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Assassination at the heart of British foreign policy

The killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike on 3 January has focused attention on the long history of US assassinations. (PN 2638–2639) But alongside that must be placed a similar British history.


An RAF Technician checks the tailfins of an Enhanced Paveway III bomb during NATO's bombing of Libya in 2011.  Photo: SAC Sally Raimondo/MOD / OGL v1.0 (http://NationalArchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)

While the official rhetoric surrounding British foreign policy stresses human rights, international law, the sovereignty of nations and the promotion of democracy, the historical record suggests that assassination and regime change (together with lying, bribery, propaganda blitzes, the incitement of mobs and the support of brutal dictators) have been more often the constant features.

Heavenly coup

Let’s take just a few examples. In 1953, Winston Churchill, hailed as Britain’s war-time leader, enthusiastically promoted Operation Heaven to remove the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mussadiq (sometimes spelled ‘Mossadegh’ or ‘Mossadeq’), who was considered to be threatening British oil interests in the country.

Fazlullah Zahedi, a general and former chief of police known to be ruthless and manipulative, was selected by Britain’s MI6 and its US equivalent, the CIA, to replace Mussadiq following any coup.

The queen said she was surprised nobody had put something in Nasser’s coffee.

According to Rory Cormac in his history of British covert action (Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy, OUP, 2018), around $11,000 per week went to politicians and newspapers. ‘By galvanizing opposition actors and disseminating provocative propaganda, covert action created an atmosphere in which over-enthusiastic third parties were more likely to engage in assassination. Anti-Mossadeq factions committed a wave of kidnapping and murders prior to the coup’ (p102).

Mobs were bribed to foment riots on the streets of Tehran. Following the coup in August 1953, the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, resumed full power – going on to head one of the most brutal dictatorships of the last century before himself being toppled in the 1979 revolution. (Mussadiq was kept under house arrest until his death in 1967.)

‘Destroy’ Nasser

Next, British attention focused on removing president Gamal Adbel Nasser in Egypt. Even our-dearly-beloved-queen Elizabeth joined in.
As Cormac reports: ‘Evelyn Shuckburgh, in charge of Middle Eastern affairs at the Foreign Office, updated Queen Elizabeth on the “machinations of the wicked uncle, Nasser” over lunch in July 1955. In an unguarded moment, she said that “she was surprised nobody had found means of putting something in his coffee”. Shuckburgh agreed taking out Nasser was “a good idea which ought to be applied to a number of people in the Middle East”’ (pp119–120).

Anthony Eden fumed: ‘I want Nasser destroyed, can’t you understand. I want him murdered.’

Similarly, British prime minister Anthony Eden fumed in a telephone call to his foreign minister, Anthony Nutting: ‘What’s all this nonsense about isolating Nasser or “neutralising” him as you call it? I want him destroyed, can’t you understand. I want him murdered, and if you and the Foreign Office don’t agree, then you’d better come to cabinet and explain why’ (p123).

In the end, all attempts to remove Nasser failed.


US and UK covert warriors next moved on to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically-elected prime minister in 1960.

Here, MI6 worked with the CIA in Project WIZARD to destabilise and overthrow Lumumba. Forged letters, spreading rumours of corruption and witchcraft, were inserted into newspapers to discredit him.

Both US and British spooks called for Lumumba to be killed. US president Dwight D Eisenhower even expressed the wish that he fall into a river full of crocodiles (p152). The CIA’s Larry Devlin was tasked with assassinating Lumumba – using poisoned toothpaste provided by the CIA’s appropriately named Health Action Committee.

But, as Cormac concludes: ‘Lumumba was executed by firing squad in January 1961. It was an improvised and bungled job resulting in his mangled corpse being dissolved in acid. Daphne Park [head of MI6 in Léopoldville, now Kinshasa] has since claimed responsibility’ (p152).

Half a million

In Indonesia, a propaganda offensive aimed at removing the president, Sukarno, from power. Articles tainting him as a communist were inserted into the local press – and a radio station broadcast similar smears.

In 1959, the CIA considered assassinating (or, euphemistically, ‘biologically immobilising’) Sukarno. In 1962, Macmillan and Kennedy agreed to ‘liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities’.

Three years later, the Indonesian army began the mass killings of communists in Sumatra, Bali and Java. By the end of December 1965, around half a million people had been murdered. As Cormac reports coldly: ‘Officials in London watched with satisfaction’ (p175). Sukarno was finally toppled in a coup in March 1967 (and remained under house arrest until his death in 1970).

Hit squads

In Aden, during the 1960s, SAS teams masqueraded as locals but carried hidden weapons in order to snatch, arrest or kill terrorists (p204). Similar strategies were adopted later in Northern Ireland where members of the top-secret Military Reaction Force (MRF) and the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) formed hit squads to take out the enemy.

In 1978, a series of killings by the SAS, including that of a 16-year-old boy, proved highly controversial. As did the killing of unarmed IRA targets in Gibraltar in 1988. Cormac comments: ‘Political restraints fluctuated throughout the 1970s and 1980s but it does appear that undercover units, starting with the MRFs, had authority to lure and then lethally engage terrorists’ (p209).

British policy in Afghanistan – backing Islamic fundamentalist groups against Soviet invaders during the 1980s – also openly acknowledged the need for assassinations. Gust Avrakotos, a CIA officer running the Afghan programme, commented: ‘The SIS [MI6] had a willingness to do jobs I couldn’t touch. They basically took care of the “How to Kill People Department”’ (p233).

Similarly, following the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Britain’s special forces gradually took on a more offensive role working closely with MI6 to find and eliminate key targets (p254).

Get Gaddafi

Seizing power in Libya by ousting king Idris in a 1969 coup, colonel Muammar Gaddafi quickly established close links with the Soviet Union – and so became the target of massive covert operations by the French, US, Israeli and British.

Stephen Dorril, in his history of MI6, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in a complete flop.

Then, in 1986, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was perhaps hoping for an action-replay of the Falklands factor when she gave the US permission to fly 24 F-111 attack jets from the US 48*th* Tactical Fighter Wing, based at USAF Lakenheath in East Anglia, to bomb Libyan targets – and assassinate Gaddafi. In the end, he escaped.

NATO bombs killed Gaddafi’s 29-year-old son, Saif el-Arab, and three of his grandchildren.

Attempts to oust Gaddafi continued. David Shayler, a former MI5 agent, alleged that MI6 were involved in a plot in March 1996 to assassinate the Libyan leader as he attended the Libyan general people’s congress. His motorcade was attacked by dissidents with Kalashnikovs and rocket grenades. While Gaddafi escaped, there were casualties on both sides.

During the 2011 rebellion against Gaddafi, on 30 April, NATO bombs killed Gaddafi’s 29-year-old son, Saif el-Arab, and three of his grandchildren who were sheltering in his Tripoli compound. One of the grandchildren, Mastoura, was just four months old.

Finally, on 20 October 2011, after he was captured in a culvert close to Sirte, Gaddafi was lynched by a mob and sodomised with a bayonet by a soldier as revealed, appallingly, to the world in graphic video. Or as the tabloid Star, plunging to appalling journalistic depths (though reflecting the ruthless language of the state), put it: ‘Mad dog put down.’

Richard Lance Keeble is professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln and honorary professor at Liverpool Hope University. His latest books are Journalism Beyond Orwell (Routledge, 2020) and George Orwell, the Secret State and the Making of Nineteen Eighty-Four (Abramis, 2020). 

Topics: Foreign Policy