Assassination Politics

grarpamp grarpamp at
Mon Sep 26 14:44:34 PDT 2022

The Causes and Impact of Political Assassinations
January 2015, Volume 8, Issue 1
Authors: Arie Perliger
Categories: Terror Behavior , Weapons and Tactics , Individual Terrorist Actors


Political assassinations have been part of social reality since the
emergence of communal social frameworks, as the leaders of tribes,
villages, and other types of communities constantly needed to defend
their privileged status. In the ancient world assassination featured
prominently in the rise and fall of some of the greatest empires.

While many people are familiar with the military victories of
Alexander the Great, few today recall that his ascendance to power was
facilitated by the assassination of his father (an innovative and
talented politician in his own right), who was struck down by a
bodyguard as he was entering a theater to attend his daughter’s
marriage celebrations. In a somewhat more famous incident, Gaius
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE by Roman senators who
increasingly feared that Caesar would revoke their privileges.

In modern times, political assassinations continue to play an
important role in political and social processes and, in some cases,
have a dramatic effect. For example, many argue that the assassination
of the Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in 1995 was a major reason
for the collapse of the peace process between Israel and the
Palestinians.1 It is also difficult to deny the impact of the
assassinations of figures such as Martin Luther King or Benazir Bhutto
on the success of their political movements/parties following their

Thus, it is not surprising that Appleton argues, “The impact of
assassinations on America and the World is incalculable,”2 and that
Americans cite the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the crime that
has had the greatest impact on American society in the last 100
years.3 Nonetheless, despite the apparently significant influence of
political assassinations on political and social realities, this
particular manifestation of political action is understudied and, as a
result, poorly understood.

This article is a summary of a broader study that will be published
later by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) and aims to improve our
understanding of the causes and implications of political
assassinations. It makes use of an original and comprehensive
worldwide data set of political assassinations between 1945 and 2013.
The findings illustrate the trends that characterize the phenomenon
and challenge some of the existing conventions about political
assassinations and their impact.

Data and Rationale
In order to investigate the causes and implications of political
assassinations, the CTC constructed a data set that includes political
assassinations worldwide from 1946 to early 2013. After defining
political assassinations as “an action that directly or indirectly
leads to the death of an intentionally targeted individual who is
active in the political sphere, in order to promote or prevent
specific policies, values, practices or norms pertaining to the
collective,” the CTC consulted a variety of resources, including
relevant academic books and articles, media sources (especially
LexisNexis and The New York Times archive), and online resources, to
identify 758 attacks by 920 perpetrators that resulted in the death of
954 individuals. (Some attacks led to the death of multiple political
leaders; however, the death of “bystanders” is not included in this

This study is guided by the rationale that the logic of political
assassinations is different from that of other manifestations of
political violence. Hence, it is important to understand the unique
factors that may encourage or discourage violent groups or individuals
from engaging in political assassinations. Moreover, it seems
reasonable to assume that these factors vary among different types of
assassinations because in most cases the characteristics of the
targeted individual shape the nature and objectives of the
assassination. Indeed, this study establishes that different processes
trigger different types of assassinations and that different types of
assassinations generate distinct effects on the political and social

General Observations
Although the first two decades after World War II were characterized
by a limited number of political assassinations, the number of such
attacks has risen dramatically since the early 1970s. This is
reflective of the emergence of a new wave of terrorist groups, radical
and universal ideologies operating on a global scale, and a growing
willingness by oppressive regimes to use assassinations as a tool in
their treatment of political opposition. Indeed, while most
assassinations of government officials were perpetrated by sub-state
violent groups, most assassinations of opposition leaders were
initiated by ruling political elites or their proxies. This important
observation supports the notion that a growing number of terrorist
groups see assassinations as a legitimate and effective tool, and that
one of the major obstacles for democratization is the vulnerability of
political opposition.

Additionally, our data indicates that assassinations are not limited
to specific regions or specific time frames. In fact, the opposite is
true. Both regions that are considered politically stable and
economically prosperous, such as Western Europe, as well as regions
that are considered politically unstable, more prone to political
violence, and economically weak, such as sub-Saharan Africa, have
experienced similar levels of political assassinations.

In some regions, however, political assassinations have become
dominant only in the last couple of decades. In South Asia, for
example, 76 percent of the assassinations have been perpetrated since
the mid-1980s, possibly a consequence of the growing instability in
the region during and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And
more than 85 percent of assassinations in Eastern Europe were
perpetrated after 1995 with the start of the transition to democracy
in most Eastern European countries, a process that in many cases was
accompanied by growing ethnic tensions and political instability. In
terms of targets, the data indicates that most assassinations target
heads of state (17 percent), opposition leaders (who are not part of
the executive or legislative branch) (18 percent), and members of
parliament (21 percent). In rarer instances the targets are ministers
(14 percent), diplomats (10 percent), local politicians such as
governors or mayors (5 percent), and vice head of states (3 percent).

