History Books

The best books on Assassinations

recommended by Michael Burleigh

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder by Michael Burleigh

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder
by Michael Burleigh

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From Julius Caesar to Jamal Khashoggi, assassinations often seem earth-shattering in their consequences. But, as historian Michael Burleigh explains, those consequences are rarely the ones the assassins intended. Here, he recommends the best books on assassinations and the assassins who carry them out, including the role of drones and PR agencies.

Interview by Benedict King

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder by Michael Burleigh

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder
by Michael Burleigh

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Before we get to the books you’re recommending, is assassination ever politically effective and, if it is, are there particular conditions under which it works?

Well, I believe in contingency, and so I think it often has unforeseen consequences. Take the classic assassination of Julius Caesar; the people who killed him were middle aged senators who thought he was going to live a long time—he was only 56—and arrogate more and more power to himself. They saw themselves as acting to defend a venerable republic of several 100 years’ standing. In fact what they did was plunge the Republic into an extremely vicious civil war, which then spread out beyond the Republic into the Empire, leading to the rise of Octavian Caesar, Julius Caesar’s adopted son. After a long hiatus in which he appeared not to want to be an emperor, he acquired all the powers of an emperor and eliminated the assassins who hadn’t committed suicide. It took 13 years, but he tracked the last one down, a poet, and had him killed in Athens. At the end of it all you had a system of imperial rule, and a ruling dynasty. That goes on for several 100 more years in the Western Empire and right down to 1453 in the case of the Eastern Empire. So the assassination had enormous ramifications.

I don’t actually believe the PR of the assassins—that they were acting from these very honourable motives, in line with Romano-Greek traditions—any more than Shakespeare did. That was not the case because, in fact, most early Roman kings were exiled, they weren’t murdered, just sent abroad. So that was all a lie. Then if you look at, say, Brutus, by the time he’s commanding a big army in Macedonia, I think he’s minting coins with his own face on them and describing himself as ‘Emperor’. Of course, ‘emperor’, at that time, meant a distinguished general. It didn’t have all the connotations that it subsequently acquired. But, in any case, hypocrisy doesn’t describe it. Really, when looking at assassinations, it’s the unforeseen consequences of them that interests me more that the fulfilment of immediate, planned objectives.

Would I make an exception for Hitler in my negative view of assassination? Well, there was a relatively neglected assassination plot by Georg Elser, who was a skilled craftsman who built a bomb into the pillar on a podium at an event Hitler was speaking at. Hitler, uncharacteristically, cut short the speech he was making to go and plan the invasion of France. Had he continued speaking, he would have been blown to pieces in November 1939. That would have surely have been a very good thing because, in the period between that event and the June 1944 bomb plot, two-and-a-half million German soldiers died. Then, after the bomb plot, another four-and-a-half million died in the very vicious fighting at the end of the war. Potentially, a lot of lives would have been spared. The trouble is, though, whenever I think about it in the cold light of day, once you start saying, ‘Oh, it’s alright to kill somebody’, you don’t get to choose who gets killed. That’s the point. And if states that are inherently lawless, like Russia, for example, or Saudi Arabia, decide to externalize that lawlessness into the international arena, then anybody can get killed of whom they disapprove. That is happening. So, there is a basic problem in facilely saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good thing if some people got shot?’ Actually, it wouldn’t.

I would divide up assassinations into a few basic types. There are ones that are carried out by agents of the state, of whom the ones I would least like to have been on my case would have been those of the Soviet era. The NKVD were just unbelievably good at assassinating people. The different layers of their cover and their cover stories were just mind-boggling, really incredible. They had psychologists working for them to test whether somebody was likely to, say, accept a gift from a stranger in a bar. So you give somebody a box of cigars or a box of chocolates and see if they eagerly take it. Once they’ve established that is the case, the next box has a bomb inside it, which blows you up.

“It is very hard to decide whether assassins are angry, insane, or entirely rational”

The other type of assassins are people who could plausibly claim, even if they only belonged to small groups, or were even just lone individuals, that what they did was to represent the views of a part of the population. Take the actor John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln in 1865. He was part of a tiny group but, in fact, killing Lincoln was a popular thing among swathes of opinion down in the former Confederate South. Much the same could be said for Yigal Amir, who killed Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He could plausibly claim to represent a strand of religious or nationalist Zionist opinion. Before his assassination, Rabin had been depicted with a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck or in a Nazi uniform. So, Amir was the executive for a strand of Israeli opinion.

Last, but not least, you have people who are, as it were, externalising their miseries. Lee Harvey Oswald is a very, very good example. He was a nobody. He went to Russia for two years and tried to live in the Soviet Union. They sent him to Minsk, where he got married to Marina and worked in a radio factory. They had his apartment bugged, and he and all of his associates were under close surveillance by the Minsk KGB. They wrote a report when he left the country to go back to the States, and it just said that he was a complete nobody, a non-entity. Then, in 1963, after he shot Kennedy, the KGB got into a panic. They got the people in Minsk to send all the files. Everything said that he was a nobody and there was no need to worry about him. But they were very worried that the Americans were going to blame the Soviets for killing Kennedy, when they had nothing to do with it. Oswald was just getting his 15 minutes of fame.

I didn’t want to write a book about conspiracy theories, because that’s a whole different subject. But I had a good look at all the conspiracy theories. It’s very instructive to compare the Oswald story to the 33 attempts to kill Charles de Gaulle, which were elite-level conspiracies by members of the OAS, the Algerian settler terrorist group. The OAS made no bones about conspiring to kill de Gaulle. They had lots of people available to do it. And when they got caught—the French have got excellent intelligence and police services—they confessed and said, ‘Yes, we did it’. Now, there has not been a single person since Kennedy was shot who’s ever said, even on their deathbed, or when pissed in a bar, that they were part of a conspiracy by the mafia or the CIA to kill Kennedy. You’ll never find it. It just hasn’t happened. So, if there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, it was the most watertight conspiracy of human history.

And the clincher is that nobody asks what the conspiracy was behind Oswald trying to shoot General Edwin Walker, the head of the John Birch Society, a few months before he killed Kennedy. Walker was sitting at home one night doing his tax returns in a well illuminated kitchen, and Oswald was outside with the same rifle he used to shoot Kennedy propped up on the picket fence. He took a shot at him, but he didn’t see, because of the light coming from the room, that there was a wooden crossbar in the window, so the bullet deflected and grazed Walker’s arm. At that point, he buried the rifle and took the bus back to wherever he lived, because he didn’t drive. Then he came back by bus, unexcavated the rifle and used it to shoot Kennedy. No one has ever said there was a great conspiracy to kill Walker.

Those are the basic types of assassination. It is very hard to decide whether assassins are angry, insane, or entirely rational, which was something that really fascinated me. People could be all three things at once. This was something that was rather well explored in 1812 when they put the disgruntled trader John Bellingham on trial for killing Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to be assassinated. I was really impressed by the way the judges at his trial took great pains to look into whether he was angry, mad or entirely rational, and they sought the help of psychiatrists who had treated Bellingham, to come to a view.  They had an extended discussion about the question of his culpability and criminal responsibility. Of course, the jury convicted him and he was hanged a few weeks later, as one would expect. But it was very interesting to see how thorough they were when they talked about it, given that these people could hang you for stealing a sheep. They were quite scrupulous.

Let’s get on to the books about assassination you’ve chosen. First up is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. Why have you chosen this?

Forsyth wrote the book after he’d been sacked from one of his jobs as a foreign correspondent. He decided to bash out a thriller in six weeks, which is an amazing achievement. And, interestingly, he took as his plotline something that all the readers in 1971 knew hadn’t happened, because de Gaulle had died in his bed. He wasn’t assassinated. Forsyth—preposterously—insinuates that the French can’t manage even to assassinate their own president and had to hire a professional British shooter, from Mayfair, who, it is rumoured, killed Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. In fact, Trujillo wasn’t killed by a lone assassin at all. The CIA provided some submachine guns, which some local people used to kill him. They went after him because they were plotting to murder Castro and they needed to kill a right-wing, Caribbean dictator for presentational reasons.

The reason I chose this book is that it very much influenced how I wrote my own. Essentially it consists of two interlinked hunting stories. You have the jackal, the assassin, who is stalking de Gaulle. And then you have the police and the intelligence services trying to pre-empt him, stalking him. To make a huge generalisation, for 90% of our 300,000 years as hominids on this planet, we were hunter gatherers. It is very much in our nature, which I think explains why people are so fascinated by assassination. About a third of everything you can see on Amazon Prime, or Netflix involves assassination, mainly relating to Colombian or Mexican drug cartels. It’s a fascinating subject. So I picked this book because it appeals to that underlying instinct of ours.

There’s an exceptionally fine BBC filmmaker from the 1980s and 90s called Alan Clarke, whose most famous movies are Scum and The Firm, which is about football hooligans and launched the career of Gary Oldman. But he made a short, 38-minute quasi-documentary called Elephant, about Northern Ireland, where he took police reports on 18 IRA killings and made a film using a Steadicam. That’s very characteristic of his style, you just have this camera following people walking. So, on each occasion you see one or two blokes walking with no soundtrack, and no dialogue, down a street into a mini cab firm or swimming baths or a warehouse and blasting somebody. Then the camera just lingers a bit too long on the dead body. Then you go on to the next lot of men walking and, at the end of it, they walk or run away. It’s just an incredible depiction of their activity. These guys really are hunting.

I was doing a bit of research before talking to you and I discovered that Carlos the Jackal was named after the book, when I’d always assumed the book’s title was inspired by Carlos the Jackal.

It gets worse. Never mind Carlos the Jackal. Both Mehmet Ali Aga, who shot Pope John Paul II, and Yigal Amir, who shot and killed Yitzhak Rabin, read The Day of the Jackal several times. It was their favourite book. I’m hoping that no one treats my book as their favourite, I will not be responsible!

Let’s go on to the next of your books about assassination, Boris Volodarsky’s Stalin’s Agent.

This is an absolute masterpiece. It started out as an LSE PhD, supervised by Paul Preston, because a lot of the book deals with the Spanish Civil War. It wasn’t so much the story of Alexander Orlov—his pseudonym and the actual subject of the book—that fascinated me, as the story about all the NKVD people that Stalin dispatched to the Spanish Civil War, basically to murder people—dissidents on the Republican side, and indeed any captured nationalists. Orlov was just one of them. He claimed to be the top one, but he wasn’t. I got very interested in the lifestyle of these NKVD agents, because they went in under diplomatic cover, and they took along women who pretended to be their wives. Then they availed themselves of all the GRU secretaries and wireless operators who were there and had affairs with local Spanish women, too. It must have been like paradise after living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to end up in Madrid or Barcelona, living the life of Riley.

These people became highly efficient assassins. Most of them were Lithuanians and reconstructed themselves gradually as Spanish people or Latin Americans and then went on an international spree murdering people. Many of them were Jewish and had relatives in New York and elsewhere, they could easily move around in these circles. One of the interesting revelations in the book is about the family of the financier Bill Browder, Putin’s biggest enemy. His grandfather, Earl Browder, had been head of the American Communist Party. Bill explains that this had bad consequences for his own father, a mathematician who never really got a top university job because of the grandfather. What I didn’t know was that most of the family members were agents of the NKVD in the United States. The whole book is just full of revelations.

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I don’t know quite how Volodarsky did it. I assume that when he left the collapsed Soviet Union he might have taken a whole load of files with him for his own personal use, which found their way into this book. The material is just quite extraordinary. The best story in the book is about Orlov, when he notices that far too many of his colleagues in Spain have been called back home in 1937-38 and have just disappeared (in other words, shot). He decides this is not going to happen to him. So he writes a letter and leaves it with the Russian consulate for the attention of Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD at the time—who would subsequently be shot himself. By this time Orlov had stolen $60,000 from NKVD funds to fund his life in exile with his wife. He writes to Yezhov, and the letter has a long appendix pointing out every assassination he’s been involved in, that he was the person who, for a brief time, controlled the Cambridge spies, Burgess, McLean and Philby. He writes to Yezhov that none of this would ever come to light, provided that nothing happened to his elderly mother in Moscow. It was a clear blackmail threat, but he managed to blackmail one of the most sinister and unpleasant people who ever existed. The whole book is just stunningly interesting.

