LOL: The Art of Assassination

On the morning of 14 February 2017, a grainy closed circuit television video shows a middle-aged Korean man striding casually into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He is approached from behind by a young woman in a white t-shirt and blue skirt and in a flash she throws a cloth over his face to administer a lethal dose of a colorless, odorless liquid. The victim, Kim Jong Nam, is the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He did not yet realize he was already doomed; assassinated by unknown assailants wielding an unidentified chemical weapon. The ongoing international manhunt that followed revealed the greatest strengths of the storied Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch and the brutality and skill of the North Korean intelligence service. The incident also strained relations between Pyongyang and one of the few countries in the world with which it enjoys normal relations.

The brazen murder also captivated millions and brought a shadowy underworld briefly to the surface. What is not apparent to most is that last week’s dramatic events were not a lucky strike by clever opportunists, they were the end result of a sophisticated intelligence operation – actually several separate operations – spanning multiple countries and likely involving dozens of intelligence officers and their agents. (In the professional jargon of the intelligence community, an agent is someone recruited by an intelligence officer.) Coordinating their activities to achieve the final spectacular, and previously impossible result is the real art behind the assassination.

The Cat and the Mouse

Once considered a likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was passed-over following a careless indiscretion and went quickly into exile while his younger sibling thrashed about in the tense early days of his rule. Despite great doubt about his ability to muster the ruthlessness required to retain power over the isolated country, Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated his hold using imprisonment and death to control anyone presenting the slightest political threat. In an environment where even kinship was less important than loyalty, Kim Jong Nam was bound to be targeted even if he had not made statements questioning the stability of his brother’s regime.

Nam Assassination
Before his fortunes faded, Kim Jong Nam (left) was the presumptive heir to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now his half-brother, Kim Jong Un (right), leads the country. Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/exclusive-two-female-secret-agents-behind-murder-kim-jong-unsbrother/

The elder Kim withdrew deeper into a dark exile after his father’s death in 2012. In China and Macau he was assumed to be under state protection and travelled under numerous aliases. He had already survived at least two attempts on his life and reportedly begged his half-brother to spare his life and that of his family. His final minutes in Kuala Lumpur were a bizarre drama. After being assaulted by the woman in white, he was initially treated at an airport clinic before being evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital. He died en route, just as police were beginning their hunt for his alleged attackers, an Indonesian girl – Siti Aisyah – and a Vietnamese national, Doan Thi Huong, the now infamous woman wearing the coldly ironic “LOL” t-shirt.

After her attack on Kim Jong Nam, CCTV footage shows Doan calmly leaving the scene and catching a taxi outside. Despite having just administered a lethal dose of an unknown chemical, she displayed no concern for her own safety and wore no obvious protective equipment. She had clearly practiced the sequence. Both Doan and Siti Aisyah later told police separately they believed they were taking part in a made for television prank. But Doan’s actions in the 48 hours prior to the attack suggest she had received some training in tradecraft. During that time she stayed in three hotels in the immediate vicinity of the airport and paid cash for her lodging. At one point she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut her hair, leaving the remnants in the trash can in her room. Her activities during the day are just coming to light but are now known to have included numerous rehearsals and examinations of the target area; possibly in conjunction with Siti Aisyah. These are classic, if clumsy techniques to avoid detection and rehearse the operation. They certainly signal a nefarious intent.

