Victoria Brittain: Political assassination as a strategy against liberation movements

The use of political assassination against liberation movements has changed the course of history in a number of countries in Africa and continues to devastate the Middle East, writes Victoria Brittain. The current power relations between the Third World and the dominant Western and imperialist powers, are a product of the war of attrition which the West has waged, particularly by political assassinations, which have robbed Africa and the Middle East of some of their great leaders, and weakened their important political organisations. This article was first published by pambazuka news (2006).

Selective and systematic political assassination against liberation movements has changed the course of history in a number of countries in Africa, and the Middle East, and profoundly affected regional politics. And with those changes have come even more significant ones on the wider canvas of Third World history.

More important still, the current power relations between the Third World in general, and the dominant Western and imperialist powers, are to a considerable extent a product of the war of attrition which the West has waged, particularly by political assassinations, which have robbed Africa and the Middle East of some of their great leaders, and weakened their important political organisations.

And there may be another legacy of these political assassinations and the loss of leaders over the preceding two generations. Today, opposition to the new colonialism has become so fragmented, sectarian, de-politicised, marginalized, leaderless, as to give birth to the suicide bomber as a widespread phenomenon –most strikingly in opposition to the US occupation of Iraq, as well as in Palestine.

For anyone who did not live the hopeful, febrile, political life in and around the African liberation movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it may be hard to imagine their power over imaginations and political and social aspirations far beyond their own continent – including in Europe and in the US – and the magic of a handful of their leaders.

Two key liberation movements to consider in particular are South Africa’s African National Congress, and the Palestinians’ Fatah movement and various Palestinian splinter groups.

The different trajectory of the two mainly reflects the difference in their fundamental strategic position in the world: the Palestinians have the great disadvantage of being players in the key area of attempted US dominance of world oil supplies, and of being pitted against the US’s most important world ally. Additionally, the Middle East has been the most deeply penetrated area of the world by Western imperialist interests – well before the creation of the state of Israel.

But before going into those two cases in some detail: some reminders of the immense scope of the use of political assassination against the struggle of liberation movements to end colonialism in Africa, by giving just a very few examples.

Take first, as the context, four related highly professional assassinations, spread over nearly 30 years, mainly unsolved, but all presumed linked to the extreme right and former intelligence services in France. The last gasps of neo-colonialist violence played out here: Ben Barka; Felix Moumie of Cameroon, poisoned in Geneva in 1960 by a French secret service agent; Henri Curiel, the militant anti-imperialist, shot in his apartment building in Paris in May 1978, and Dulcie September, the ANC’s representative in Paris – shot in the back ten years later by a 22 calibre rifle with a silencer – the latter two, soft targets, with no protection, despite numerous death threats.

Charismatic leaders from countries as different as Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Congo, who each had an influence that went far beyond their own countries, were assassinated in the interests of the colonial powers, even if the assassins themselves were sometimes recruited in local groups funded from the West. Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, Felix Moumie, and Patrice Lumumba, (though the latter was not leading a liberation movement, but was elected head of the post-colonial government less than a year before) were all murdered by the forces or allies of their current or former colonial power, because they threatened its future influence, not to say continuing control, over the economy and ideology in the country in question. Their brutal disappearances from the African political scene had a much bigger impact than their countries’ mainly modest weight would have intimated.

Amilcar Cabral was the leader of the PAIGC, (Partido Africano da Independencia da Guiné e Cabo Verde) the liberation movement fighting for independence from Portugal of the two small West African overseas territories. Cabral was, by far, the best-known and most revered intellectual influence on all African liberation movements. He was shot in his car arriving at his house in Conakry –PAIGC’s headquarters – on 20 january 1973, by a dissident of his own movement, manipulated by the Portuguese.