Let’s move on to your next assassination book, Harris Dousemetzis’s The Man Who Killed Apartheid.  This is the story of the man who killed Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

I’m very interested in Africa. I did a lot on it in my book Small Wars, Far Away Places, about the Congo. But I’d never really done work on South Africa, so I thought I would really go to town on this one. I did a lot of work on the origins of apartheid and Verwoerd’s role in it. He was an academic sociologist, concerned with the fate of the white working class and gradually devised apartheid. Verwoerd was Dutch by birth. The Dutch political system is based on something called ‘pillarisation’. That’s the most literal translation of the Dutch, but a better one would be ‘silos’. You grew up in a silo, as a social democrat, or as a Catholic, or Protestant, or as a conservative. And you never really go out of that milieu. It’s weaker today, but historically, that was the case. At the same time, Calvinist theology says that the worst nightmare is the Tower of Babel, where everything just dissolves into one great diverse whole. So apartheid is really designed to restore the lines, the boundaries, the red lines, which Verwoerd certainly did.

He was also an anti-Semite who turned away ships full of Jewish refugees, and he had strong sympathies with Nazi Germany. In fact, the man he appointed head of the South African Broadcasting Association, christened his son Izan, which is Nazi spelt backwards. That’s perhaps all we really need to know about these people!

There were two attempts to kill Verwoerd. The first attempt, virtually unknown, was by an English farmer called David Pratt, whose daughter has recently written quite an affecting memoir about her dad. David Pratt was driven in a chauffeur-driven Rolls by one of his servants to the Rand Show, where Verwoerd was handing out the prizes. He walked up to him and shot him in the face with a pistol. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very high-powered pistol. Verwoerd survived and was out of hospital in about six weeks. He said it was a bit like having bad sinus trouble.

But Pratt had a long history of depressive illness, and he’d done things like follow his Dutch ex-wife back to the Netherlands, where the police and customs people stopped him. He had a loaded revolver in his luggage and was going to shoot her. He wasn’t a happy man on all sorts of levels. Some of his businesses had failed. He’d tried to go into trout farming to provide trout to Johannesburg restaurants and that was a disaster. Everything he touched was bad. They ended up putting him in an asylum. They said he wasn’t fit enough to stand trial. He allegedly hanged himself with the sheets a year later.

The second assassin did kill Verwoerd in 1966 at the state opening of Parliament—while working as a parliamentary messenger. He was a Greek-Mozambican former merchant seaman called Dimitri Tsafendas and came from a long line of Cretan communists. His father was a very active person and had fought the royalists and the Nazis.

He was a rather overweight youth, and clearly had some mental problems. He also suffered from a tapeworm in his childhood (that’s quite significant). He tried all sorts of jobs and for political and other reasons couldn’t build a stable career. So he became a merchant seaman, going off on ships.

“When looking at assassinations, it’s the unforeseen consequences of them that interests me more that the fulfilment of immediate, planned objectives”

This is where it gets interesting. Whenever he was trying to stay in countries he wasn’t allowed to enter, he conveniently had a mental breakdown the moment he got on shore and would be put into an asylum. Now, in one asylum, I think in America, an Irish inmate told him that it was no good saying to the shrink that he didn’t feel well or that he was hearing God’s voice from the radiator, but that he had to think of something really clever to get their interest. So Tsafendas said, ‘Well, what about if I had a tapeworm in my stomach giving me orders?’ The Irish inmate said, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ From then on, he’d roll this story out every time, in every asylum. When he was put into one in Paddington, which was a real dump, he heard there was a much more deluxe asylum on the Isle of Wight. So he rolled out the tapeworm story, and then they transferred him to the Isle of Wight luxury conditions. It was all quite crafty.

After the assassination, the South African police quickly got all of his medical records from all over the world, as he’d been in nine or ten asylums in different countries doing the same thing. They saw that after a while they would give him pills and let him go and off he would go, back to sea. Another problem for the South African authorities was that he was mixed race. He was ‘white enough’ for them not to want to put him on trial for killing the architect of apartheid. He was of mixed race. They decided they couldn’t do that, so they tortured him for weeks and then got him to come out with this nonsense that the “dragon worm” told him to kill Verwoerd. At that point, they said he was unfit to stand trial and declared him mentally incompetent and insane.