The Art of Assassination

To the casual observer, Kim Jong Nam’s death may seem like the handiwork of a couple clever and highly trained operatives. The reality is that intelligence operations of this kind are highly choreographed, involve dozens of actors, and are compartmented for security. Assassinating Kim Jong Nam required at least five, and as many as seven separate operations managed by seven or more intelligence officers with perhaps dozens of agents in Macau, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The overall operation likely consisted of the following supporting operations:

  • Recruit the assassins. Siti Aisyah was recruited in Indonesia. Doan may have been recruited in Vietnam.
  • Determine Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans. Doan was aware of Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans at least 48 hours prior to the attack. She used this time to rehearse and to complete her reconnaissance. Information gleaned from his social media feed is not reliable enough for this purpose and had to be corroborated with direct knowledge from intercepted communications or recruited agents in a position to provide assured access to his itinerary.
  • Report Kim Jong Nam’s movements. The attack required very precise information about his flight, his mode of transportation, his likely arrival time at the terminal, the gate/check-in counter for his flight, what he was wearing, etc.; all of which had to be communicated to the assassins in a timely manner. A botched operation would have been far too damaging to leave this to chance. This could have been as simple as a phone warning from his hotel but doing this reliably requires layers of mobile and static surveillance at the hotel, the airport, and his many residences.
  • Deliver the chemical. The chemical used to kill Kim Jong Nam was smuggled into Malaysia or manufactured locally. It likely required special skill to make and specific equipment to store and administer. For Security, Doan would have received the chemical secretly and been trained in its use at the last possible moment raising the risk it could have killed bystanders or the assassins themselves.
  • Kill Kim Jong Nam. There is a possibility Doan and Siti Aisyah may have been employed separately to ensure redundancy. They may even have been unaware of each other’s activities. The leaked CCTV footage of the attack supports this conclusion, though there is new information that they rehearsed the attack together.
  • Observe and report the outcome. Though this could have been conducted overtly through North Korean diplomats and/or monitoring of the press, it is a critical piece. At a minimum, Doan needed to report her task complete or a separate observer had to be in place at the scene to do so. Emerging information suggests this was the task of the four North Korean nationals still sought by Malaysian police.
  • Exfiltrate the assets. The four remaining fugitives all left Malaysia within a few hours of the operation. They took circuitous routes back to North Korea via Indonesia, Dubai, Russia, and elsewhere. Their roles are not certain but probably also included passing intelligence and issuing final orders. One, Ri Jong Chol, remained in Kuala Lumpur and was apprehended Monday. Doan and Siti Aisyah seemed to lack viable escape plans. It is possible they were left as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail of fleeing North Korean intelligence officers.
assassination malaysia
Deputy National Police Chief of Malaysia Noor Rashid Ibrahim, left, speaks as Selangor Police Chief Abdul Samah Mat listens during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, http://time.com/4676018/kim-jong-nam-death-north-korea-suspects/

Though it was possible to conduct some of the supporting operations above clandestinely, meaning the operations themselves remain hidden, the politically explosive death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother could never be kept secret and therefore had to be done covertly, meaning the sponsor’s hand remains hidden. A covert operation is much more difficult to execute than a clandestine one and requires layers of separation between intelligence officers and their agents that are typically not highly trained operatives. Agents are deniable and sometimes coerced. Occasionally they do not know whom they are working for or even that they are working for someone at all.

As an additional security measure, the supporting operations would be kept completely separate. The risk of detection is highest when these operations come together through communications or physical contact, meaning the moment of greatest vulnerability was during the attack itself when all the pieces were brought together in time and space. At that point, all the complicated designs of the North Korean regime rested on the element of surprise and the skill and demeanor of half-trained agents.

Ultimately, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam was a well-planned and skillfully executed intelligence operation, but the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch is untangling the knot with great efficiency. With its roots in the long, difficult fight against Communist insurgency, Special Branch is a tough adversary in the ongoing spy game. Known locally as SB, Special Branch serves as both the internal and external intelligence service of the Malaysian state. They enjoy good relationships with counterparts in the region and are receiving excellent mutual support from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry which is aggressively setting the conditions for international cooperation in the investigation. Though culpability for Kim Jong Nam’s death may never be fully proven, SB has managed to minimize political damage to Malaysia and imposed a high cost on North Korea. With the dust still settling, only Kim Jong Un himself can say if his brother’s murder was worth the resultant damage to relations with Malaysia and the increased suspicion that the operation has inspired around the world.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016. Read about one of his encounters with the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur.

