There is a lot I could say about the murder of a Saudi reporter in his own nation’s foreign embassy. But it would be venting and of little consequence. So I’m going to dial down on what I’ve learned in a couple of decades of actually studying political assassination and bring that forward as a sanity check for any discourse on the subject. I’ve learned a lot from a deep dive into the history of the CIA’s political assassination entanglements, of both the American and Soviet use of the tactic in Europe following World War II, and of the Russian proclivity for foreign political assassination after the Communist revolution.
But strange as it may seem, perhaps the most relevant historical example for what appears to be developing in Saudi Arabia comes from two examples, one contemporary and one some decades ago. If you have Shadow Warfare I would refer you to chapters 17 which deals with the tactics involved (Targeted Infrastructure Warfare) and 16 (Maintaining Anti-Communist Regimes) which deals with the American motive for ignoring what was going on at the time across the Southern Cone nations of South America. That was a broad move towards authoritarianism and dictatorship so agonizing that it led to targeted political assassinations across Europe and inside the United States itself. And it was all effectively ignored by the Nixon regime simply because the rabid anti-Communist policies of the states involved aligned with the American interests and policies of that time.
Hint – if you mentally substituted “anti-Iranian” policies for “anti-Communist policies” you already know where this is going.
The more contemporary example would be the Putin regime targeting of regime opponents, ranging from expat oligarchs and intelligence officers to reporters, across Europe. I probably should have written in more detail about that in Creating Chaos but while Putin’s domestic record was pretty clear it was less obvious that he would feel enabled to the point that he would export assassination as he is doing now, I was definitely behind the curve on that one.
To cut to the chase, the most common form of political assassination has almost involved surrogates. Following the Soviet revolution, the Communist party had fanatic follows around the globe and on occasion called on them the help move Russians overseas – a Spanish communist was used to eliminate Trotsky inside Mexico.
During the Cold War, American intelligence generally turned to surrogates such as revolutionaries, resistance movement members or exiles for political assassination. Surrogates provide deniability and the common CIA response (as documented by the Church Committee) was that a CIA surrogate might have done the killing, he might have been in contact with American intelligence officers and he might even have used weapons or explosives provided by them. He might even have attended training which included assassination techniques or been given an assassination training manual (two were produced over the years) but nobody gave him the order to murder anyone.
If it happened he and his associates had simply gone “rogue”. In a common example of mirroring, the KGB used the same tactics, however they added the twist of handing off political assassination to their Eastern European partners and East Germany or some other bloc nation’s service carried it out at their own risk.
What differentiates those practices – which carried at least an artificial level of deniability – from today’s murders, is that it appears that the Saudi and Russian regimes have become so emboldened that they actually are using their own people carry out attacks. And then they simply stonewall, essentially defying condemnation or even sanctions. Sufficient facts have already emerged to make that statement for both Russian attacks in Britain and the Saudi attack in Turkey.
In fact in both instances the attacks have been so blatant that even the standard “rogue agent acting on their own” becomes a hard sell. But as the Condor era murders showed, sometimes effectively terrorizing your own citizens and eliminating a free press, even from operating overseas, can be worth the risk. It also must be noted that while surrogates can sometimes exceed their orders, when your own people are involved – whether it’s in kidnapping, interrogation, torture, or murder – what they do has to be within the parameters of their mission brief.
As an example, following 9/11 many CIA officers were stunned by the new orders requiring them do to rendition and essentially participate in torture. Yet they were shown a Presidential directive stating they were to take any and all actions necessary to get information or eliminate threats. Given that cover they did not go rogue, they carried out their mission.
Bottom line, if you use your own people engage in clearly illegal international actions, they expect to go home, they do not expect to be punished for completing their mission and they do not expect to be turned over to any foreign power. Surrogates might go rogue, but your own people go home, eventually. And they are given the assurance that if worst comes to worst, they will ultimately not suffer for completing their mission. Because, if they do, you soon run out of people for such missions.
So far it appears that the American President and the Saudi King are both prepared to “bring in the rogues” in respect to the murder in Turkey, just as Nixon and Kissinger were quite willing to ignore the Condor assassinations and the death squads in the southern cone – in pursuit of their own “strategic goals”.
No doubt it will all serve Trump as well as it did Nixon, as to serving the nation – we all know how well that worked out in developing trust and positive relationships with virtually all our Latin American neighbors (actually it worked quite well with the dictatorships, not so much with the rest).
Its also important to remember that when any nation or group of nations goes down this path – an always tempting one for autocrats – matters generally escalate quickly. In this case, Saudi and its regional allies may well be jelling into a reincarnation of the Condor Alliance in the South America. That risk is made clear in the following news item: