In recent weeks, the United Kingdom’s relations with Russia have been strained by allegations of a nerve agent assassination attempt on UK soil. The geopolitical consequences of these events have proven severe, but are by no means a new phenomenon. In this piece, Simon Schofield follows up on his previous CBRN analysis and examines some of the recent history of the world’s most deadly weapons and their use in covert assassination operations.
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4th March 2018. It’s a Sunday, and the sun has finally resurfaced to do battle with the “Beast from the East”, the most severe snow event in the UK for years. It is bright, and compared to the last few days the weather in Salisbury is pleasant and warm. A man sits in Zizzi’s – a popular Italian chain restaurant – enjoying a hearty meal with his daughter, who is visiting from Moscow and had landed in Heathrow the day before. When the last dregs of bitter Italian after-dinner coffee have disappeared, the pair decide to walk off their meal with a casual stroll past the local library, across the River Avon and to the park at the Maltings. Most people on a Sunday stroll along this route might encounter a young family desperately rushing to buy groceries before the shops close, or an elderly lady walking her dog before it gets dark. However, Sergei and Yulia Skripal encountered something rather different. They were found unconscious, in a catatonic state on a bench in the park having been exposed to Novichok; a Russian-made nerve agent. The fallout of this botched chemical weapon assassination attempt would go on to trigger a diplomatic incident between the United Kingdom and Russian Federation, and the largest tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats in 30 years.
The Skripals are just the latest in a very long history of operations using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) methods to strike from the shadows at unsuspecting political enemies, inconvenient dissidents, designated traitors, and other threats. The CBRN family of weapons is particularly appealing to would-be assassins for a number of reasons. Firstly, the sheer deadliness of these weapons makes them very useful, although, as the Russians are now finding with the survival of the Skripals, they are not perfectly reliable especially when using largely untested compounds. Secondly, the suffering these weapons inflict, and the macabre spectacles they produce sends a definite message beyond the victim, the psychological terror inflicted is sure to plump any tyrannical regime’s dread reputation. Thirdly, when used adroitly, CBRN weapons can offer a degree of deniability and anonymity, although again this is not the case when using experimental weapons which can very specifically be traced to a particular geographic area, national government, and/or specific weapons programme.
In 1996 Khaled Meshaal – now the leader of Hamas – was promoted to head of its political bureau. This represented a meteoric rise through the group’s ranks of such magnitude that it caught the attention of the Israeli Government and sent alarm bells ringing. In his first term as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu authorised a daring operation to take him out during a visit to Jordan. This presented particular risks because Jordan had – relatively speaking – some of the warmest relations with Israel in the region, and was one of the few Arab states to maintain full diplomatic relations.
Scientists at the Israel Institute for Biological Research, located in Ness Ziona, a rural city not far to the South of Tel Aviv were given the task of choosing and producing the poison that would finish Meshaal off – ideally in a way that was guaranteed to kill, and offered plausible deniability to the Israelis. They settled on levofentanyl, a synthetic opioid and painkiller. Around one hundred times stronger than morphine, levofentanyl is an analogue of fentanyl which is itself currently at the centre of controversy as reported overdoses skyrocket on both sides of the Atlantic. Some outlets have wrongly reported levofentanyl as a nerve agent, but as an opioid it differs in important ways which have tactical and political implications. Firstly, nerve agent exposure produces symptoms within seconds of the agent either absorbing through the skin or being inhaled, whereas levofentanyl, once injected, would take hours to produce its full effects. Secondly, symptoms of nerve agents are distinctive. Our nerves send signals using acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. When the acetylcholine has delivered its message to the next nerve cell it is broken down by an enzyme, aptly named acetylcholinesterase, allowing muscles and organs to relax. Nerve agents interfere with this enzyme, preventing the neurotransmitter from being broken down, meaning any signals sent along affected nerves are sent continuously. This results in the victim completely losing control of their body and its functions, producing muscle jerks, involuntary salivation and tears etc., and seizures similar to epilepsy. Ultimately a lethal dose of nerve agent produces death, largely by respiratory failure. As one can imagine, this is a macabre and painful way to die, which is just about the furthest thing from subtle or dignified.