Arming Ukraine: The Debate

Russia has been fighting a war on Ukrainian soil since its “little green men” took over the Parliamentary building in Crimea in February 2014. The ongoing conflict, triggered by the flight of the Russia-backed President of Ukraine, has been very costly in human terms. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimated in a 2016 report that approximately 16,000 people have been killed or injured and around 2.8 million displaced by the fighting that continues despite two ceasefire agreements (Minsk I and Minsk II).

Even if the Minsk agreements are fulfilled, Ukraine will continually be at risk of Russian invasion. Kiev has very little control over its 1200-mile border with Russia and after years of neglect of its armed forces, Ukraine is at a great disadvantage relative to its large and well-armed neighbor. Clearly ignoring its previous commitments, Russia continues using its proxies to destabilize Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and to maintain a corridor to Crimea.

Ukraine
Wearing no insignia, a Russian soldier stands guard in front of the Parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo credit: Reuters via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/03/02/article-2571301-1BEE383000000578-462_634x419.jpg

In response, the United States and NATO have committed more than $600 million in non-lethal security assistance to Ukraine. This assistance includes training, advice for defense reform, and, according to the White House, defensive systems such as “counter-artillery radars, secure communications, training aids, logistics infrastructure, information technology, tactical UAVs, and medical equipment”. NATO provides advisory support, defense reform assistance, defense education, demining operations, and explosive ordnance disposal, and has created five trust funds to support Ukrainian defense. In addition, the US and Ukraine conduct two joint military exercises each year: SEA BREEZE and RAPID TRIDENT.

Russia’s actions and the collective response to it have led to a vigorous debate in western capitals about whether to respond by arming Ukraine. In 2015, citing an increase in ceasefire violations, a conglomerate of authors from three prominent US think tanks issued a report calling for the US to supply Ukraine with light anti-armor missiles and to give Ukraine three tranches of $1 billion in military assistance in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Obama Administration, along with leaders of France, the UK, and Germany, opposed this course of action, but the apparent failure of non-lethal western aid to end the fighting is reenergizing some in the US Government to call for lethal assistance.

The Cost of Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Arguments in favor of arming Ukraine with defensive/offensive weapons emphasize security guarantees for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Despite a Russian tendency to probe the international community for resistance before making risky decisions, the underwhelming response by the US and EU to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 set a precedent in which the West settled for a frozen conflict. Proponents of arming Ukraine contend the West needs to send Moscow a clearer message about its involvement in former Soviet republics and the near abroad, a region Putin deems is his area of influence.

Additionally, Russia has been a participant in acts of war as well superficial attempts at peacemaking in Ukraine. Over the last three years Russia brokered ceasefires in conflicts to which it is a party and then violated those agreements for political purposes. This duplicity undermines international rules and norms and amplifies the security dilemma with many post-Soviet and Eastern European countries.

To those in favor of arming Ukraine, sanctions seem an ineffective way to alter Putin’s behavior despite a Russian economy in decline from falling oil prices. Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, one of only two warm water ports to which it has access, is strategically significant due to the presence of untapped oil and gas reserves off the coast. Russia has already illegally taken control of Crimean oil rigs and Putin may believe he needs a “land bridge” to the peninsula that would traverse East Ukraine through Mariupol. Lastly, Russia relies on defense manufacturing in the region that was once part of the Soviet Union’s sprawling defense sector.

Crimea Annex
Following the February 2014 invasion, Russian troops occupy the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. Photo credit: http://www.vox.com/2014/4/8/5590378/a-russian-invasion-of-eastern-ukraine-just-got-more-likely-heres-why

To many, the arming of Ukraine is a logical next step in trying to force Putin to resolve the issue diplomatically. French and German leaders made numerous unsuccessful attempts to obtain a ceasefire and an agreement to end the conflict while the Americans brought violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to the UN Security Council as required by the Budapest Memorandum. Despite this, militants in East Ukraine have denied access to, threatened, and even fired upon OSCE observers. This blatant aggression seems to confirm the notion that Putin only understands force. Some observers cite recent research suggesting Russia uses tactics of bluster for political purposes and avoids risk in foreign policy endeavors. Western assistance through lethal defensive weapons could increase the risk level for Russia and help to call Putin’s bluff.

A History of Tepid Solutions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the UK and France oppose the idea of arming Ukraine. They note the importance of maintaining a coordinated response to Russian aggression to give validity and legitimacy to the West’s Russia policy. However, there will be difficulty obtaining consensus among all 28 EU member countries. Sanctions are a historical point of contention for economic reasons and because some countries are more reliant on supplies of Russian gas than others. Furthermore, arming Ukraine could prompt Putin to escalate the conflict, giving him a pretext for sending Russian troops overtly into Eastern Ukraine in much the same way he invaded Georgia in 2008. These points aside, if any further escalation by Russia is not dealt with forcefully by the US and EU, it would be a blow to western credibility and invite further Russian aggression.

The state of the defense sector presents a vulnerability for Russian aggression and an important opportunity for further western defense assistance. In 2016, the Poroshenko administration created a comprehensive plan for reforms based on detailed Rand Corporation recommendations for restructuring and strengthening the security and defense sector. Also in 2016, a former director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) became a special advisor to Ukrainian defense company, Ukroboronprom, for long-term development. While the industry is beginning to modernize and restructure, it remains relatively dilapidated with a distant prospect for tangible progress. The restructure of the Defense Ministry and General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for instance, will not likely be completed prior to 2018.

Strengthening the Western Stance

The US and EU must determine realistic objectives for their actions. Bellingcat, an open source analytical organization that uses satellite imagery in investigating war zones, recently issued a report detailing what they purport to be evidence of cross-border shelling by the Russian government against Ukraine in 2014. Despite this, the West continues to accept the Russian argument that it does not need to be a signatory to ceasefire agreements or be held accountable for violating them. This charade is symbolic and useless at best; flippant and insulting to the West at worst.

Arming Ukraine with defensive weapons, a continuation of US policy under the Obama administration, seems to be the most prudent decision vis-à-vis Russia’s actions and the current state of Ukraine’s defense sector. However, for Ukraine’s long-term viability it may make more sense for the West to promote Ukrainian defense by advising and supporting the restructuring of its defense industry. Still, it is not enough. Aggressive and determined Russian actions in Ukraine require a definitive US strategy and better coordination with Europe, both of which are currently lacking. Until the West can settle the debate about how best to arm Ukraine, the fighting will continue on Russian terms.


Heather Regnault is a Ph.D. Student in International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology with experience in Kyiv, Ukraine. This article in no way represents the views of Georgia Institute of Technology, or the Faculty of the Department of International Affairs.

Onward and Upward: Looking Back on 2016

Here at The Affiliate Network, wrapping up 2016 means looking back on the year to examine the issues that mattered most to the world, keeping in mind our goal to inform our readers, foster debate about the substance of global issues, and promote the expertise of our Affiliates.

With such a tumultuous year, our Affiliates had plenty to discuss about the year’s events. We published 13 pieces by contributors from around the world, each Affiliate lending their own unique perspective on issues in international policy, security, and diplomacy.

Human Security vs. National Security

The conflicts of 2016 continue to highlight the human cost of war and underscore the increasingly uncomfortable reality that some governments prioritize national security over the safety and wellbeing of their constituents. The fight against Daesh is a good example, leaving a trail of civilian victims in its wake and begging the question how the rest of the world can help the helpless in this terrible conflict. The atrocities in Syria and Iraq – as well as the resultant flight of tens of thousands of refugees to Western Europe – will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

Unfortunately, discussions of immigration in Europe often segue into concerns over terrorism. The year was marked by a rise in terror attacks across the globe, particularly in Europe. The Brussels Airport bombing in particular represented a decision point for the western world in the fight against terror. Stemming from this event and growing questions of interregional border security, Europe grapples with the realities of an increasingly complex security situation. Rein Westra underscores the importance of adapting to this circumstance in Securing Trade and Transportation.