Cabral’s famous speech at the TriContinental conference in Havana in 1966 had revealed him to the world as a key theoretician among Third World revolutionaries at that exhilarating, hopeful, moment of history. He was also exceptional in action. It was in Guinea-Bissau that the Portuguese colonial army suffered its most crushing defeats, which later sparked the military revolt and the “Carnation Revolution” in Lisbon. Cabral was the living example of an exemplary revolutionary, whose movement was based as deeply among the peasants and future beneficiaries of the transformation of his society, as the Chinese leaders of the long march. He also reached urban cadres with the example of identifying with the peasants and giving up class privileges. Cabral’s charisma, intellectual brilliance, and influence within Africa, have never been even nearly matched on the continent in the 33 years since his death.

Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the Frelimo liberation movement, was killed, by a parcel bomb in Dar es Salaam – Frelimo’s headquarters – on February 3 1969, by agents of the PIDE – the hated and feared Portuguese political police struck here too. Mondlane was a US-educated, highly sophisticated leader who took on the leadership of Frelimo at its founding in 1964. Frelimo had the real possibility of being a liberation movement, and then a government, which could transform its backward strip of southeast Africa economically and socially far beyond the dreams and ambitions of most others in the post-colonial moment.

Would Mondlane, if he had been leading the country through the years of unrelenting South African destabilisation, have got to the point where Mozambique had to agree to Nkomati? This was the 1984 agreement that expelled the ANC from Mozambique – one of the strands of history that led the South African liberation movement to negotiate with the apartheid regime from a position of military weakness.

The subsequent histories of the other two countries who lost their key leaders so prematurely in the 1960s – Cameroon and Congo/Zaire –show more dramatic effects. In both, divided, factional, weak governments came to power, open to extreme manipulation by external forces, notably, the US and France in the Cold War period. Though because of the very complex ethnic structures of both Cameroon and Congo, and the size and wealth of the latter, it cannot be certain that either Moumie or Lumumba would necessarily have been successful in holding their countries together, or maintaining the independent anti-imperialist policies they espoused.

But since their violent deaths both have carried mythic status in Africa, and the evocation of their names brings nostalgia for a dream of real independence, of hopes, of justice, which never came.

In Cameroon, Felix Moumie was the successor to Reuben Um Nyobe as leader of the radical nationalist UPC, which had 10 000 peasant fighters in the bush and a movement strong enough to continue fighting for some years against the first independent government, the pro-French neo-colonialist regime of Ahmadou Ahidjo.

Moumie was murdered by thallium poisoning in Geneva on October 15 1960. His killer was a French agent, William Bechtel, who posed as a journalist to meet Moumie in a restaurant.

In Congo, Patrice Lumumba the radical nationalist leader, elected Prime Minister just before Congo’s independence from Belgium, was killed on January 17 1961. Lumumba’s assassination had been attempted on several previous occasions by the CIA, and it was finally carried out by agents of the Belgian government, including senior serving Belgian officials, acting with his Congolese political rivals, with the support of the Americans.

Lumumba had been crudely and erroneously tagged a communist by the US, which portrayed him as an extraordinarily dangerous individual. Lumumba’s error – in Western eyes – was his ambition of forming a unified state in which Congo’s huge riches would be used for indigenous development, rather than being exported massively to the West. In addition he had made overtures for assistance to the USSR.

In 1963 – old-style – the independent minded Togolese leader, Sylvanus Olympio, was killed in a coup lead by Colonel Etienne Eyadema, a veteran of the French army in Algeria, who took power four years later and for the next 40 years headed a neo-colonial regime strongly supported by Paris.

South Africa suffered some thousands of deaths – uncounted and often anonymous – of its commanders and cadres, assassinated in exile in ANC camps and offices in neighbouring countries, or by death squads inside the country. Dozens of individuals were targeted, mainly in the second rank of leaders. The assassination campaign by the apartheid regime aimed to take out the movement’s best brains, and to sap the will power of the rank and file to organise against apartheid. Ironically the ANC did not lose their top leaders in this dirty war, partly because many of them, like Nelson Mandela, were in prison on Robben Island. And even those top leaders in exile who were certainly frequently targeted, escaped that fate.

Those killed included men such as the young anti-apartheid activist Siphiwe Mtimkulu, poisoned by thallium in 1981, or leaders of organisations such as teacher Mathew Goniwe, the United Democratic Front regional organiser in the Eastern Cape, stabbed to death, mutilated and burned with three others, on the way to a meeting, in June 1985.

The confession of a former policeman, Butana Almond Nofemela in October 1989, that he had been part of a death squad, finally blew the lid off the secret policy, and gave some indication of its range. There were at least 50 such assassinations between august 1977 and November 1989.

A secret unit of the South African Defence Forces, the extraordinarily-named, Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), was finally revealed as responsible for many hundreds of targeted killings inside the country, and across the region. Cassius Make of the ANC’s national executive, and Paul Dikeledi, a member of the ANC’s armed wing, for instance, were just two of those key people shot dead in Swaziland in 1987 by a squad who brazenly crossed the border for the purpose.

Such assassinations were of course also intended by South Africa to send out warnings to host governments of the liberation movements, of the high price of the alliance against continued white rule. All the frontline states suffered such assaults. Killings of ANC cadres, including women and children, went on continuously through the 1970s and 80s in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia, the ANC headquarters. The regime relentlessly used spies and created collaborators to facilitate these killings.

In Zimbabwe in august 1981 the ANC representative, Joe Gqabi, who had spent years on Robben Island, was assassinated. He was killed outside his house in Harare, probably by former Selous Scouts who had joined the SADF. The New Zealand born priest, and ANC member Father Michael Lapsley lost both hands in a letter bomb attack in Harare, shortly after the ANC had moved him from Lesotho because of direct threats against him.

Mozambique saw many, many such killings of ANC people. South Africa made repeated raids, including by air, into Maputo against the ANC. In January 1981 they killed 13 cadres, in 1983 they killed 6 people, though only one was ANC, and bombed the ANC office wounding 5 cadres, one ANC cadre working at the radio was poisoned. They went for high profile South African exiles too, whose individual deaths might affect the course of the movement. In August 1982, Ruth First, wife of the communist party leader and army commander, Joe Slovo, and herself an influential anti-apartheid activist voice, was killed by a letter bomb sent to her university office. In 1987, Albie Sachs, another such internationally-known voice and a lawyer, was seriously wounded though not killed in a car bombing in which he lost his right arm and one eye. Sachs went on to be an eminent member of the Constitutional Court in post-apartheid South Africa, charged with overseeing the creation of a state that respected the law.

All these political assassinations over the years were undoubtedly successful in weakening the ANC and its allies, the UDF and COSATU, so that the eventual transfer of power was on much more favourable terms to the old regime, than had been envisaged during the armed struggle.

But all of this bloodshed is eclipsed in scale by the Israeli assassinations of Palestinians – part of the massive bloodletting in the Middle East that has, since 1977 under Menachem Begin, marked the struggle for Greater Israel, and the inevitable balkanisation of the Arab world. This began from the 1956 attempt by Britain, France and Israel to destroy Nasser, the Arab champion of the day.

Political assassinations have been, and still are, the backbone of Israeli counter-terrorism policy, and, in addition, there have been systematic assassinations of the Palestinian leaders keenest to negotiate with Israel. The highest level of the Israeli political/military establishment has been personally involved in many of the most important strikes.

Of the four founding fathers of Fatah, only one, Yasser Arafat, escaped assassination. Or did he? The use of sophisticated poison by Israeli assassins was revealed in 1997 when a Hamas leader, Khalid Mash’al, was poisoned in Amman by two Mossad agents (who had travelled on false Canadian passports and who were captured).

Mash’al was only saved when a furious King Hussein demanded, and received, the poison antidote from Israel. Others had no such escape from their fate: Muhamed Yusif al Najjar was killed by Israeli commandos in Beirut in 1973 – led by Ehud Barak, later Prime Minister, disguised as a woman. Abu Jihad, the PLO’s foreign minister, was killed in his house at the PLO headquarters in Tunis by a sea-borne Israeli military squad led by General Moshe Yaalon, later chief of staff. Abu Iyad, Fatah’s intelligence chief, with one of his senior intelligence officials, Abu al Hol, was gunned down in his house in Tunis in January 1991 on the eve of the Gulf war, by Hamza Abu Zaid, a dissident Fatah member who had been recruited by Abu Nidal.

In his deeply researched book, Abu Nidal, A Gun for Hire, the British Middle East expert, Patrick Seale, explored the thesis that Abu Iyad had put to him the previous year: that Abu Nidal was working with the Israelis. Nidal himself admitted penetration of his organisation by Mossad.

If Seale is correct, and he makes a very detailed and persuasive case, the Israelis were using, with Abu Nidal’s group, a particularly ruthless version of the classic infiltration and manipulation techniques with double agents much favoured by the South Africans (see above). The Israelis over the years have penetrated every single Palestinian organisation, and the use of collaborators has been a painfully corroding theme through Palestinian society.

In southern Lebanon, Hizbollah and Amal both had leaders assassinated by Israel in an extension of the war against the Palestinians. These actions, often coordinated by the US and sometimes financed by Saudi Arabia did not always succeed but they raised the stakes, for instance, notably, with the March 1985 massive car bomb in Beirut near the apartment block of Hizbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheik Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, which missed him, but killed 80 people and wounded two hundred. Elsewhere in Lebanon thousands of Palestinians died in the war of the camps, and in the Abu Nidal killings of about 600 young men in 1987/88.

The dramatic impact on Palestinian history of political assassination comes not only from the top leadership cases cited, but from the assassinations of five leading Fatah doves between 1978 and 1983 by Abu Nidal. All five had publicly spoken in favour of dialogue with Israel, and all represented Fatah abroad: Said Hammami, PLO representative in London, Ali Yassin, ambassador in Kuwait, Nain Khudr, representative in Brussels, Izz al-Din Qalaq, representative in Paris, and Arafat’s confidant, Dr Issam Sartawi, killed in Lisbon during a conference on Palestine.

All five would certainly have held prominent positions in the Palestinian team that conducted the eventual negotiations with the Israelis. Their murders gave Israel its double goal: ending any chance of such negotiations taking place, and ensuring the continuation of the PLO’s international pariah status with the label of a terrorist organisation.

Other PLO representatives were also assassinated in Cyprus, Beirut, Rome, Paris (two more), and in Malta. And there were other attempts that failed.

Throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ two intifadas, scores of Palestinians in less prominent local leadership positions were targeted and killed by undercover Israeli hit squads with incalculable impact on the political coherence of the resistance to the Occupation.

With the beginning of the twenty first century Israeli assassination tactics became more violent, more reckless of the consequences for civilians, and heedless of any international censure. The leader of the PFLP was the first victim of the flamboyant style that became their new trademark. On august 27 2001 Secretary-General Abu Ali Mustafa was assassinated by a missile attack on his office in Ramallah after he returned to the West Bank after 32 years in exile.

In conclusion:

Since the Tricontinental era, in terms of self-confidence and intellectual freedom, of power relations with the West, of the gap between rich and poor, of optimism for justice, the legacy of the inspired liberation movements of the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties has been deeply disappointing. All the material indicators are worse too in Africa and the Middle East, and the situation is compounded by a brain drain that runs directly contrary to the nationalist ideals of the earlier generations.

The Arab world is neither united nor free, much of it a series of shattered societies, headed by discredited and contested elites. Nothing illustrates this better than the current situation of the US occupation and destruction of a former regional giant – Iraq. Iraq’s great history and civilisation has come to its lowest ebb as one client government, manipulated from Washington, has succeeded another, and a new generation of resistance has been born. The daily diet of suicide bombings, carried out both by Iraqis and by jihadis of other Arab nationalities, has its roots in the depoliticisation imperialism worked so hard to produce in so much of the Third World, most notably by its political assassination policy.

• This a shortened version of an article in Race and Class Volume 48 (1) 2006, based on a paper given in a colloquium in Paris in late 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka.

• Victoria Brittain is a journalist. She worked at the guardian for 20 years, mainly covering Africa and Third World economic and political issues.

• Please send comments to gro.akuzabmap@rotide or comment online at


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