The word “assassin” comes from the “hashish-in” (hashish eaters), assassins in Iran who followed Hasan Ben Sabah. Hasan took young men to his stronghold at the Fortress of Alamut, drugged them with hashish, gave them wine and women, and told them they’d experienced paradise.
Believing him, they trained in infiltration and killing, willing to die for him because they hoped to reach paradise again. Using assassination, Hasan manipulated politics in the region till he tried to kill a Mongol lord who retaliated by destroying the fortress in 1256.
Assassination remains an extremely powerful tool because it can change national policy and alter the course of nations without using military force. It can also prevent wars or start them. The following leaders were assassinated at the very height of their popularity.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
Lincoln was the 16th American President elected in 1861. Though known as the Great Liberator for finally putting an end to slavery, Lincoln’s primary aim was to keep the Union together.
By the mid 1800s and led by Britain, calls to end slavery grew stronger. The northern states had already begun to industrialize, so many there were sympathetic to abolition. The southern states, on the other hand, needed slaves because they were still dependent on agricultural production.
This resulted in the American Civil War of 1862 to 1865. After the Confederate defeat, John Wilkes Booth thought he could still save the south by assassinating Lincoln. He got his chance on 14 April 1865 when he shot the president at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Lincoln died early the next morning.
2. Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1868)
McGee is considered to be one of the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation. He was a poet who rose to political prominence with the support of the Irish community in west Montreal.
Early on, McGee supported the idea of Canadian independence from England. Having gotten his wish in 1867, he then had to fight another political battle with some of the Canadian Irish. A number of them called themselves the Fenian Brotherhood and were devoted to creating a separate Irish state on Canadian soil.
McGee condemned this brotherhood, which they saw as a betrayal, since they had supported him. On the morning of 6 April 1868, he was shot outside his house by James Patrick Whelan. As Canada was barely a year old, McGee was its first political assassination.
3. Mahatma Gandhi (1948)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a lawyer who was educated in Britain. In 1893, he moved to South Africa to represent Muslim Indian traders in Pretoria, which is when he began to champion the cause of Indian independence from Britain.
He moved back to India in 1914 and began organizing labor groups for greater rights under the British regime. He also championed the cause of women, of untouchables, and economic policies to deal with poverty. His penultimate aim, however, was an independent India.
In attempting to build a pluralistic nation, Gandhi fell afoul with Hindu nationalists who did not like the way he accommodated Muslims. After several failed assassination attempts, Nathuram Vinayak Godse finally succeeded when he shot Gandhi three times at close range in New Delhi on 30 January 1948.
4. Liaquat Ali Khan (1951)
Liaquat was born in India and educated at Oxford University in Britain. He originally served in India’s Congress Party, and later, as the first Finance Minister of the British Indian Empire (which was an interim government prior to independence). He was as instrumental as Mohammad Ali Jinnah in demanding a separate state for India’s Muslims, so when Pakistan got its independence in 1947, he became its first prime minister.
Though pro-Western, he was determined to keep Pakistan in the Non-Aligned Movement. He also opposed India’s incursions into Kashmir. His pro-Western stance angered Islamic hardliners and pro-communist sympathizers, while his stance on Kashmir angered several foreign governments.
During a speech in Rawalpindi on 16 October 1951, he was shot by Saad Akbar Babrak. To this day, no one is sure why.
5. John F. Kennedy (1963)
Kennedy was the 35th American president, the first Roman Catholic to hold that position. His administration oversaw the height of the Cold War and some of the worst atrocities that resulted.
During his tenure, the US launched the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba. Its aim was to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro and replace it with a friendlier government. This led to the Cuban Missile Crisis when Kennedy nearly began World War III by his uncompromising stance against the Soviet Union. Finally, he escalated America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, devastating an entire region.
On 22 November 1963, he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald for reasons still unknown.
6. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968)
Although the African-American Civil Rights Movement preceded King, he is virtually synonymous with it. A Baptist minister, he was also a human rights activist who advocated nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight the plight of African-Americans and other minorities in the US.
He unsuccessfully fought to end segregation in the American south and organized the March on Washington in 1963. It was at this event that he gave his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” The following year, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
He was in constant danger and needed regular protection and police surveillance. On 4 April 1968, while giving a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, he was shot by James Earl Ray. Though Earl confessed to the killing, he later recanted, but received a life sentence.
7. King Faisal (1975)
Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was the king of Saudi Arabia from 1964 till 1975. His older brother, King Saud, was very unpopular because of his incompetence and extremely lavish lifestyle at a time when Saudi Arabia was still a poor, underdeveloped, and feudalistic society. Fearing he’d destroy the country, his own family ousted and replaced him with Faisal.
Faisal was a far better ruler. He drastically cut spending, introduced reforms that required girls to get an education, ended slavery, brought television into the country, and focused on infrastructure development and modernization. He also allied the country with the West, banned political ties with communist countries, supported Palestinian independence, and promoted pan-Islamism.
On 25 March 1975, he was shot by his own nephew, Faisal bin Musaid, for reasons still unknown.
8. Indira Gandhi (1984)
Gandhi was India’s fourth Prime Minister and the first woman to hold that position. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister, she ensured the dynasty which still dominates Indian politics today.
Gandhi centralized the government, increased the powers of her position, declared a state of emergency to ratify the constitution, and held staunchly pro-Hindu views. It was she who launched the war against Pakistan in favor of East Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
In the early 1980s, Sikh separatists fought for an independent Punjab. In 1983, they seized the Golden Temple at Amritsar to highlight their demands. Indira’s response was to storm the temple with Operation Blue Star, angering Sikhs worldwide.
In retaliation, she was shot by her own Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984.
9. Rafic Hariri (2005)
Hariri was Lebanon’s Prime Minister twice: from 1992 to 1998 and from 2000 t0 2004. He was generally well-liked because of his role in Beirut’s reconstruction after its 15-year-long civil war. Hariri’s policies also stimulated the country’s economy by inviting in foreign investment, simplifying the tax code, and curbing inflation.
He was, however a supporter of the Hezbollah and anti-Israel. This put Lebanon at loggerheads with the American regime of George W. Bush Jr. who had just launched his War on Terror.
On 14 February 2005, he was killed by a bomb while in a motorcade. Twenty-two other bystanders died from the blast. The UN blamed the killings on Hezbolla, while the Hezbollah blamed Israel. The final blame fell on Syria, forcing it to pull its troops out of Lebanon.
10. Benazir Bhutto (2007)
Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s 9th prime minister and its 4th president till he was executed in 1979 after a military coup. Undaunted, Benazir became the country’s 11th prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and the first woman to hold that post. She would win that position a second time from 1993 to 1996.
Her policies failed to revive the country’s poor economy, however, making her extremely unpopular. In 1996, her government was dismissed because of corruption charges forcing her to flee in 1999. In 2007, she was granted amnesty by President Pervez Musharraf and allowed to return to Pakistan.
On December 27 of that year, she was back on the campaign trail in Rawalpindi when a bomb exploded, killing her and 20 other people in the crowd.