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. 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 deaths.
Thus, it is not surprising that Appleton argues, “The impact of assassinations on America and the World is incalculable,” 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. 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 number.)
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 arenas.
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 assassinations.
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 targeted.
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.
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 Point.
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.
 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: www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3805013,00.html [Hebrew]
 Sheldon Appleton, “Trends: Assassinations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 64:4 (Winter 2000): pp. 495–522.
 Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn, “The Political Consequences of Assassination,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52:3 (June 2008): pp. 385–400.