Assassination as defence strategy

One of the mysteries of military history which I am unable to decipher is why assassination was so uncommon.

In theory, it should be possible (and at least a worthwhile option) to threaten an aggressive leader with assassination in case he attacks one's country. The legend of Gaius Mucius Scaevola is a rare example of this actually being used as an option.

I understand assassination was frowned upon between kings; they effectively banned it in their collective interest. To resort to it as a tool in a crisis would not have helped, since he outrage about the act would only have added enemies and would have diminished options for exile.

Yet why did societies not involved in this not come up with much more assassinations while facing aggression by a power with centralised power and possibly an entire ruler's family to aim at?

Why do errorists wage a campaign aimed at scaring and killing randomly, instead of executing an assassination campaign against foreign political opponents? There are hundreds of warmongers, think tankers, politicians, war profiteer CEOs to aim at - it's impossible to protect them all. This mystery is even deeper since the U.S. is already waging an assassination campaign against some of its enemies - which for this reason don't need to fear any additional retaliation at all.
OK, maybe the point of errorists isn't to 'win' by forcing their enemy into passivity, but to keep the troubles going. Still, why aren't assassination attempts against entire ruling elites the normal reaction to aggressions?

Are motivations of defenders too primitive for such aimed action, is assassination too frowned upon, is it too difficult to pull off and the smart-enough ones prefer to not risk their lives?

Would it be possible to establish assassination as a strategic deterrence strategy for a small power?

Could a series of almost-assassinations with intentional duds or intentionally non-lethal dosages serve as a warning when an international crisis heats up? Could this be enlarged by aiming at economic targets instead of natural persons alone? What would it take to become credible in this regard other than successful mock assassinations?

Could such a deterrence strategy be widened towards prevention and preemption? Imagine warmonger politicians dying of heart failure and genius generals dying in car crashes.

Maybe this could be done less conspicuously with character assassinations; the same people likely do something which the public would disapprove off - maybe visits by high-priced escorts?

All in all, I wonder why deterrence and defence are so very much military-centric, instead of aiming more directly at the real troublemakers (the aggressive powers that be) rather than their proxies (the attacking troops).

The conclusion's line of thought should not be alien to long-time Defence and Freedom readers.


  1. You mention economic targets. I'm not sure if you're referring to killing 'captains of industry' or a campaign of sabotage, but an example of the latter is Nelson Mandela and Spear of the Nation. They determined that South Africa's critical vulnerability was its economic dependence on foreign capital and foreign trade, and so undertook a campaign of sabotage against economic and government targets - but they were to be infrastructure-related and not human-related. Ultimately this was a failed technique as the Apartheid government controlled the messaging (and portrayed Spear and the ANC as communist and Soviet-backed organisations), and it turned out that South Africa could withstand losing foreign capital and trade when sanctions were applied.

    Gandhi previously had tried a different tack in India with his self-sufficiency movement, aimed at forcing the British to negotiate by hurting their foreign trade, and particularly their textile industries. Again, this wasn't decisive.

    As for assassination, I only see it being useful in a civil war, or one between neighbouring states with porous borders (Israel comes to mind, with its campaigns against Hamas, Hezbollah etc). Otherwise, it is very difficult to infiltrate/exfiltrate assassins. Again, Israel serves as an example, with the spectacular fallout following the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010.

    1. To spend thoughts about exfiltration of assassins is ridiculous when the alternative is to send hundreds of thousands into the meatgrinder.

      Economic targets may have already existing influence on their government, or powerful politicians may have vulnerable economic interests. I suppose this is still more close to those who make the war / not war decision than are conscript armies or potentially bombed city populations.

      Why bother with the masses if one could go for the interests of the few who really count?

    2. If you can assassinate without being found out (suspected but not confirmed) then there can be few repercussions. If your assassins are caught (whether dead or alive), then you open yourself up to retaliation, which could include invasion and war – the very things the technique was supposed to avoid. So if the alternative (hundreds of thousands in the meat grinder) is a possible consequence of a botched plan, then it is not ridiculous to consider exfiltration of assassins. In fact, it’s critical, as the whole point is to create favourable change at minimal cost.

  2. What modern country would let the death of their leader at the hands of a enemy stop them from doing whatever they want to do? I think it may depend if it is a war for survival or a political statement you want to make. 9-11 hit a economic and political target but didn't get the people who attacked it all of what they wanted. Sure they proved that the US could be hit and it hard. But I think all they really did was make the US wake up to the fact that a war had been going on for awhile.

    1. The point of the blog text was to not care about "the country", but about its rulers.

  3. As you say, rulers dont like rulers being targets, because that makes them targets.
    Personally, I always suggest killing the enemy leadership and their families as an opening move in any conflict.
    For people like us its easy, maintain and independant flight to target MPs, Quangocrats and their family

    For people like The Peoples Revolutionary front of the thirteen colonies, its less simple, but no more difficult.
    The US is governed by a president and 23 Cabinet Officers
    Thats 24 men and women with wifes, husbands, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends ect.
    Killing the president, hard.
    Killing his favourite primary school teacher, college professor, bowling buddy, very easy.
    His nieces kindergarten teacher, really really easy.
    Add in 535 congressmen and you have thousands targets.

    Theres no point killing a bus load of me, no one important gives a toss if I live or die, but kill a few teachers of children who's parents are senior judges, and you'll cause chaos.
    Kill ten and everyone in the federal government will get a phone call at 9am the next morning from the headteacher of their childrens school, "We've put them in a taxi and sent them home, best wishes".

  4. to shape a country in terms of foreign policy this may have merit, esp the mock assasinations, targeting of hawks etc.

    im not sure if a modern military would much be vulnerable to assasinations, even of its genius, its not the dog in the fight, its the fight in the dog

    for every glamourous CEO you have dozens of toiling underlings making them look good.

  5. Reinhard Heydrich is a well documented case of assassination of an important leader by a foreign supported resistance movement.Lidice shows how the death of one such human can lead to an escalating death spiral. Hard kill of leaders is possibly less effectice than soft kill by slander and gossip with paparazzi exposure and threatened blackmail.
    Instead of killing al Quaida leaders, filming them drunken with a bottle of alcohol or during a homosexual love session would do much more harm.

  6. Infiltration really is the main problem. An assassin would need to be able to either obtain a visa or sneak across a border, and then be able to avoid suspicion. It's eminently doable by an actor with extensive resources (though the U.S. failed utterly with Castro), but your average suicide bomber or AK-armed guerrilla is simply not up to the task. As F. pointed out, this seems far less a problem in intrastate conflict, so it's somewhat surprising no president of Columbia has been offed in such a way.

  7. By attacking the rulers of the mob, the ruler deciding for this strategy might get into focus - might be looking more pleasent to send troops and let them get the return-kicks...

  8. For assassination to work you need your opponent either to explode without a leader or the leader to be replaced with another who is a more favorable towards you. Organized succession limited the likelihood of the first option.

    Monarchs usually followed same policies as their fathers and in democracies power tend to move inside ruler's party to a similarly minded politician if the ruler is killed.

    Mock assassinations require that the target has a suitable character.