As Navisio Global’s CEO, Lino Miani, highlights in a series of articles on the fight against Daesh, humanitarian concerns and terrorism in Europe are only one aspect of the challenges in the Middle East. In Making Mosul Great Again and The Gate, Lino describes the unfathomable strategic importance of two individual cities in Syria and Iraq as Russia, Turkey, the United States, Iran, and NATO wage what some believe is a proxy struggle for influence in the Middle East.

Nationalism & Populism in 2016

The presidential election in the United States captured attention the world over, but it was not the only political transition in the news. In Let’s Change, Jon Nielsen wrote about the end of the Kirchners and Peronism in Argentina. Though Argentina may be ending its tradition of power transfer from husband to widow, Mugabe’s Heart explores how long-time president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, may be following the same playbook as the Kirchners.

http://uk.businessinsider.com/eu-referendum-poll-brexit-beckons-as-97-of-britons-think-david-cameron-cant-get-a-deal-2015-5
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped down as a result of a failed campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU

Elections were not the only political events captivating audiences in 2016. In the United Kingdom, the referendum to leave the European Union, also known as “Brexit”, dominated headlines and may have inspired similar movements throughout Europe. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after Italians rejected a constitutional change to the legislative balance of power, resulting in increased instability within the broader Eurozone. Elsewhere, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey narrowly avoided falling victim to his country’s latest military coup and has since consolidated power through purges and repression. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was impeached on corruption charges and President Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela is leading the resource-rich Bolivarian state into poverty and despair as he clings to power.

A Fractured Future?

The coming year will put to work the lofty campaign promises of those who won elections in the past year and focus our attention on additional ones the world over. France, Germany, Chile, South Korea and India will all hold presidential elections in 2017. Many of our readers are alarmed that trends of nationalism and populism will shape the character of the EU and the western world for the next several years but some of our Affiliates offer voices of calm in the storm. Portuguese diplomat and former United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative, Victor Angelo, offers a contrarian perspective into the implications of the historic Brexit referendum in The Sky is not Falling on the European Union. Victor Perez-Sañudo makes a similar case from a law enforcement perspective in With or Without the EU. Nick Avila then follows up with an intelligent debrief into what Brexit truly means for the European Union and the European identity in The Spark to Redefine “Europe”.

Brexit aside, multilateral institutions continue to play an important role in international relations and security. Jon Nielsen identified important implications to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in A New Weapon in the South Atlantic. On the Pacific side of the world, overlapping claims to the South China Sea caused intermittent escalation of tensions. Lino Miani examines the complex dynamic between ASEAN and China using lessons from the conflict in Ukraine in Beyond Crimea.

The concept of international cooperation is reliant on a level of shared values and understanding within the international system but fear and distrust seem to be on the rise and misunderstandings abound. The east-west cultural divide rests at the foundation of many security issues that predominate. In Tangled Conflict, Caleb Ling points out there are still many misconceptions about unrest and conflict in the Kingdom and Mike Kendall highlights the often dangerous rhetoric used to describe China’s rise to power in Social Media’s Chinese Boogeyman.

The Affiliate Network would like to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday, and we look forward to providing you the same quality of analysis in 2017 that we did in 2016. To our readers: a sincere “thank you” for all of your likes, shares and comments. The Affiliate Network team hope that like us, your holiday will be rich with constructive policy discussion at the family dinner table.


Patrick Parrish

Patrick Parrish is the Blogmaster of The Affiliate Network.  He is a U.S. Air Force Officer currently serving in Santiago, Chile.

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