of Western geopolitical dominance. Individually, each of the 10 incremental steps did not seem significant, but collectively they have led to a deterioration in the political and moral conduct of international relations. They also lead to the false assumption that the capacity to conduct assassinations abroad is one of the essential capabilities of being an aspirational global or regional power.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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