Kill Teams

A short history of the most memorable state-ordered hits in foreign lands.

David Silverman/Getty Images; MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images; DOD via Getty Images; KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images; ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images; CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images; OFF/AFP/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images; MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images; DOD via Getty Images; KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images; ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images; CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images; OFF/AFP/Getty Images


In: Dubai

By: Israel

Year: 2010

The act: On Jan. 19, 2010, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military commander wanted for the killing of two Israeli soldiers and suspected of being the primary link between the Palestinian group and Iran’s Al-Quds Force, checked into the Al Bustan Rotana hotel near the Dubai airport. After leaving the hotel for dinner that night with unknown parties, he returned and was joined in the elevator up to his room by two men — part of an 11-strong team that had come to kill him. Mabhouh was escorted to an empty hotel room where he was reportedly sedated and then suffocated with a pillow. The team made it out of the country safely and the body was discovered the next day.

Dubai police issued arrest warrants for 11 individuals, many of whom were caught on surveillance cameras. It turned out that the assassins had used faked British, Irish, Australian, French, and German passports to disguise their identities. Israel’s Mossad spy agency never acknowledged involvement with the killing, but it was widely assumed to be responsible for the operation. The resulting firestorm of criticism even had some in the Israeli media calling for the service’s head to be fired over the embarrassingly public incident. A number of countries, including Australia and Britain, expelled Israeli diplomats over the use of faked passports.


In: Ecuador

By: Colombia

Year: 2008

The act: For decades, the diminutive and bespectacled Raul Reyes had been the public face of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s largest and most prominent guerilla group, blamed for thousands of deaths over more than half a century. In addition to acting as the group’s official spokeman, Reyes was wanted on a range of charges in Colombia and the United States for offences including murder, kidnapping, terrorism, and drug trafficking.

On the morning of March 1, 2008, the Colombian military received confirmation from a spy that Reyes was near a town called Santa Rosa, just across the border with Ecuador. Planes were sent to bomb the camp followed by commandos who dropped in to recover the bodies of Reyes and 16 other rebels killed during the attack. According to some reports, Reyes may have been fatally wounded by one of FARC’s own landmines while trying to flee the camp.

His killing provoked a diplomatic crisis in the region. The Ecuadorean government and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez protested the violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty. Colombia’s foreign minister at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, maintained that Colombian troops had been acting in self-defense. The successful hit on Reyes was one factor that helped Santos be elected president of Colombia in 2010.


In: Iraq

By: United States

Year: 2006

The act: U.S. authorities were first told about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist operator, by Kurdish intelligence assets in 2001 — but most Americans only became aware of him on Feb. 3, 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the U.N. Security Council to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. He mentioned that the country harbored a deadly terrorist network headed by “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.”

Zarqawi’s Zelig-like journey through the world of terrorism included more than a few high-profile operations — the Jordan suicide bombings of 2005, the Madrid train bombings of 2004, multiple attacks on Shiite worshippers and mosques in Iraq, and the killing of American contractor, Nicholas Berg, also in Iraq.

Zarqawi was often referred to as al Qaeda’s chief operator in Iraq and carried a $25 million bounty on his head, though his actual level of contact with bin Laden and other global al Qaeda leaders was never completely clear. On June 7, 2006, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house where Zarqawi was meeting with other militant leaders. The strike came after coalition forces had spent weeks tracking the movements of Zarqawi’s spiritual advisor, Sheik Abdul Rahman, who also was killed in the blast. Iraqi police and U.S. forces were on the scene shortly after to identify the body and take photos, which were later released to the media.

Zarqawi’s death, at the time, was the most high-profile victory for U.S. forces in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein — but his departure from the scene did little to stop the terrorist violence engulfing the country. Aerial strikes have also been used with deadly effectiveness in northwest Pakistan to kill senior Taliban leaders including Baithullah Mehsud, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, but debates continue over the tactic’s legality and the collateral damage often suffered by civilians.


In: Qatar

By: Russia

Year: 2004

The act: The Kazakh-born Yandarbiyev was one of the central figures in the Chechen independence movement’s turn toward radical Islamism. A former poet and children’s author, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev served as the breakaway republic’s president from 1996 to 1997, after his predecessor was assassinated by a targeted missile. After an electoral defeat, Yandarbiyev was assigned by the Chechen government to the Persian Gulf to raise support for the Chechen independence struggle among other Muslim countries. He eventually severed ties with the Chechen government after calling for a more violent and explicitly religious form of jihad to be waged in the Caucasus. Yandarbiyev was placed on the U.N. Security Council’s blacklist of al Qaeda-related terrorist suspects in 2003.

On Feb. 13, 2004, while driving home from mosque in Qatar, Yandarbiyev’s car exploded, killing him, two of his bodyguards, and seriously injuring his 12-year-old son. The event caused a major diplomatic row between Russia and Qatar, with the Gulf kingdom expelling a Russian diplomat for his alleged involvement in the killings. Two Russian agents were arrested and later convicted of planting the bomb on orders from Russian authorities, though the Kremlin repeatedly denied involvement. (In a bizarre form of retaliation, Russia arrested two members of the Qatari wrestling team a short time afteward and charged them with currency violations.)

The two alleged assassins were eventually extradited to Russia, but in 2005, officials admitted that they were no longer in Russian jails and their whereabouts were unknown.


In: Gaza

By: Israel

Year: 1996

The act: Hamas’s chief bomb-maker and planner of suicide attacks, known as “The Engineer,” knew that his reliance on cellular telephones carried with it the risk of surveillance and sabotage, but — with landline service unreliable in Gaza — he had little choice. The fatal flaw in Yahya Ayyash’s otherwise careful security arrangements was an associate named Osama Hamad, who Ayyash was living with in 1996. In addition to his activities for Hamas, Ayyash worked for his uncle — a wealthy contractor with ties to the Israeli government — and was given a cell phone for business use.

On Jan. 5, 1996, Hamad, according to his own account, got a call on his landline from his uncle telling him to turn on the cell phone as a call was about to come through. A half hour later, Ayyash’s father tried to call the landline but found it wasn’t working. When he called the cell phone, Hamad handed the phone to Ayyash — and 50 grams of high-grade explosives hidden inside the device exploded, instantly killing the suicide bombing mastermind.

It’s widely assumed that the Israeli security service Shin Bet was behind the attack — though, as usual, they never took credit for it. Since Ayyash’s death, the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly angered the Israeli government by naming streets and even their presidential offices after the slain militant.  


In: United States

By: Chile

Year: 1976

The act: On Sept. 21, 1976, a car traveling through Sheridan Circle on Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row exploded, killing Orlando Letelier, who had served as Chile’s ambassador to the United States, foreign minister, and minister of defense under leftist President Salvador Allende — as well as a young American colleague, Ronni Moffitt. Since emigrating to Washington after being released from jail by Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship, Letelier had worked with Moffitt at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank and had become one of the most prominent international critics of the Pinochet regime.

A plastic bomb placed below the car blew a 2-foot hole under the driver’s seat and was shaped to concentrate its blast upwards. A U.S. court ruled in 1980 that the Chilean government was responsible for the killing; the U.S. government even sent Pinochet’s government a $12 million bill for the crime. A number of senior Chilean officials including Manuel Contreras, commander of the powerful DINA secret police, were charged with the crime. In 1987, a former DINA official confessed to having helped orchestrate the bombing. A Cuban exile recruited by DINA confessed in 1991 to having planted the bomb. Contreras was eventually charged in Chile in 1995 and is currently in jail.

Recently revealed documents have reignited controversy over the case: U.S. diplomats had knowledge that the Chilean government was planning an assassination campaign against its enemies in the months leading up to Letelier’s death but did not bring it up with Chilean authorities for fear of insulting Pinochet.  


In: Mexico

By: Soviet Union             

Year: 1940

The act: Exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who had been deported from the Soviet Union in 1929 and settled in Mexico a few years later, had known for years that he had been condemned to death by his archenemy, Joseph Stalin, and that the Soviet secret police, the GPU, was attempting to infiltrate his inner circle. All the same, Trotsky seemed to let his guard down by befriending a young Spanish communist, Ramón Mercader. In reality, Mercader was a Soviet agent operated by his mother — a prominent Spanish communist — and her lover, a high-ranking GPU agent.

After several months of regularly visiting the Trotsky household, Mercader murdered his mentor with an ice pick to the back of the head on Aug. 21, 1940. The dying revolutionary survived for several hours. His supposed last words were: “Please say to my friends I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International. Go forward!” Mercader maintained during his trial that he had acted alone and killed Trotsky out of jealousy because he believed his fiancé was having an affair with the aging communist.

Mercader served 20 years in a Mexican jail for the murder and was then secretly flown to the Soviet Union where he was awarded the Order of Lenin. He worked as an advisor to the Cuban government during the 1970s and died in Havana in 1978. The Soviet Union’s involvement in Trotsky’s death was long assumed in the West but wasn’t revealed to the Russian public until 1989.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.