Causes of Assassinations
The research findings indicate that, in general, political
assassinations are more probable in countries that suffer from a
combination of restrictions on political competition and strong
polarization and fragmentation.

More specifically, states that lack consensual political ethos and
homogeneous populations (in terms of the national and ethnic
landscape) and include politically deprived groups will face a decline
in the legitimacy of the political leadership and the political system
and an increase in the likelihood of direct attacks against political
leaders. One of the most glaring examples of such a dynamic may be
found in Sri Lanka, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a
group that represents the deprived Tamil minority, organized a bloody
campaign of political assassinations against the political leadership
of the state and the Sinhalese majority from the early 1980s until
approximately 2009. And since these issues tend to be present mainly
in times of electoral processes or of actual violent strife, one
should not be surprised that our findings indicate that election
periods or periods characterized by a general increase in domestic
violence are moments when a country is more susceptible to political

Another interesting finding is that the territorial fragmentation of a
country is correlated with an increase in the number of
assassinations. When a government loses control over some parts of a
country to opposition groups, both sides are more willing to use
assassinations to enhance their influence and to consolidate their
status as the sole legitimate rulers of the polity.

When looking specifically at the facilitators of assassinations of
heads of state, we can identify some unique trends. To begin with, the
polities most susceptible to assassinations against the head of state
are authoritarian polities that lack clear succession rules and in
which the leader enjoys significant political power. This is true even
more so in polities that also include oppressed minorities and high
levels of political polarization. Therefore, non-democratic political
environments that feature leaders who are able to garner significant
power and in which the state lacks efficient mechanisms for leadership
change following an assassination, provide more prospects for success
in advancing political changes via political assassination. This
stands in contrast to democratic systems, in which it is clear that
the elimination of the head of state will have only a limited,
long-term impact on the socio-political order.

Although heads of state represent what could be considered the crown
jewel of political assassinations, lower-ranking political figures
also face this threat. In this study, we specifically examined attacks
against legislators and vice heads of state. Attacks against the
latter are fairly rare and are usually intended to promote highly
specific policy changes (related to areas under the responsibility of
the vice head of state) or to prevent the vice head of state from
inheriting the head of state position. Legislators, on the other hand,
are most often victims of civil wars or similar violent domestic
clashes in developing countries; in democracies they are almost never

To illustrate, no less than 34 Iranian legislators were assassinated
in 1981, when the new revolutionary regime was consolidating its
control over the country. Hence, assassinations of legislators are
almost always a result of national-level conflicts rather than local
ones, contrary to what some may suspect. Lastly, legislators’
assassinations are rarely perpetrated to promote specific policies or
to gain access to the political process. In other words, the
assassination of legislators should be considered more as acts of
protest against an existing political order than political actions
that are intended to promote specific political goals.

One of the unique features of this study, among others, is its focus
on assassinations of political figures who are not part of governing
platforms. Unlike other types of assassinations, the state is
typically a major actor in the assassination in these cases.
Consequently, it should not surprise us that opposition leaders are
more likely to be targeted in authoritarian systems or in weak
democracies, as the political environment in these types of regimes
provides a space for the emergence of an opposition while also
providing the ruling elites tools and legitimacy for oppressive
measures against a “successful” opposition (e.g. Pakistan as well as
many Latin American countries). It is also clear that opposition
leaders are more vulnerable during violent domestic conflicts, when
the number of opportunities, and maybe also the legitimacy, to act
against them are on the rise.

Impact of Political Assassinations
The study provides several important insights regarding the impact of
political assassinations. In general, political assassinations seem to
intensify prospects of a state’s fragmentation and undermine its
democratic nature. The latter is usually manifested in a decline in
political participation and a disproportionate increase in the
strength of the executive branch.

When we looked specifically at different types of assassinations, we
were able to find significant variations among them. For example,
assassinations of heads of state tend to generate a decline in the
democratic nature of a polity and an increase in domestic violence and
instability as well as economic prosperity. The latter may sound
counterintuitive but could reflect the rise of a more open economic
system after the elimination of authoritarian ruler. The assassination
of opposition leaders has a limited impact on the nature of a
political system, but has the potential to lead to an increase in
overall unrest and domestic violence. And assassinations of
legislators are often followed by public unrest (illustrated by
growing anti-government demonstrations) and by a decline in the
legitimacy of the government.

Policy Implications
This study illustrates that most polities experienced political
assassinations at some point in their history. Thus, our ability to
improve our understanding of political processes must also include a
deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of political
assassinations. But how can the findings presented in this study help
us to understand the potential role of policymakers in the occurrence
or prevention of political assassinations?