The plan was elegant in its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication, and was extensively drilled by the Mossad operatives, with carefully planned logistics and preparations underpinning the operation.
A levofentanyl overdose on the other hand is more akin to a massive heroin overdose, creating drowsiness and eventually slowing breathing to a stop. It would look like natural causes, as if someone had died in their sleep. Thirdly, nerve agents are easily identifiable in tests and, as the Skripal saga currently demonstrates, relatively easy to attribute (albeit in the Skripal case there is not yet a ‘smoking gun’ piece of evidence). Levofentanyl on the other hand would not show up in standard toxicology tests – it would only be identifiable if specifically tested for. The reason for meandering on this seemingly esoteric tangent is that a nerve agent is clearly most useful in a situation where one is looking to make a statement – inflict a painful, grisly and very public death in a very obvious way in order to send a message. Levofentanyl, dubbed ‘the potion of the Gods’ (See Ronen Bergman’s ‘Rise and Kill First’ pp. 454) by some in Mossad, on the other hand is a poison of choice for those looking to operate in the shadows, where killing the target is much more an end in itself, rather than a means to a wider end of ‘sending a message’.
In the case of Meshaal however, Mossad, hoping to operate in the shadows, ended up with a glaring spotlight shone on it in what is still remembered as a spectacularly bungled operation, as recounted in ‘Rise and Kill First’. Mossad decided that the best delivery method would be an ultrasound, needle-less technology similar to a cutting-edge method of vaccinating children. The plan involved one Kidon agent (from the Hebrew for ‘spear-tip’ or ‘bayonet’; the Mossad department responsible for targeted killings) would walk past Meshaal on a crowded street and jostle him, as many city-dwellers do every day. Whilst doing this he would reach, with the ultrasound device taped to his palm, and spray the poison on the back of Meshaal’s neck. At the same time a Kidon accomplice of his, dressed as a tourist, would open a well-shaken can of soda next to him, masking the hiss of the poison delivery. Should Meshaal look around to see the source of what had just sprayed in his ear, he would see a sheepish tourist with a now-half empty can of soda looking apologetic. The plan was elegant in its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication, and was extensively drilled by the Mossad operatives, with carefully planned logistics and preparations underpinning the operation. Unfortunately a double suicide bombing at the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market place in July, followed by a triple suicide bombing at the nearby Ben Yehuda shopping promenade in September sent the Israeli government into overdrive, demanding a swift and authoritative response to the attacks. Netanyahu authorised the planned Meshaal operation and Mossad, in its haste, agreed to execute as soon as possible, glossing over some of the important early steps in the process.
Whilst Mossad answer directly to the Prime Minister, and Netanyahu had the authority to sanction operations himself, standard practice was to do so in concert with the Defence Minister. However, due to the speed with which this one was authorised, Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai supposedly had no knowledge of the hit on Meshaal, meaning the decision lacked a crucial safeguard from the military. Additionally, having recently reconnoitered Amman with falsified European identities with which they were intimately familiar, returning with the same identities so soon would have raised suspicion. As such the five operatives entered Amman under assumed Canadian identities, with which they were less well versed.
The Hamas commander had been poisoned, but his assailants had been well and truly rumbled.
For the first five days the operatives awaited the ‘go’ order, but each time it was called off because conditions were not right – either Meshaal did not arrive as expected, or there were too many potential witnesses in the designated attack area. After this, two Mossad lookouts aroused suspicions of a worker in the shopping centre in which the hit was to take case – this further ratcheted up the urgency and further caused operatives to rush.
In the end, the fate of the operation, meticulously planned for months, would be dashed against the rocks by the simple, random impulse of a child. On the 25th of September 1997, Meshaal stepped out of his car and made his way past the Kidon lookouts, en route to Hamas’ Amman office. His daughter, deciding that she wanted to accompany her father rather than stay in the car with his driver and be taken to school, got out and ran to Meshaal, calling after him. A lookout noticed, but could not signal the operatives, who were out of sight without communications devices (a contingency in the event they were caught). As the operatives swooped in to deliver their payload, the driver, running after the little girl, saw a Mediterranean-looking man in the garb of a tourist raise his arm above Meshaal’s head. At the crucial moment, Meshaal, hearing his daughter and driver shouting after him turned his head to see what the commotion was about and instead of delivering the poison to the nape of his neck, the Kidon operative sprayed into Meshaal’s ear. The Hamas commander had been poisoned, but his assailants had been well and truly rumbled.
The Israelis luck would fail them twice more before the day was done. At the time of the attack a Hamas courier called Abu Seif saw Meshaal, his daughter, and his driver running in one direction and what appeared to be two tourists running in the other. Reading the situation, Seif sprinted after the fleeing tourists and noted down the license plate of their getaway car before commandeering a vehicle of his own to follow them. Tracking the Israelis to the spot where they were abandoning their car, Seif descended on them loudly announcing they had attempted to kill a Hamas commander. There was a physical struggle, but Seif wasn’t much of a match for two trained Mossad operatives who promptly knocked him to the ground and began to strangle him.
At this moment a former Palestinian guerrilla and present Jordanian security operative Saad al Khatib passed the brawling men in a taxi. Intervening before Seif was killed, Khatib gave the men the option of either coming with him – under arrest – to the police station, or taking their chances with the growing angry mob. What followed was a humiliation for the Israeli state, who were forced to hand over the antidote to save Meshaal, who by now was in hospital in critical condition, as well as releasing a number of prisoners – including Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin – in exchange for their operatives.
The Malaysian Incident
Kim Jong Un – North Korea’s supreme leader – had a problem. In a truly modern interpretation of the classic dynastic intrigue story, Un needed to deal with his half-brother Kim Jong Nam, eldest son of their father and previous regime leader Kim Jong Il. Nam had been the heir apparent for much of the 90s and early 00s but fell from grace after ideological disagreements with his father – Nam advocated for greater social and market liberalisation – and an unfortunate incident in Tokyo. Nam and his family were arrested in Narita airport, having tried to enter the country on false passports in order to visit Disneyland. The calamity resulted in the family being deported to China amid much scandal and Kim Jong Il was forced to cancel a planned trip to Beijing to avoid the ensuing embarrassment. This resulted in Nam effectively going into exile in Macau.
He appears to have been warned about the risk of chemical fratricide, given that he was travelling with a dozen bottles of atropine in his bag. Atropine is a known remedy for nerve agent poisoning, which blocks acetylcholine receptors, thereby preventing the catastrophic effects of the weapon.
Ever since Un ascended to power and took the reins in Pyongyang in 2011 there had been a ‘standing order’ to kill his half-brother Nam. This order was followed fairly swiftly with an attempted hit-and-run attack in 2012, which failed to kill Nam. Some have speculated that the reason for the kill order is because he was a potential successor to Un in the event of an implosion at the heart of North Korean leadership, although others dispute this. Equally possible, as has been demonstrated by Un’s apparent policy of ruthless executions, including putting people to death with an anti-aircraft gun, this is a reflection of Un’s paranoid and somewhat sadistic personality. There was also distinctly Game-of-Thronesian familial politics between the two men. Nam’s mother Song Hye Rim was out of favour in the ruling circles – her sister Song Hye Rang and her niece (Rang’s daughter) Ri Nam Ok defected to the West, which cast suspicions on Rim. In the late ‘90s, despite Il’s affection for Rim, he banished her to Moscow, at the behest of Ko Yong Hui, Un’s mother and bearer of such honourable titles as ‘The Respected Mother who is the Most Faithful and Loyal Subject’. The international playboy, fierce critic of the regime, and son of a woman hated by the Mother of Pyongyang had to go.
At around 9am in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Kim Jong Nam was waiting for his flight back to Macau. Aware of the danger to his life, having written a letter to his half-brother begging for his life in 2012, Nam was travelling under a false name, Kim Chol. He appears to have been warned about the risk of chemical fratricide, given that he was travelling with a dozen bottles of atropine in his bag. Atropine is a known remedy for nerve agent poisoning, which blocks acetylcholine receptors, thereby preventing the catastrophic effects of the weapon.
Nam stands in the terminal, anxious not to be late for his flight. People are moving all around him, pulling suitcases towards airport shops and departure gates as the hustle and bustle rages around him. Doan Thi Huong – an attractive young Vietnamese lady in a short skirt and a long-sleeved white top reading “LOL” – grabs him from behind and sprays a viscous liquid into his face. She later claims that she has been dared as part of a “prank” by a group of people she is stood with in the airport. The laughing would stop shortly after once she realised she had been duped into becoming an assassin. The liquid is VX, one of the most potent nerve agents yet concocted and so thick that it has the consistency of motor oil at room temperature. Nam clutches his face as the liquid absorbs through his skin, his eyes begin to burn and he seeks out help at a nearby information desk, telling staff what had happened and that he felt dizzy. As the receptionist calls for medical assistance, Nam slumps in a chair as the nerve agent begins to take full effect; twitching and losing control of his body. Shortly after Nam is taken by airport staff to the airport clinic, and subsequently passing away in the ambulance as he is rushed to hospital.
Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB/FSB agent in the Soviet Union and then Russia, specialising in interdicting organised crime groups. During his time in this role he uncovered worrying connections between organised crime in the Soviet Union and government officials, including intelligence and law enforcement officers. After multiple attempts to raise this corruption internally, Litvinenko came to the conclusion that the whole system was beyond redemption. The final straw came when he was ordered to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky. This order was so egregious to Litvenenko that he appeared alongside colleagues from his FSB unit, and held a press conference making public this order. Litvenenko’s motivations for doing so were to bring attention to the head of the FSB, who, alongside his faction of allies were pursuing ‘their private and mercantile goals…settling of scores with undesirable people’.
This corrupt official in whose direction Litvenenko was pointing the figure went by the name of Vladimir Putin. In response to the press conference Putin disbanded Litvenenko’s unit, fired him, and imprisoned him for 8 months. In 2000 Litvenenko and his family fled to Britain and seek political asylum, with assistance from a grateful Berezovsky.
This would just be the beginning of Litvenenko’s media war on the Kremlin, and over the years he would go on to accuse the Russian Government of being involved in the 1999 assassination of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan, of collaborating with terrorists on the Moscow Theatre hostage crisis and Beslan School siege, and even that the FSB had trained al Qaeda’s present leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Dagestan.
Litvenenko’s revenge on Putin began with the 2002 publication of the book Blowing up Russia, which made a number of damaging revelations against the Russian security establishment, most saliently that the 1999 Russian apartment bombings were a false flag operation organised by Putin’s FSB in order to provide a casus belli to launch the Second Chechen War. It is largely acknowledged that this crisis led to Putin’s meteoric rise and transition from the shadow realm of intelligence to centre-stage in politics.
This would just be the beginning of Litvenenko’s media war on the Kremlin, and over the years he would go on to accuse the Russian Government of being involved in the 1999 assassination of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan, of collaborating with terrorists on the Moscow Theatre hostage crisis and Beslan School siege, and even that the FSB had trained al Qaeda’s present leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Dagestan. Even more luridly, Litvenenko made an allegation in July 2006 that Putin was a paedophile, in response to his having kissed a young boy on the stomach at a chance meeting with tourists at one of the Kremlin Squares.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Putin appears to have been the assassination Anna Politkovskaya – a journalist who was vociferously critical of Putin’s presidency and administration. In what would turn out to be dark foreshadowing she drank poisoned tea in 2004, but survived. However, in 2006, on Putin’s birthday (probably by coincidence) – Politkovskaya was shot dead. Litvenenko accused Putin, and this seems to have sealed his fate (See ‘Death of a Dissident’, Alexander Goldfarb and Marina Litvenenko).
On the 1st of November 2006, Litvenenko met with Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi -two former KGB officers – in the Millenium Hotel’s Pine Bar in London’s wealthy Mayfair neighbourhood. The exact nature of the meeting was unclear, but Lugovoi and Litvenenko knew each other as part of Berezovsky’s entourage in the ‘90s and it is understood he had proposed going into business with Litvenenko back in 2004. Litvenenko ordered a green tea, in which his compatriots politely decline to share.
In the days following this meeting, Litvenenko experiences extreme diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain, declining to the point that he could not walk unassisted. At this point his wife Marina calls an ambulance and her husband is rushed into hospital, where he continues to decline, losing his hair and drifting in and out of consciousness. Showing signs of radiation poisoning, hospital staff test him with Geiger counters, and are left bemused when no gamma radiation is detected. Samples of his blood and urine are dispatched to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) for tests, which show no gamma rays, but an unusual spike in the spectroscopy. Coincidentally the baffled scientists are overheard by a man who worked on Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, who immediately recognises the spike as being the unique radiation signature of Polonium-210.
Whilst emitting almost no gamma radiation, Polonium-210 does emit huge amounts of alpha radiation. Alpha particles cannot pass through skin, which had two deadly uses for Litvenenko’s assassins. Firstly, because it made impossible to detect in the hospital, as the Polonium was inside him and couldn’t break through the skin where it could be identified. Secondly, because it cannot pass through skin, the Polonium was emitting Alpha particles which could not be expelled, sending them smashing around Litvenenko’s insides causing increasing damage.
On the 22nd of November Litvenenko succumbed to the radiation poisoning, ending more than three weeks of intense suffering. The autopsy showed Litvinenko had ingested more than 5 times the lethal dose of Polonium-210.
The Bulgarian Umbrella
Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian writer and thinker. He didn’t know it, but he also had a codename – ‘Skitnik’ (‘Wanderer’ in English). This was the name at the top of the very long Bulgarian Secret Police file on him. Disillusioned with his works being the constant subject of censor scrutiny and suppression, and himself being the subject of government pressure and recruitment attempts – a gifted writer makes a helpful propagandist after all – Markov moved to Britain, where he could more freely criticise his home government and their Communist ideology.
Being on the other side to the Communists in the Cold War, this was something Britain was all too supportive of, and he found himself promptly employed by the BBC World Service.
The defection had not gone down well with the Bulgarians, who complained to the KGB in a 1975 letter that “he insolently mocked the truth about the rights of Bulgarian and Soviet citizens to travel abroad”. In 1978, a Bulgarian delegation went to Moscow to discuss ‘specific joint operations’ against ‘hostile émigrés’ with their KGB colleagues. Eventually they assigned “Agent Piccadilly” to do the job; a Danish citizen of Italian origins called Francesco Gullino, with the reputation of a ‘petty international criminal’ in the antiques world, and a spy and assassin for the Bulgarians and Soviets.
An autopsy would later turn up a tiny pellet, around 1.5mm wide, in his thigh. Composed of iridium and platinum, the pellet had holes drilled in it to carry approximately 0.2mg of liquid.
It was the 7th of September 1978, and also coincidentally the birthday of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhikov. Markov, on his way to the BBC World Service office at Bush House heads to Waterloo Bridge, walking northbound. He approaches the bus stop that usually ferries him to work, checks when the next bus will be arriving and waits. Suddenly he feels a sharp stab in his right leg, like a bee sting or an insect bite. He turns around to see a stock man stooping to retrieve a dropped umbrella. The man apologised in a foreign accent and quickly ducked into a taxi and disappeared. His journey into work is an uncomfortable one – the pain isn’t fading. He complains to his colleagues at the BBC about the pain, and hours later develops a high fever. The next day he is rushed into hospital, where doctors suspect septicemia, having located a puncture wound in his leg. Unable to help him, however, Markov would die three days later.
An autopsy would later turn up a tiny pellet, around 1.5mm wide, in his thigh. Composed of iridium and platinum, the pellet had holes drilled in it to carry approximately 0.2mg of liquid. Tests found no trace of poison, and scientists were left having to identify the poison by process of elimination -eventually leading them to conclude that Markov had died of ricin poisoning. Ricin is a deadly toxin produced in the seeds of the castor oil plant. The toxin inhibits protein synthesis, preventing the body from making vital proteins, causing inflammation, bleeding, vomiting, diarrhoea, hypovolemia, shock, and organ failure.
This assassination spawned multiple copycat attempts, including an embarrassingly bungled attempt by the Apartheid-era South Africa to kill exiled members of the African National Congress using a poison tipped umbrella. This unfolded as a litany of errors, including one of the assassins accidentally poisoning himself, making the delivery device too long – risking that contact with the pavement would deploy the poison into concrete – and having to then crudely modify the device with a pair of hair-curling tongs. This botched farce was abandoned after it came clear that one target was rarely home, and the other had actually moved house without their knowing, and the umbrella was ultimately thrown into London’s River Thames.
Another tribute to this assassination was the 2012 attack on an unnamed man in Hannover, Germany, who was stabbed with an umbrella by a slim man with a sticking plaster on his face. The victim eventually fell into a coma and died a year later of suspected mercury poisoning.
For the purposes of this article, I won’t focus on the many famous attempts on the life of Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro, as these have already been done justice elsewhere (most notably by the Channel 4 documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro), but it would be remiss not to mention that the USA’s Cuban Project came up with many innovative ways to fell Castro, including chemical methods such poisoning him with LSD and putting Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (which causes tuberculosis) in his scuba gear.
Nuclear Weapons and the caves of Tora Bora
In order to round off our examination of the full spectrum of CBRN assassinations, we must not fail to cover the nuclear portion of the catalogue. There haven’t yet been any serious attempts to use nuclear weapons to assassinate, for obvious reasons including their lack of availability to many, the political ramifications of their use and of course the simple fact that their enormously destructive nature is somewhat at odds with the concept of singling out and killing a single individual.
Despite this, there have been suggestions that tactical nuclear weapons, most notably the ‘bunker buster’ B61-11, was briefly considered for use against Osama Bin Laden while he was hiding in the cave networks of Tora Bora in the months after the Allied invasion of Afghanistan. Although this situation thankfully never came to reality, the future use of such weapons in a similar circumstance cannot be ruled out. In this situation, where a high value target has situated themselves somewhere so remote and hard to reach, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that tactical nuclear weapons are used to eliminate them.
There are a huge number of useful and terrifying chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons in the arsenal of operatives the world over. Depending on the agent used, these offer deniability or drama, swift or slow death, and novel delivery methods to avoid traditional security countermeasures. As technology continues to develop, and political tensions continue to boil in a number of theatres, we can expect to see future history dotted with ever more inventive and unpleasant incidents. It is clear that agencies like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and International Atomic Energy Agency will continue to have their work cut out for them, and dissidents, spies and activists will have reason to live in fear.
Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “Rise and Kill First” by Penguin Publishing Group as part of our research for this article.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
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- Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (Ronen Bergman)
- Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Steve Coll)
- Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Alex Goldfarb & Marina Litvinenko)
- Toxic Politics: The Secret History of the Kremlin’s Poison Laboratory (Arkadi Vaksberg)
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Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Brian Bekkala