Tracing terrorists, teasing out tenets of assassins (Book Review)

Title: The Perfect Kill – A Personal History of Modern Assassinations; Author: Robert Baer; Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Hachette UK; Pages: 330; Price: Rs.599

Before Osama bin Laden, he was the most dreaded terrorist for the US, charged with killing more of its citizens than anyone else prior to 9/11. He was also credited with accomplishing what many others could only wish for – forcing a withdrawal of US troops by a string of attacks. The US or the Israelis could never catch up with him, and though he was killed by a car bomb – ironically, his own modus operandi – no one hastened to take responsibility.

But Imad Mughniyah, of the Hezbollah, the alleged mastermind behind blowing up of the American Embassy in Beirut, the US Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, the French paratroopers’ camp, and scores of other attacks on Americans, French and Israelis in the 1980s, always strove for surgical strikes over indiscriminate violence to take political assassination to a new level of effectiveness.

Unlike him, many other practitioners of extreme political methods have failed to achieve anything with their attempts – including his own country with its ubiquitous drones that have made ‘targeted’ killings a tool of statecraft, contends long-time CIA operative Robert Baer.

In this riveting and insightful but also provocative memoir-cum-historical analysis of patterns of Middle Eastern – and global – terrorism and incidents, Baer, who for years had tried to track down Mughniyah and was also involved in a ludicrous – in hindsight – conspiracy to assassinate Saddam Hussein (for which he was probed by the FBI), also seeks to postulate 21 laws for efficient and effective assassinations.

These include “The B*st*rd has to deserve it”, “Make it Count”, “Don’t Shoot Everyone in the Room”, “Own the Geography”, “Make it Personal”, “He who laughs last shoots first” and “Get to it Quickly” and use examples spanning Julius Caesar to Benazir Bhutto, and including Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Leon Trotsky, John F. Kennedy, Lord Mountbatten, Alexander Litvinenko and Bin Laden as well as attempts on Adolf Hitler, Charles De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher.

It is however Mughniyah – ‘Hajj Radwan’ in the book – who serves as the best model as the author “watched as he rose from its (Lebanon’s) smoldering civil war like Venus from the half shell, fluently conversant in the fine and shifting relationship between violence and power”, “instinctively understood how symbolic murder and blind slaughter get the assassin nothing” and how “assassination is a conservative force designed to preserve force and postpone war”.

Mughniyah/Radwan “learned the plumbing at an early age – his bombs always went off, he never killed the wrong person, he didn’t get caught (or, at least, until (Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq) Hariri)”. Having “spent three decades trying to bring a system to political murder”, and going out of his way to “avoid the obvious traps, such as blowing up trains and school buses”, he, by channelling violence, obtained more than most assassins, argues Baer.

But it is the author’s hunt for Mughniyah that is the most absorbing – apart from his Iraq mission – and seems something written by a combination of John Le Carre, Len Deighton – and Carl Hiaasen, with the varied means – a Lebanese general, a radical French woman and a high-level fixer, Corsican mobsters and US Mafiosi he seeks to utilise.

Alongside are some perceptive – and scathing – observations on the transformation of the CIA from an effective force to a clueless, desk-bound bureaucracy overdependent on technology. Baer, who began his clandestine career in India (then Madras and New Delhi) and subsequently worked in Lebanon, Tajikistan, then Yugoslavia and Iraqi Kurdistan, notes that his country “isn’t capable of efficient political murder”.

“If we can’t tell a Baluchi from a Pashtun, how can we decide who deserves it and who doesn'””, he says noting that is why the killings of Saddam, Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi””produced nothing other than more bloodshed”.

The reason is that the US has confused ideas with people and drones and Hellfire missiles can do precious little here – an idea that many other nations tackling terror should dwell on.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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