To begin with, it is evident that governments can promote political
and social conditions that may decrease the prospects of political
assassinations. For example, while governments in polarized societies
sometimes have the tendency to restrict political participation in
order to prevent further escalation in intrastate communal relations,
our findings indicate that this action will actually increase the
probability of political assassinations.

Moreover, in order for electoral processes to become a viable tool for
promoting a productive and peaceful political environment, it is clear
that they are more effective after ensuring the most intense political
grievances have been addressed. Otherwise, electoral competition has
the potential to instigate further violence, including the
assassinations of political figures. The shaping of stable and
regulated succession mechanisms is also highly important, especially
in countries that are struggling to construct stable democratic
institutions. Interestingly, it seems that while theories of
democratization have for a long time prescribed the creation of
institutions as a first step to ensure wide representation, followed
by stable routines and protocols, the opposite order may be more
effective for the promotion of stability and eventually a
liberal-democratic environment.

The findings also indicate that more attention needs to be given to
the safety of the political leaders during instances of violent
domestic clashes or transitions to democracy. Opposition leaders are
most vulnerable in the early stages of democratization, so the effort
to facilitate a democratic environment must also include the creation
of mechanisms to ensure the safety of opposition leaders. This in turn
will enhance the legitimacy of political participation, reduce
polarization, and enhance political stability.

Moreover, although civilian victims naturally attract most of the
public attention during a civil war, this study highlights the need to
evaluate how harm to political figures may be prevented, as this has
significant potential to lead to further escalation of a conflict,
especially when the assassinated figures are heads of state or
opposition leaders.

Lastly, the findings also provide several practical insights for law
enforcement. More than half of the assassins (51.3 percent) had been
involved in criminal activities prior to the assassination. This may
indicate that a group usually prefers one of its veteran members to
perform an assassination, probably because of the high stakes involved
in these kinds of operations and the relatively high level of
operational knowledge necessary to conduct them.

In one extreme example, the leader of the Bangladeshi branch of
Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), Mufti Abdul Hannan, was revealed to
have participated actively in the attempted assassination of Sheikh
Hasina, the leader of an opposition party in Bangladesh and the former
Bangladesh prime minister, in August 2004. Also, because of the
particular risks involved in these kinds of operations, groups may
prefer to expose members who are already known to law enforcement
agencies to conduct an assassination rather than exposing members who
are still unknown to law enforcement bodies. (However, this may be
problematic since the veteran members are often at higher risk of
being under surveillance).

The dearth of research on political assassination represents a crucial
oversight, especially considering the frequency of the phenomenon and
its implications. Our study highlights the major theoretical and
policy implications of assassinations and identifies some promising
directions for further research, with the hope that this unique type
of political violence will be better understood in the future.

Dr. Arie Perliger is the Class of 1977 Director of Terrorism Studies
at the Combating Terrorism Center and Associate Professor in the
Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect
the official policy or position of the Department of the Army,
Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] President Bill Clinton, the main sponsor of the Oslo peace
process, speculated that if Rabin had not been assassinated, peace
would have been achieved in three years. See Atilla Shumfalbi, “Bill
Clinton: If Rabin Would Have Not Been Assassinated There Would Be
Peace Today,” YNET News, September 14, 2009:,7340,L-3805013,00.html [Hebrew]
[2] Sheldon Appleton, “Trends: Assassinations,” Public Opinion
Quarterly 64:4 (Winter 2000): pp. 495–522.
[3] Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn, “The Political Consequences of
Assassination,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52:3 (June 2008): pp.
Related Articles

July 19, 2022
The Relentless Terrorist: A Profile of Muaz al-Fizani

Matteo Pugliese

Real or Imagined: Evidence Concerning the Mental Health-Terrorism
Nexus from Australian Terrorism Trials

Rodger Shanahan

The Buffalo Attack: The Cumulative Momentum of Far-Right Terror

Amarnath Amarasingam, Marc-André Argentino, Graham Macklin

May 26, 2022
Going Viral: Implications of COVID-19 for Bioterrorism

Gary A. Ackerman, Zachary Kallenborn, Philipp C. Bleek

April 27, 2022
The Urgent Need for an Overhaul of Global Biorisk Management

Filippa Lentzos, Gregory D. Koblentz, Joseph Rodgers

A View from the CT Foxhole: Lawrence Kerr, Former Director, Office of
Pandemics and Emerging Threats, Office of Global Affairs, U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services

Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, Kristina Hummel

A New Age of Bioterror: Anticipating Exploitation of Tunable Viral Agents

Stephen Hummel, F. John Burpo, Jeremy Hershfield, Andrew Kick, Kevin
J. O’Donovan, Jason Barnhill

April 21, 2022
Iran Entangled: Iran and Hezbollah’s Support to Proxies Operating in Syria

Nakissa Jahanbani, Suzanne Weedon Levy

More information about the cypherpunks mailing list