Interestingly, at first they imprisoned him on Robben Island in solitary confinement, near Mandela. And you don’t do that if a person is insane. Then they moved him to Pretoria Central Prison, where they put him next to the death cell where they executed people. Every year he heard over 100 people being hanged through the walls. He was badly treated all through his stay there. Finally, maybe five or 10 years before his death, he was moved to a rural psychiatric asylum, which was the first time he’d ever been near an asylum after the assassination.

And that was well after the end of apartheid, right?

Yes, it was. The ANC didn’t take any interest in him whatsoever. He had killed Verwoerd, but it didn’t make much difference, because John Vorster, who was Verwoerd’s replacement, was an even more evil character.

I was interested in all this and in Verwoerd himself. I didn’t realise that he wasn’t a native Afrikaner. He was born in the Netherlands. And his parents took him to South Africa as a boy. He was, in a way, plus royaliste que le roi—he became a more fanatical Afrikaner nationalist than the locals. I found that fascinating, as well as the whole question of whether Tsafendas was mad or not. Both he and Pratt gave very good reasons for killing Verwoerd.

Tsafendas was a communist. Was it the case that the regime didn’t want Verwoerd’s assassin to be politically motivated and that it was more helpful to them that he should be mad?

Yes, of course. And they didn’t want his assassin to be white, either, because that rather got in the way of the impression they were trying to create.

While I was reading all these books on apartheid, I was writing an LSE Ideas pamphlet about Brexit, England and Ireland. One of the other two contributors was at Queen’s University, Belfast and was one of the main people I’d read on the evolution of apartheid, Adrian Guelke. He specialises in South Africa. In the 1990s, a South African agent, based in London at the embassy, got wind of the fact that there was somebody with Sinn Fein sympathies co-ordinating the party’s connections with the ANC. And they wanted this person dead. But what this agent did was to substitute Professor Guelke’s name on some documents, because the agent wanted him dead as well, because of his books on apartheid. That was then slipped to some loyalist terror organizations, who one night came into his house and shot him in his bed. He wasn’t killed because the gun jammed after a few rounds. But it was done quite deliberately, to confuse the two men’s names to get him killed. He had no connection with Sinn Fein whatsoever. I just thought that was extraordinary, the way the South African secret police went around the world knocking people off—which undoubtedly they did.

Earlier you talked about the CIA handing out machine guns to people on Caribbean islands to assassinate people. Can I just make sure we’ve got this absolutely clear—it is unambiguously against international law to assassinate people, isn’t it?

Yes, of course it is. It’s the sharp end of what people nowadays would call transnational repression.

But some intelligence/security services refuse to accept that, I think. Doesn’t Mossad insist on its right to assassinate people in the interests of Israel’s national security?

Mossad’s got a disgraceful record, as you can see when you read my book. Ronen Bergman, who’s written a big book about the assassinations of Mossad, has worked out that they’ve killed 2,700 people in the last 70 years or so. They present it as the result of weighty moral deliberation, that they almost reluctantly decide to kill somebody. In fact, they make mistakes and people get put on to the list of targets for quite arbitrary reasons. In the case of Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader, they tried to poison him in Amman, Jordan—only because the top target had American permanent residency, so they weren’t going to kill him. The operation was botched and Mashal survived. He lives in Doha now. As far as I know, he hadn’t been involved in any terrorist activities at all, they just wanted him gone.

Then they’ve made absolute mistakes. When they were on the hunt for the Black September people who carried out the hijacking of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, they thought they’d got the leader of that, a man in Lillehammer in Norway, and went after him and killed him, shooting him in the street in front of his pregnant girlfriend. In fact, it turned out, he was a completely innocent Moroccan waiter who also had a daytime job as a swimming pool attendant. The idea, which is often put about in films and TV programmes, that they’re these super professional, super cool killers is just nonsense. They’re not.

Let’s move on to Sudden Justice by Chris Woods.

We’re living in a time where drones are increasingly the weapon of choice, particularly if you have to get at people who are living in countries with which you’re not technically at war. America is not at war with Yemen, or Somalia, but they use drones there to kill people. That’s the first point about it. Secondly there is the whole question of whether these things could, potentially, become so sophisticated, they could act without much human involvement. In March 2020 what people are calling the first ‘lethal autonomous weapons system’—they’re called LAWS in the trade—was deployed. It was a Turkish manufactured killer drone, which was operating above General Haftar’s forces in Libya. It loitered around and then, without any human input, saw a convoy of troops or people, swooped down in kamikaze fashion and blew up. That’s the first instance anyone can think of where a drone was just programmed to look for certain types of targets, and found them.

