India is the latest member of a growing assassination club

India is the latest member of a growing assassination club


India has started using homicide to advance its international and domestic agenda

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(Web Desk) – Last June, Nikhil Gupta opened his phone and sent a video he had received to his contact. It showed a man slumped over the wheel of his van, outside a Canadian gurdwara. He had been shot 34 times.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, cross-border murders have returned as a tool of statecraft.

That man, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was just one of Gupta’s targets, police allege. And as Gupta wrote to his contact: “We have so many targets.”

According to US prosecutors, Gupta was looking to arrange the murder of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a New York-based lawyer and leader of the Sikhs for Justice organisation. He’s still alive.

Investigators in Canada and the United States believe that Pannun and Nijjar, both leaders in Sikhs for Justice, were targeted for organising a global referendum for an independent Khalistan — a push to split Punjab from India, turning it into an independent Sikh state.

While the Canadians have yet to make an arrest in Nijjar’s killing, Gupta was picked up in the Czech Republic on US request in June. An indictment filed in New York alleges that Gupta had tried to hire a hitman to carry out Pannun’s murder — but he actually reached out to a police informant and, in turn, an undercover officer.

If these allegations are substantiated, they reveal India’s extraordinary entry into a club of nations that use homicide to advance their international and domestic agenda and show how political assassinations have come back into vogue — and are no longer the exclusive domain of the world’s superpowers.

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.

“There is impunity,” said Agnès Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International. “It will increase if there is no reaction from the international community, if there is no condemnation from the international community, if nobody is ever prosecuted — those are the ingredients for the continuation and perpetuation of those criminal acts.”

Callamard, who led an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s use of assassination, says the stage is set for these targeted extrajudicial killings to get a whole lot worse.


Cuban leader Fidel Castro smiles as he holds up a newspaper on April 23, 1959, displaying a headline that details the discovery of a plot to kill him.

Political assassinations on foreign soil are, by just about any read of international law, illegal. And by diplomatic convention, they are a cardinal sin — and potentially even an act of war.

A fear of the consequences and a low assessment of the benefits kept most countries out of the assassination game for much of the 20th century. The few that engaged in these targeted killings adopted their own set of internal rules to decide who to kill, when, where, and how.

During the Cold War, the world’s two superpowers used assassinations — though for very different purposes.

“The Soviets now apparently resort to murder only in the case of persons considered especially dangerous to the regime and who, for one reason or another, cannot be kidnaped,” a 1964 CIA memo reported. By and large, the Soviet Union limited its killings to its own citizens who criticized the regime from abroad; in the Mexico City home where Leon Trotsky was murdered with an ice pick in 1940, a framed poster shows the faces of the Kremlin’s enemies, disappeared and murdered at home and abroad. But the Soviet Union made exceptions: German lawyer Walter Linse was abducted from American-occupied Berlin and killed in 1953.

The Americans tended to reserve murder for world leaders. Under the CIA’s assassination programme, documented in the “Family Jewels,” foreign leaders deemed under the sway of communism were frequently targeted for murder. Some plots, such as the plan to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, were failures. Other leaders, such as South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, were killed in the melee of US-backed coups before they could be assassinated. When these plots were revealed, they were subject to a scathing investigation by a US Senate select committee known as the Church Committee.

“[S]hort of war, assassination is incompatible with American principles, international order, and morality,” the committee concluded. “It should be rejected as a tool of foreign policy.” President Gerald Ford agreed and codified a prohibition on political assassinations in an executive order in 1976.

For the most part, the assassination game was reserved for the world’s great powers. There were exceptions. Iran is thought to be behind nearly two dozen successful killings on foreign soil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And Tehran faced few consequences for it—France even pardoned an Iranian hit squad after they were arrested for attempting to kill Shapour Bakhtiar, a former prime minister, in 1980. (Iran successfully killed Bakhtiar in Paris a decade later.)

North Korea staged an ambitious, but botched, 1968 raid on South Korea’s Blue House, with an aim of killing President Park Chung-hee. Pyongyang is also believed to be responsible for the 1997 murder of defector Yi Han-yong, also a nephew of Kim Jong Il.

But perhaps the country that has ingrained assassination into its foreign and security policies the most intently is Israel. From its very founding, Israel used targeted killings to take out Palestinian leaders and Nazi war criminals. But Israel generally forbade operations on friendly soil. Things changed on Sept. 5, 1972, when the Palestinian militant group Black September launched a well-organised and deadly assault on the Israeli Olympic team during the Munich Games.

After that, an Israeli group is believed to have killed — or tried to kill — roughly two dozen Palestinian militants and leaders thought to be directly or indirectly responsible for the Munich attack. Ditching Israel’s previous commitment not to carry out murders on European soil, the assassinations occurred in Italy, France, Greece, Cyprus, and farther afield.

These assassinations were designed to be “noisy,” one Mossad operative told Ronen Bergman, the author of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. “A genuine assassination, from close range, that would evoke fear and trembling, a deed that, even if Israel denied having anything to do with, it would be clear that an Israeli finger squeezed the trigger.”

Heading into the 21st century — with the Soviet Union gone, the CIA still forbidden from conducting lethal operations, and Israel committing more seriously to a political solution with the Palestinians—targeted killings seemed to be out of fashion. But things changed.

The Second Intifada and the 9/11 attacks opened the door for a whole new era of political assassination.

A US congressional authorisation in 2001 for the use of “all necessary and appropriate force” against those deemed responsible for 9/11 — a list of those deemed responsible remains, more than two decades later, classified — sanctioned the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in Iraq in 2020, among many others.

Death now came from the skies, making it far less risky for the killers. Despite the prohibition on assassinations still on the books, leaked documents on the US drone programme, provided to the Intercept by National Security Agency analyst Daniel Hale, show that the US military took out at least nine “high-value individuals” in Somalia and Yemen from 2011 to mid-2012. Similar drone programs have operated throughout Africa and the Middle East in recent decades, on top of those conducted under US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The US government contends that these attacks do not constitute assassination, per se, but that they are a legitimate use of military force, authorized by the 2001 congressional authorization.

Israel’s renewed assassination campaign turned to the leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. In 2004, it dispatched a helicopter gunship to take out Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killing nine bystanders in the process. The assassination provoked an unprecedented condemnation at the United Nations Security Council, although a resolution condemning the killing was vetoed by the United States.

More recently, it expanded its assassination program to eliminate Iranian nuclear scientists, even killing those who were not actively working on Tehran’s weapons programme.

In Rise and Kill First, Bergman draws a line between Israel’s targeted killing programme and the US-led global war on terrorism — and then closes the loop. “The command-and-control systems, the war rooms, the methods of information gathering, and the technology of the pilotless aircraft, or drones, that now serve the Americans and their allies were all in large part developed in Israel,” he writes.

Bergman estimates that, in the decades prior to 2000, Israel conducted some 500 targeted killing operations. During the Second Intifada, he writes, that number doubled. After that and up to 2018, he adds, there were at least another 800 operations. Those thousands of assassination operations killed scores, both guilty and innocent.

In recent weeks, reports have emerged that in the next phase of its war, Israel intends to escalate its killing programme again, targeting Hamas leaders outside of Gaza — most likely in Qatar and elsewhere.

“The fact 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, that clearly does not help in establishing the ground rules against extraterritorial killings,” said Callamard of Amnesty International.

On Jan. 2, a series of explosions hit a Hamas office in a Beirut suburb — reportedly the result of drone strikes. The strikes killed Saleh al-Arouri, a member of the group’s senior leadership. Several other Hamas officials died in the attack.

Another big development occurred in 2000: the ascension of Vladimir Putin.

Under his leadership, while Moscow has generally kept to the old Soviet standard of killing only its own citizens abroad — as well as citizens of neighboring countries that it considers ethnically and historically tied to Russia, such as Ukraine — its tactics have become increasingly brazen. The 2006 poisoning of defector Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive isotope and the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, are prime examples.

But Russia has also proved just how easy it is to get away with murder. While it faced a slew of condemnations and sanctions for the attempted poisoning of Skripal, a 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that Western intelligence agencies secretly believed Russia was responsible for a myriad of other targeted killings for which Moscow was not even directly accused, let alone reprimanded for.

Rarely are there actual arrests made for these kinds of killings, even as they have expanded to countries with advanced intelligence and law enforcement agencies. There are suspicions that these countries are sharing tactics and resources to evade Western investigators.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian dissident living in exile in New York City, is a survivor of at least two serious assassination plots. According to US authorities, gunmen hired by Iran were dispatched to New York with orders to, allegedly, capture and return her to Iran in 2021 but were foiled by police. Another team was dispatched in 2022 with alleged orders to kill the writer but was again apprehended.

“The guy who actually got arrested in front of my house in Brooklyn, with [an] AK-47, was part of an Eastern Europe criminal gang,” she recounted at last year’s Halifax International Security Forum. “So the reality is the dictators are helping each other and backing each other to oppress not only their own people but oppress people outside their own borders as well.”

Whatever barriers to these kinds of aggressive actions that used to exist appear to be gone. States such as Iran, already facing crushing US sanctions, may simply have nothing left to lose.

North Korea shares that position. 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 International Airport. It is widely believed that Pyongyang ordered the murder.

Initially, the cost seemed to be quite high; it contributed to the United States’ decision to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and opened a rift with its ally Malaysia. But the consequences faded: Then-US President Donald Trump hosted an extraordinary summit with the previously isolated leader the following year, while Kuala Lumpur continues to help Pyongyang evade international embargo.

But even for states looking to preserve their international reputation, the costs of these kinds of assassinations are clearly quite low. There was little question that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a blogger and critic of the Saudi royal family, was carried out at the behest of Riyadh. The CIA attributed Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to a 15-person hit squad dispatched on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even still, Trump demurred: “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

Turkey, adamant that the Saudi state be held accountable — and unswayed by an opaque internal investigation and subsequent trial conducted by Riyadh — pushed for the United Nations to probe the murder.

Callamard, then the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, delivered a scathing report, slamming the world’s failure to hold Saudi Arabia to account. Five years after his murder, four years after her report, Callamard declared that little had changed and that “the path to justice for his killing remains fully blocked.”

But with a lack of consequences, and with even champions of the international order deploying targeted killings to advance their foreign policy, the club of assassination nations has only grown. India appears to be the newest member. Beyond the killing of Nijjar in Canada and the plan to assassinate Pannun in New York, Pakistani intelligence believes India has also targeted at least two Pakistani residents, according to documents obtained by the Intercept. A separate Indian memo, subsequently published by the news outlet, purportedly instructed Indian consulates in the West to step up this “sophisticated crackdown scheme.”

Pakistan may be equally culpable. Karima Baloch, a human rights advocate from the impoverished Pakistani state of Balochistan, was found dead in Toronto in December 2020. Canadian police say there is no evidence of foul play.

While there is no clear evidence that Beijing has made a similar leap to lethal repression, the Chinese Communist Party has certainly stepped up its efforts to surveil and silence its critics abroad in recent years.

“I think we are in an international moment where governments are absolutely intolerant of anyone who could disrupt the image, the narrative,” Callamard said.

In Callamard’s report, she called on the United Nations to develop a dedicated investigative team to study targeted killings, akin to how it investigates the use of chemical weapons. She stresses that we are still unaware of just how prevalent these targeted killings are, nor do we have a full suspect list of who commits them.

“For me, an international instrument that will have a mandate to investigate some of those cases will send a very, very strong signal that this cannot be tolerated,” Callamard told Foreign Policy. “The point I was making then, and continue to make now, is that our ability to pick on those trends, to investigate specific cases, I think, will go a long way toward preventing the worst from happening.”

Those recommendations have sat largely ignored. And no wonder: At least two states on the UN Security Council regularly use targeted killings to advance their domestic and international agenda.

Instead, the world deals with assassinations on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes the assassins are arrested and prosecuted, but those who gave the order escape responsibility. Countries may try to defend their sovereignty on a bilateral or diplomatic level, but Callamard says this is no way to administer international law. “To me, it is not an effective way of creating red lines and of imposing an international rule of law over these killings.”

She warns that the world has gotten further away from dissuading targeted killings. Instead, there has been the normalization of “global warfare without any kind of limits.”

Whether conducted by a hit squad, poisoned toothpaste, or an armed drone, extraterritorial assassinations have become a tool for security policy, geopolitics, and domestic repression. Dissidents, journalists, and refugees are feeling this reality perhaps even more so than militant and political leaders.

Far from making the world safer, Callamard argues, this kind of killing only contributes to global insecurity. And it is countries like the United States and Israel that have helped make it possible.

“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,” Callamard said.