The attempt to kill former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, with a military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, in Salisbury, England, this month is one in a long line of plots that have captured the public’s imagination.
In the ruthless worlds of espionage, global politics and the criminal underground, there are many grim ways to die: Tea laced with polonium. A face full of the nerve agent VX. An umbrella that shoots ricin pellets.
Sometimes, the assassination attempts leave a mystery, as in the case of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, who were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, in Salisbury, England, this month. The episode is one in a long line of plots that have captured the public’s imagination. Here is a selection, and the implements used:
Killer clowns: Francisco Rafael Arellano Félix, a Mexican drug kingpin and former leader of the Tijuana Cartel, was celebrating at a birthday party when he was felled by armed men dressed as clowns in Los Cabos in 2013. The drug lord had hobnobbed with celebrities and sports stars, and his family, known as the Arellano Félix clan, was said to have inspired the film “Traffic.”
Assassins with red noses and bright-orange wigs mingled among 100 guests. Footage of the scene captures Arellano Félix’s last moments: As two bands played and a man sang, the clowns began shooting. “He was hit by two bullets, one in the chest and one in the head,” Isai Arias, a Baja California state government official, said at the time.
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Nerve agent in the ear, and face: The Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was targeted in September 1997 by Mossad agents who sprayed poison on his skin. The plot failed after Israel handed over the antidote. As Meshal was about to enter his office in Amman, Jordan, one agent aimed a lethal nerve toxin at his neck, but missed and sprayed him in his ear. The Hamas leader later said a shivering sensation raced down his spine “like an electric shock.” At the hospital, he was given two days to live. A furious King Hussein of Jordan demanded that Israel provide the antidote, saying the agents would otherwise face execution. In an extraordinary move, Israel handed it over, saving Meshal’s life.
Kim Jong Nam: The estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, died after getting the nerve agent VX in his face at a Malaysian airport in February 2017, when he was set upon by two women who later said they thought they were pulling a prank.
Camera bomb: Just days before the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Afghan warlord and Taliban foe, was assassinated in 2001 by two men posing as journalists. The men, believed to be al-Qaida operatives, entered his headquarters in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan, where Massoud sat on a couch. The “reporter” detonated a bomb strapped to his waist and blew himself to bits. The “cameraman” set off a bomb hidden in the camera and ran from the room, jumping into the River Oxus. The general’s bodyguards pulled him out and killed him.
Deadly umbrella: Dissident writer Georgi Markov defected from his Communist homeland of Bulgaria in 1969 to start a new life in London, where he became a BBC reporter. Waiting to catch a bus to work on Waterloo Bridge on Sept. 7, 1978, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his right thigh but continued on to work. He developed a fever, was admitted to a hospital in South London and died four days later.
An inquiry revealed someone had used a specially adapted umbrella to inject a pellet containing ricin into his leg. The culprit was identified as a Bulgarian spy, Francesco Gullino, aka Agent Piccadilly.
Tea, with something extra: Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent and critic of Vladimir Putin who lived in exile in London, drank tea laced with polonium-210 in 2006 and died a slow, agonizing death.
Roman Tsepov, Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard, began vomiting and having diarrhea after drinking a cup of tea in St. Petersburg on Sept. 11, 2004. He died at 42, two weeks later. According to a BBC radio documentary, a post-mortem revealed radioactive contamination in his body.