“Drones really will change the nature of warfare”

The Turks make very good drones and are selling them all over the place at present. Poland has just bought some. It all interests me, as does the whole phenomenon of people sitting in a Portakabin in Nevada or New Mexico, dealing out death in Afghanistan. They’re just going to work in the morning. Apparently backache is the big problem. In fact, the last time I went to the O2 arms show in Docklands, I was very struck by a stand which had ergonomically designed seats for drone operators. We’ve reached a real nadir here, worrying about their backache, but they do long shifts.

Apparently, psychologically, they get very, very interested in the lives of the people that they’ve got eyes on, that are under surveillance from reconnaissance drones. They say, ‘Oh, look, there’s that old woman with a cart of apples coming across that square. I wonder what she thinks, or is doing.’ You take an interest in the life of a tribal village, basically. And then comes the point where you have to zap somebody, and you just press a button. Within seconds, a hellfire missile will blow somebody to pieces—hopefully not entirely innocent people, although that regularly is the case. The idea that it’s somehow antiseptic is quite wrong, because you have to look at the aftermath. And if you see so much as a hand twitch, you send another missile in to make sure the person’s dead. Some of them do suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, even though they haven’t actually been near a battlefield.

I think the book concentrates on the use of drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, largely by the US and its allies but, presumably, at some point in the not too distant future, everyone is going to have these drones?

Yes. We’ve just seen the devastating effect in the latest bout of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian armour was just smashed into scrap metal by Turkish supplied drones. You can see the footage of it happening—these Turkish weapons, which Azerbaijan had bought, smashing up all this Russian supplied armour. It’s amazing.

Drones really will change the nature of warfare. They’re a win-win weapon, because there are no casualties on your side. It’s not like losing a highly trained and expensive air force pilot, if a plane is shot down. There’s nothing to capture, no hostages. It just does its stuff.

And is there any impediment to non-state actors getting hold of these things and using them effectively?

ISIS started to dabble in this area with hobby drones, which you can get from Amazon. There’s not that much difference between an Amazon drone and a military drone, especially the small ones.

Ukraine has a lot of people with high technical competence and a very developed tech sector. Western Ukraine has become a big centre for CGI for the movies and some software development. It also has a large number of hobby-aircraft people. They’ve made all sorts of drones to attack Russian troops and rebel troops in eastern Ukraine. They’re pretty sophisticated. I think we’re going to see more and more of this, because they’re cheap as chips relative to a modern big weapon. There are also Predator and Reaper drones, which are not cheap— we’re talking $20-25 million, and then, say, $300,000 per hellfire missile.

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It’s a very good book. Chris Woods has really done his work on the legal aspects of it, on the psychological status pre-op because drone pilots are quite low-status compared to top gun Air Force pilots. A lowly drone guy just gets in his car and goes to work in a cabin with two other people. And then, at five or six o’clock, he knocks off and half an hour later it’s bath time for the kiddies. Until recently they refused to give them military decorations, no matter how many terrorists they’d killed.

I can kind of see why.

He’s very good on all of that. It’s a marvellous book.

Let’s go on to your last book, The Killing in the Consulate by Jonathan Rugman.

The reason I picked this one is related to the reason I wrote a book on assassination in the first place. Long before Jamal Khashoggi was killed, I wrote some very critical things about Mohammed bin Salman in The Times, saying that his various projects, like NEOM, the high tech city in the desert, were a crock of shit. I ended one of these articles by saying that maybe it would be a good idea if King Salman changed the line of succession. The next thing I get is a lot of death threats on my then Twitter account in Arabic, with my byline picture helpfully attached. The next development after that was that one day WhatsApp on my phone goes off and there’s a message from the Saudi embassy with a link enclosed in it. About a fortnight before this happened, I’d read about a Saudi dissident in Canada who had had a similar link sent to him. It was Israel’s NSO supplied software, which took over his phone, turned on the microphones, cameras and drained all the contacts. So I didn’t open it and deleted it. I’m not on WhatsApp anymore.

