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kim jong nam
Kim Jong Nam

Whatever the reason, the physical elimination of the enemies of the State is a practice that countries either use regularly or in extreme cases. The so-called license to kill is granted to some intelligence agencies only. Mossad, CIA, SVR and FSB have it, and so do the French DGSE and the British MI6 from time to time. Other intelligence agencies, such as the Italian AISE or the German BND are not given this kind of “authorization”.

We’re talking about “democratic” countries, because authoritarian regimes don’t need to grant the permission to kill opponents. They just do it. Just look at what happened to Kim Jon-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Who are the targets

Terrorist, opponents, enemies and, obviously, traitors are the targets. The latter are an all time favorite, especially if you’re a former KGB, because a double agent takes along with his persona a wealth of information, names and circumstances that he sells to please the country that is hosting him. The deserter reveals the networks of informants, takes entire spy rings down and his revelations often lead to the deaths of several people. Hence his punishment, even if the traitor has retired and has ceased to be a threat.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal

The traitors

The killing of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the recent attempt to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia fall within the category of the so-called “traitors to punish”. The use of chemical or radioactive substances to poison the victims is a classic of Eastern European, or former Soviet regimes. One of the most famous cases is the murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Ivanov Markov, killed in London in 1978 with a ricin-filled dart. This is more than a trademark.

We could point out the fact that such a blatant and recognizable mode of action easily leads to identifying both perpetrators and instigators. But this is precisely what they want you to know. These regimes want to make sure you know who’s behind a murder so that it is both a warning and a clear message to the traitors: sooner or later we will come after you because any betrayal shall bear (often deadly) consequences. Dioxin, poison, plutonium, nerve agents are the vehicles, if not the brand, that willingly identifies executors and instigators.

There are often also political reasons for an attack on a traitor, as is probably the case for Skripal. Vladimir Putin supported such an evident attempt to gain the consensus of the nationalist fringes in Russia just two weeks before the March 18 elections. Putin’s spokesman sarcastically thanked Theresa May for helping Putin win the vote.

The consequences

Any blatant act such as the attack on Skripal inevitably leads to diplomatic falls outs: expulsions, retaliations, echoes of Cold War and what not. However, we should not forget Vladimir Putin is a former KGB. The expulsion of diplomats can titillate public opinion, but despite the political consequences, operations on the ground are not impacted. Once an intelligence agent that works/worked under cover in an embassy (a cover that did not prevent from being spotted by the local counterespionage) is expelled, another one will replace him. This is the case for both the Russians and the British.

There is also another less publicized rule. Hostile intelligence agencies that fight on the ground, as do the British MI6 and its Russian nemesis the SVR (and the military intelligence agency GRU), also need to communicate. Although they rarely cooperate, they still need to get messages across to the other side by bypassing the political channels. This is always the case. So, while both Russian and British agents are being expelled, others will replace them inside the embassies in the near future.

vladimir putin
Vladimir Putin

The British mistake

In the case of Sergei Skripal the MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, committed a series of mistakes. Skripal is a former GRU Colonel and an MI6 informant who was identified and convicted to jail time in Russia. In 2010 he was swapped with 10 Russian agents that the UK had set free. However, Skripal was responsible for the dismantlement of the GRU spy network in the UK. His betrayal had serious consequences, hence the need to make him pay.

It would have been wise, and usually is a standard practice, that such an individual obtain a new identity and disappear from the public view so that he cannot be tracked down by his former partners. Instead, Sergei lived in Salisbury under his real name and without any form of protection. He was easy to find and to target.

Another imprudence was linked to the fact that his daughter Yulia often traveled between Russia, where she lives, and the United Kingdom. Also in her case, no precautions were taken, nor was she controlled when she landed in London. Had there been more controls, one could have noticed the lady carrying radioactive or poisonous substances. It was way too simple for the Russians to set up the assassination attempt.

Although Sergei Skripal’s past is shrouded in mystery – his son, one of his brothers and an ex wife were all murdered – there is no reason to believe his former employers were not involved in his elimination. The paradox is that his own daughter was involved in the operation against her dad because she was the one who delivered the toxin in his home.

Who conducts the eliminations

GRU, SVC and FSB all have the know how to conduct dirty operations. It is likely that the intelligence agency were the betrayal took place will be the one carrying out the op. For Litvinenko it was probably the FSB, while for Skripal it could have been the GRU, in whose ranks we also find the Spetsnaz Special Forces.

The British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, claims that Vladimir Putin was the one who gave out the order to eliminate Skripal. Indeed this could be the case, because any operation abroad can have political consequences, hence the need to involve the highest political levels.


The CIA also has a dedicated department to special operations, which include the physical elimination of terrorists. This structure was recently reinforced after the landing of Donald Trump at the White House and the appointment of Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA. Pompeo’s recent move to the State Department, along with the promotion of Gina Haspel in Langley points to an increase in the CIA’s dirty operations.

Under George W. Bush Jr. the CIA focused on illegal extraordinary renditions, that relied on black sites, interrogation centers in foreign countries where alleged terrorists or opponents to complacent regimes were abused and tortured. Barack Obama instead opted for killing terrorists with drones. Donald Trump has resurrected Rambo and wants to kill terrorists instead of arresting them.

Different Presidents have different ways to authorize the elimination of a terrorist. Obama watched as the SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden. Trump could grant the CIA a limitless license to kill. If this were the case, Gina Haspel would be the right woman in the right place. Haspel was involved in the management of the Black Sites and of the abuses that followed and would have no objections to act as she is told.

The CIA usually relies on the Navy SEALs for these kind of operations or on the operational and logistical support of the forces part of the Stay Behind network that included Italy before Gladio was unveiled.

Infinite spy wars

There are no exact figures on how many former spies or dissidents have been eliminated by the Russians. This is because the physical elimination of a person isn’t necessarily linked to delivering a message to others in his same position. However, we can assume the Russians, more than anyone else, have a tendency to get rid of their enemies.

Under this respect, Russia and the United States behave in the same way. The only difference being their target: the CIA strikes terrorists, while the SVR, FSB and GRU have a much wider audience of potential targets. In both cases, human rights are not a constraint, as the US have shown in Guantanamo or in their clandestine interrogation centers or as the Russians treat opponents or traitors who are imprisoned, killed or made to vanish.

Some ethics

There is still some room for ethics in the dangerous and ruthless world of spies. There is no mercy if you betray. However, if you are caught by your enemy, the behavior is different. There is a certain degree of fair play among colleagues. An agent that spies on behalf of his government can be arrested and put in jail, but never eliminated. This is a form of respect for the fact that you are acting in the best interest of your country. And when the next prisoner swap comes along, you shall be exchanged in return of other enemy agents.

Sergei Skripal was indeed part of a prisoner swap, but he had betrayed his own country. He was used in the swap because he was still viewed as an asset (otherwise the Russians would have killed him instead of imprisoning him), but this did not extinguish his guilt.

In 2017 Russian counterespionage has identified or arrested around 500 spies. Vladimir Putin’s public praise to his security services revealed the news. These are people without a face, whom we know nothing about: who they were, who they worked for, what they did and what they were interested in. Only those directly involved know. Nobody likes the hype around this type of news: the country that uncovers the spies realizes there has been a breach in its national security, while the country the spies worked for realizes that a mistake was committed by one of its informants or agents for them to be identified.

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