Of course, this form of secret and sometimes personalized assault has been going on since the beginning of time, however it seems that it’s now back in favor with many governments. Sometimes it is in retribution for an actual or perceived insult. Sometimes the reasoning is just not clear. The attempt to kill Sergei Skripal is certainly not clear. Similarly, the disappearance and possible killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, also seems to lack logic, though there’s obviously more behind each of these mysteries than is immediately apparent. But that’s just the point. Killing a person for past actions or perceived past crime – or merely a slight – seems absurd to supposedly civilized people.
The problem is that individual assassination is no more illogical than the mass killing justified in the process of war. The difference is hard to argue from a moral standpoint, but it has been done repeatedly in history – justified by various political explanations and excuses. In the end, similar justifications have used forever by leaders around the world. English and French sovereigns, as well as others of similar power worldwide, have executed in various fashions political competitors, traitors, spies and all manner of real and conveniently characterized individuals charged with criminal behavior. This latter charge is one of the most frequently used in condemnation of purported acts. Henry VIII used it to behead Anne Boleyn.
There has been an interesting development in the modern era involving foreign individuals caught during peacetime in espionage activities. These people are generally placed in prisons. Eventually, they are exchanged for others imprisoned for similar activities in the country they came from or for which they originally were working. There has been a new element added recently of an increase in assassination attempts worldwide. In some instances, the killing is high profile. That has been the case in the removal from power of leaders in so-called less developed areas of the globe. Certainly, the deaths of the uncle and half-brother of the current leader of North Korea falls into that category. Recent incidents involving the former Russian intelligence officer in Salisbury, England and the Washington Post columnist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have pointedly indicated an increasing disregard for accepted, if artificial, norms.
To understand today’s bloody evolution, it is important to look to the past in each specific case. The attempted killing of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury seems unnecessary simply because he had already been arrested, imprisoned, and eventually exchanged for another Russian officer captured by the Brits. The problem is that Skripal was viewed by Moscow as continuing to cooperate with the British intelligence services by aiding them in assessing current covert information that they were gathering on Kremlin operations. This is what made him a continuing target. His old MI6 case officer, Pablo Miller, also was living in the small community of Salisbury. This was taken as evidence that Skripal was continuing to work with British intelligence, contrary to the original exchange agreement. This infraction of the accord required a strong message be sent by the GRU that such activities would be punished. It was a message to all current and future exchanged defectors. The action worked even if the operation itself was a failure.
The case of Jamal Khashoggi is even more complicated. To begin with the Washington Post contributor is still considered by Riyadh to be a Saudi citizen, his legal permanent residency in the U.S. notwithstanding. Khashoggi himself, has had a long-time mixed relationship with the Saudi ruling circle. (The latter is extremely large and competitive as the founder of this line, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fathered forty-five legitimate sons by twenty-two recognized mothers who represented the existing major Arabian tribes. These sons have added to the line directly five hundred princes who now have created a total of 4,000 people of royal blood.) The Khashoggi family, though of no royal hereditary connection, have been a favored family since the 1930’s -40’s when Jamal’s grandfather became one of the personal physicians to Abdul Aziz.
Jamal Khashoggi’s negative commentary on recent Saudi political issues followed a complicated earlier period when he became involved with the Moslem Brotherhood and its style of political Islam. His close friendship with Osama bin Laden in earlier years also made him a subject of interest even when he was an advisor to Prince Turki al Faisal, when he was the head of Saudi intelligence. While this new Khashoggi case of possible assassination may seem unusually complicated, it is simply an example, in a particular Saudi form, of what exists in similar situations worldwide – and has for generations.
The Skripal incident and the Khashoggi affair are just two of the most recent cases involving attempted or actual political assassination. The original writer of the book “The House of Saud,” David Holden, Chief Correspondent for the Sunday Times, was murdered as he left Cairo airport in December 1977. No one ever doubted it was a political assassination, but the perpetrators were never found. There are always underlying reasons why these all too frequent deadly affairs occur. In any case, in a world where power is frequently vested in uncontrolled or uncontrollable instruments and individuals, there are unexplained violent deaths.