Anyway, I thought I’d had enough of this. Then they killed Khashoggi. At that point, I wrote a huge piece in the Daily Mail, which I believe had the headline—I don’t write the headlines—‘Muhammad, the Murderer’. By that time, I’d decided I was going to write a book about assassination. As far as Khashoggi goes, Jonathan Rugman, who’s a very good Channel 4 reporter, got there first, and wrote a very detailed account of what happened in the consulate, where, of course, Turkey’s MIT intelligence service had bugged the entire building. Although the Saudis had swept it for bugs and found many of them, they hadn’t found the ones built into the walls. So you have a blow-by-blow audio account of what happened to Khashoggi when he got into the consulate to have his marital status sorted out. And the Turks had all this information, and very cleverly dripped it out to the media, forcing the Saudis to change their initial account of what had happened to him, putting all the onus on the Saudis to admit eventually what had happened. And then they said that it was rogue elements who had rocked up in Istanbul and murdered this man, which is preposterous, of course. And then they had to organise a pseudo trial.

All this is brilliantly chronicled by Jonathan Rugman in this book, and he also covers the international responses to it—President Trump doing his best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary has happened, that he knew his friend, MBS, would never, ever countenance this sort of thing.

It’s part of a pattern of where domestic lawlessness is projected out. If you think of the disgraceful hostage-taking of 250 very wealthy leading Saudis in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton, one of whom died of a heart attack when he was being beaten up, and the rest clearly put under all sorts of duress—attacked and threatened—to write out big checks, allegedly because they’re corrupt. Some of these people are still being held in Saudi Arabia. If their adult children are allowed to travel abroad, they’re terrified of being watched, and their phones being mucked around with. They’re not allowed to take their children with them. They’re basically hostages. So it’s a very repressive, unpleasant regime.

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I’m very interested in that. And if that starts becoming catching—Putin getting away with murdering journalists, which his regime has certainly done, and then the Saudis start doing it—when does this stop? Anybody could get killed.

There’s a very good Russian film, which I strongly recommend, called Leviathan. It’s about a rather rackety alcoholic old bloke who has a nice clapperboard house on the Barents Sea. The local oligarch wants the beachfront to build luxury condominiums. So he uses the courts and the Orthodox Church to wreck this man’s life. In the end, they shoot him. They just destroy his life.

People talk very facilely about the rule of law. But imagine that you or I were driving through a country road in a bashed up Volvo and the son and daughter of an oligarch sped by and hit our car. First of all the bodyguards would get out and beat you up. You’d say, ‘Well, this is outrageous, I’ll call the police.’ The police would turn up and they would laugh at you, and then arrest you for assaulting the bodyguards. That’s what the absence of the rule of law really means. And I think it’s incumbent on all of us to keep that very much in mind and to make that point as often and as loudly as we possibly can. Otherwise people will be knocked off all over the place.

And, of course, if people are knocked off all over the place, everyone else shuts up.

Of course. I wouldn’t like to be an investigative blogger or journalist in Malta right now, having seen what was done to Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was blown up in her car a year before Khashoggi was killed.

We all know Malta is a terribly corrupt place. But what’s interesting is the way the government then hired a PR agency in London to smear her and the former head of Luxembourg’s intelligence service to lay a trail saying the killing was done by Azeris, because of some link with Azerbaijan. This smearing and cover-up stuff comes from here in the UK. Likewise, when Khashoggi was killed—I won’t name any names—the Saudis invested a lot of money in PR companies here and in Washington DC. It didn’t take long for all sorts of slightly unpleasant articles to appear in certain newspapers saying that he was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Well, he wasn’t. This all happens here. We can’t pretend it’s just all ‘over there’. And that really does bother me in quite a fundamental way.

Interview by Benedict King

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Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is a Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas, the world’s premier university-based think tank. He has written fifteen books, including most recently Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder (Picador 2021) and Populism: Before and After the Pandemic (Hurst 2021). His Third Reich: A New History (2000) won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction.

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Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is a Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas, the world’s premier university-based think tank. He has written fifteen books, including most recently Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder (Picador 2021) and Populism: Before and After the Pandemic (Hurst 2021). His Third Reich: A New History (2000) won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction.