10 ways spies have tried to poison people

September 6, 2018  

Ever since state apparatuses were created, those in power have used political assassinations as a way to stay on top – and poisoning has been a favourite method used.

Soviet and Russian history, in particular, is rife with episodes of poisoning, even dating back to Ivan the Terrible.

According to Thomas Boghardt, writing for the International Spy Museum of Washington DC, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin established a special department in 1943 called Smersh – a name later used by Ian Fleming in his James Bond novels – which aimed to equip KGB spies with innovative secret arms laboratory that they could use to assassinate enemies, without using so-called “wet” ways of killing.

But many other nations have been accused of using poison to fulfil their political objectives, including the US and other eastern bloc countries.

Administering a silent spray of pneumonic plague during a personal audience

Target: Yugoslav leader Josip Tito

Unlike other Eastern bloc communist leaders, Tito refused to align his country with the Soviets. Stalin was infuriated and decided to have him eliminated. To rid themselves of Tito, the KGB looked at numerous methods of killing, one of which was administering a silent spray of pneumonic plague during a personal audience.

According to a collection of Cold War archives compiled by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Soviet agent known as “Max” was to arrange a private audience with Tito during which a mechanism concealed in Max’s clothes would release a dose of pulmonary plague bacteria, guaranteeing the death not only of Tito but of all those present.

Max would have been given an anti-plague serum in advance.

Another plan involved him being presented with a booby-trapped box that would release a lethal poison gas as soon as it was opened. The operation was ditched only after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Tito lived many years longer, finally dying in 1980 at the age of 87.

A gun designed to fire rounds of cyanide that is disguised as a cigarette pack

Target: Anti-communist Russian exile Georgi Okolovich

In 1954, KGB assassin Nikolai Khoklov turned up at the Frankfurt flat of the Germany-based dissident and told him: “I’ve come to you from Moscow. The [Kremlin] has ordered your assassination.” But, he had already changed his mind, and instead defected to the US where he was paraded at a news conference at which the weapon with which he was supposed carry out his assassination was exhibited. It was an electrically operated gun, fitted with a silencer and concealed in a cigarette pack, which shot bullets containing cyanide.

Later, in 1957, Khoklov was treated for the effects of poisoning with radioactive thallium, said to have been administered by the KGB – in a case often regarded as the first person-to-person radiological attack by Soviet or Russian security services.

Injecting a ricin pellet into a target’s skin using an umbrella

Target: Writer and journalist Georgi Markov

Bulgarian playwright Markov had fallen foul of the communist authorities repeatedly, before his defection in 1969, after which he settled in London. When he started broadcasting reports critical of the Bulgarian government on Radio Free Europe, he was earmarked as an enemy of the regime.

On 7 September 1978, he was walking across Waterloo Bridge on his way to his job at the BBC when he felt a sudden stinging pain in the back of his thigh. That evening, he developed a fever and four days later he died in hospital.

In 1990, a Russian-British double agent Oleg Gordievski claimed the KGB had supplied ricin to the Bulgarian spy services and given them an umbrella which could deliver a pellet made of the naturally occurring poison that was fired into Markov’s leg.

Lethal disease injected into toothpaste

Target: Patrice Lumumba

In 1960, the CIA was terrified that Republic of the Congo was increasingly at risk of Soviet influence. The prime minister of the newly independent African nation had appealed to Moscow for help in the face of a mutiny in the army.

According to Madeleine G Kalb, in her book The Congo Cables: From Eisenhower to Kennedy, the agency’s Congo bureau was told to expect a mysterious figure called “Joe from Paris”, who would fly in on an urgent mission.

Although Lumumba had been deposed, there were fears he would return to power and “Joe” was the CIA’s top scientist who arrived in the central African nation with a kit containing an exotic poison designed to transmit a fatal indigenous disease. The poison was supposed to be injected into Lumumba’s toothpaste, or his food, with the intention of killing him, in a way that could not be traced back to the US.

In the end, there was a Western-backed military coup d’etat and Lumumba was arrested and eventually executed without trial.

An airline drink of orange juice spiked with arsenic

Target: Indonesian human rights campaigner Munir Said Thalib

Munir upset the Indonesian authorities by accusing its military of human rights violations in East Timor, Papua and Aceh and running a criminal network involving illegal logging and drug running.

On 7 September 2004, he was poisoned with arsenic while on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, and died an agonising death two hours before arrival.

A former Garuda pilot who was travelling on the flight, Pollycarpus Priyanto, was convicted of murder in 2005 and it was alleged that he placed the arsenic in Munir’s orange juice at the order of a senior official with Indonesia’s state airline, something the official denied.

At a subsequent appeal hearing, it was alleged agents for Indonesia’s state intelligence agency, BIN, had been ordered to kill Munir and had sent a letter to the Garuda official telling him to place Priyanto on board the flight.

It was also said in court that Priyanto shared a total of 41 phone calls with a BIN director.

Ingestion of dioxin through food or drink at a formal dinner

Target: Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko

In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko was the pro-Western candidate in the race for Ukraine’s presidency against pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

In September of that year, amid a bitterly fought campaign, Yushchenko fell suddenly seriously ill and flew to Austria for treatment. It was found he was suffering from acute pancreatitus caused by a virus and chemicals not normally found in food. Blistering and other changes to his face led British toxicologist Professor John Henry to determine he had been poisoned with dioxin.

Further studies determined his body contained TCDD dioxin – a component of the Vietnam War herbicide Agent Orange – at levels 50,000 times normal, according to The Lancet.

It emerged that, shortly before he became ill, Mr Yushchenko had dinner in Kiev with top officials at Ukraine’s security service the SBU.

The source of the dioxin was never identified, as it was extremely pure. But Mr Yushchenko recovered and was president from 2005 to 2010, after his victory in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

Coating a letter with a fast-acting nerve agent, probably sarin or a derivative

Target: Mujahideen and Chechen war leader Ibn al Khattab

Saudi-born Ibn al Khattab took part in the fight against the Russia military in Afghanistan in the 1980s before heading to Muslim-majority Chechnya where separatists took part in an insurgency against the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After becoming a rebel leader during several conflicts in the Russian Caucasus, he died on 19 March 2000 after a messenger delivered a letter which turned out to be poisoned.

Later that year, the Jamestown Foundation reported that an unnamed FSB agent said Khattab had been killed by an Arab double agent, who had earlier been turned and recruited by the one of the CIS (Russian Federation’s) spy agencies.

Further reports from pro-Chechen rebel media said Khattab was killed by a Dagestani intelligence agent. Dagestan is part of the Russian Federation.

The Jamestown Foundation cited a source that said he died within five minutes of opening the letter.

Posing as Canadian tourists to bump into the target on a street corner and spray fentanyl in his ear

Target: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal

West Bank-born Khaled Meshaal was head of Hamas more than 20 years before he stepped down last year, operating out of Jordan, and later Syria, Doha and Cairo, and was accused by Israel of ordering the killings of Israeli civilians.

On September 25, 1997, agents from Israel’s intelligence service Mossad are said to have attacked Meshaal in Amman with a device that stunned him and injected a poison into him.

Time magazine was among the publications that reported that his attackers had entered Jordan using Canadian passports and, according to an Al Jazeera documentary, one approached him as he left his office and sprayed the super-strong painkiller fentanyl in his ear from a device hidden underneath a bandaged arm.

But the plan went wrong. As Meshaal was taken to hospital, two of the Israel agents were quickly arrested and three others sought refuge in their country’s embassy. Protracted negotiations then ensued in which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to release Palestinian prisoners and provide details of the antidote that led to Meshaal’s recovery.

Tampering with tea ordered after take off on a plane

Target: Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya was one of the most prominent writers on human rights and political events in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including on the state’s war against insurgents in Chechnya. In 2004, she published a book titled Putin’s Russia, about the Russian state’s mafia-like aspects.

On a flight to Rostov, to cover the Beslan school hostage siege in 2004, Politkovskaya asked for a cup of tea shortly after take off.

Shortly before, while in the airport, she had become aware of three men who she has been told by a bus driver were FSB officials.

Within minutes she felt ill and called the air stewardess, blacking out soon after. The following day she woke up in Rostov regional hospital, to be told by a nurse that doctors had thought she would not survive. The nurse whispered: “My dear, they tried to poison you.”

She went on to report on the siege, at which more than 300 people, including many children, controversially died, and was herself shot dead in the lift of her apartment block two years later.

Polonium 210 in tea served in a white ceramic pot in a hotel lobby

Target: Former FSB officer and defector Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko fled to the UK after he was arrested amid allegations he and others made about an FSB plot to kill oligarch Boris Berezovsky and ended up writing two books about the Russian state.

On 1 November 2006, Litvinenko met two former KGB agents at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, for a drink. One of them, Alexander Lugovoi, who knew Litvinenko from previous work together, offered some tea in a pot he had ordered but not finished. It contained polonium 210, a highly radioactive isotope. He took just three or four mouthfuls and soon became ill. He died 17 days later, after telling Scotland Yard detectives what had happened.

It was never established which of the men put the polonium in the tea pot. British police pieced together the men’s movements and produced a cast iron case that the UK says proved they we responsible for his murder. Lugovoi later became a politician and has since had his American assets frozen by the US.

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