Lesser powers also use cross-border assassination as a tool to execute policy

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By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, June 29: Cross-border political assassinations, allegedly carried out by States, are no longer the exclusive preserve of the world’s superpowers. Lesser powers are also resorting to it now, to achieve their domestic goals such as the elimination of critics, dissidents, separatists and terrorists.

Political assassinations on foreign soil are illegal at the very least and are even considered an act of war. For long, fear of consequences had kept even major powers out of the assassination game. But during the Cold War, the US and the USSR began to use assassinations as a substitute for a hot war.

The Americans tended to reserve murder for leaders of defiant countries. The US tried to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. But following severe criticism in America itself, President Gerald Ford banned political assassinations by executive order in 1976.

But after the 9/11/2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York by Al Qaida, US restraint about assassinations disappeared and the US Congress sanctioned the use of “all necessary and appropriate force” against those deemed responsible for 9/11. It was under this that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011 and military leader Qassem Suleimani in Iraq in 2020. 

The US began to use drones rather than gunmen and justified these overseas killings saying that they were “legitimate use of military force, authorized by the 2001 congressional authorization.

The Soviets resorted to assassinating those who were a danger to the regime and resident abroad. The Soviets limited their killings to Soviet citizens who criticized the regime from their perches abroad. The earliest example of this was the killing of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940 by an agent of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s Vladimir Putin perfected the art of assassination on foreign soil. In 2006 his agents poisoned defector Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive isotope and attempted to poison Sergei Skripal, a former double agent.

Lesser Powers

Gradually, other countries also subscribed to assassinations.

Justin Lin in his piece in Foreign Policy dated January 4, 2024 had this to say about this change: “Iran and North Korea have both been accused of brash foreign murders in recent years. Pakistan, a likely target for India’s foreign assassination program, is suspected of carrying out similar murders. Israel, one of the most frequent employers of extraterritorial targeted killings, appears to have renewed its own assassination program to take out senior Hamas leadership. At least three senior figures in the militant group have been killed in recent days.”

In a landmark case, Saudi Arabia killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was a carping critic of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS).

Iran was allegedly behind as many as 24 successful killings on foreign soil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Justin Lin says. An Iranian hit squad killed former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar in Paris in 1991. Bakhtiar was a bitter critic of the Islamic government of Iran.

However, it was Israel which made assassination abroad a highly efficient tool of foreign policy. From its very founding, it had taken out Palestinian leaders and Nazi war criminals. After the attack on the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israel sanctioned the killing of 24 Palestinian militants thought to be directly or indirectly responsible for the Munich attack. These killings occurred in Italy, France, Greece, Cyprus, and even farther afield, Justin Lin says.

Israel also used helicopter gunships to take out leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel assassinated even Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran. According to The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (2018) written by Ronen Bergman, Mossad had carried out hundreds of targeted killings since 2000.

In 2017, Kim Jong Nam—half-brother to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, was attacked with a deadly nerve gas while transiting through Kuala Lumpur airport. But the then US President Donald Trump made friends with North Korea and the assassination ceased to matter.

Silence enveloped the murder of Khashoggi because the US made up with the Saudis to rope them into the Abraham Accords with Israel.    

In the allegations against it are proved, India will be the latest member of the club which believes in carrying out killings of separatists and trouble makers abroad. In 2023, Canada and the US alleged that Indian intelligence officials were behind the assassination of the Canada-based Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Vancouver on June 18, 2023 and the bid to assassinate US-based Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York.

Both Nijjar and Pannun hailed from Punjab in India but were US citizens. Canada and the US argued that India had no right to kill or try to kill their citizens. India reacted saying that Canada had not given any substantive evidence of India’s involvement in the killing of Nijjar and argued that the killing could have been the result of local gang warfare.

In the case of Pannun, the Indian government said that it was working on the case and that it was reforming its system. The US government, keen to keep India on its side in its quarrel with China, said that India was cooperating.     

Meanwhile, four Indian nationals were arrested in May this year over the fatal shooting of Nijjar in June 18, 2023. They are Amandeep Singh, 22; Kamalpreet Singh, 22; Karan Brar, 22; and Karanpreet Singh, 28.

In the Pannun case, Indian national Nikhil Gupta, suspected of being involved in a plot to kill Sikh separatist, was extradited from the Czech Republic to the US and is being tried in New York.

The Guardian of April 4, 2024, said that India had allegedly killed almost 20 persons on Pakistani soil since 2020 using unknown gunmen. The allegations also suggested that Sikh separatists in the Khalistan movement were targeted.

“According to Pakistani investigators, these deaths were orchestrated by Indian intelligence sleeper-cells mostly operating out of the United Arab Emirates. The rise in killings in 2023 was credited to the increased activity of these cells, which are accused of paying millions of rupees to local criminals or poor Pakistanis to carry out the assassinations. Indian agents also allegedly recruited jihadists to carry out the shootings, making them believe they were killing infidels,” The Guardian said.

The Guardian quoted two unnamed Indian intelligence officers as saying that the focus shifted to separatists and terrorists living abroad after the Pakistani terrorist attack at Pulwama in Kashmir in 2019. A suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistani terror group Jaish-i-Muhammed, had targeted an Indian convoy killing 40 paramilitary soldiers.  

Sikh separatists of the Khalistan movement were also targeted by Indian agents both in Pakistan and the West.

The tone for aggressive action against separatists and terrorists was set by the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who declared in an interview to a TV channel: “If terrorists run away to Pakistan, we will enter the country to kill them.”

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesman stated that Pakistan has long been the epicentre of terrorism, organised crime, and illegal transnational activities. “ To blame others for its own misdeeds can neither be a justification nor a solution.”

Pakistan may be equally culpable, Justin Lin alleges. Karima Baloch, a human rights advocate from Balochistan, was found dead in Toronto in December 2020. Canadian police said there was no evidence of foul play, but her family had demanded a more thorough investigation. Advocates pointed out the striking similarities to the death of fellow Pakistani exile Sajid Hussain in Sweden just months earlier.

Justin Lin quotes Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as saying that if there is no condemnation from the international community, if nobody is prosecuted, such targeted extrajudicial killings will get a lot worse.

 “The fact is that we have almost normalized targeted killings of so-called terrorists, and that it has become a quasi—if not completely—justified means of conducting legitimate war on terror,” Callamard said.

Far from making the world safer, Callamard argues, this kind of killing only contributes to global insecurity.

“The justification that has occurred over the past 20 years for many violations, in the name of terrorism and counterterrorism, has really greatly weakened our capacity to denounce, to condemn in a strong voice,” she asserted.  


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