Throughout history, there has always been a fear of poison as a likely method of assassination. The post of royal food taster has never been a popular one. But hard evidence of the use of poison, particularly by the intelligence services and their predecessors, is actually quite hard to find. Whenever there is a suspicious or untimely death, poison may be cited, but it can be very difficult to prove. Furthermore, poison can be uncertain. More often one finds that it is swords, guns, bombs and the occasional ice pick that are used to deal with troublesome targets. It is really only in the late twentieth century, with access to new compounds and radioactive isotopes, that poisoning has really taken off as an assassination tool.
One of the few certain examples of poisoning as a method of dealing with enemies dates from 1378, during the Hundred Years War between England and France – but even that is one of failure. The Spanish Duke of Navarre, an English ally, visited John of Gaunt, (who was effectively the English ruler since Richard II was just a child). Navarre proposed to send a team to poison the French king, Charles V, in order to end the war. John was sceptical – it was not the English way. But Navarre told John how he had just got rid of a troublesome cardinal using that exact method. Eventually, John appears to have agreed. Sadly the attempt didn’t work, Philip’s security was just too good. Two of Navarre’s agents were caught preparing the plot, the French invaded Navarre’s possessions in Normandy and he was forced to flee to his holdings in the Pyrenees. England went on to lose the war a generation later.
Other accusations of the use of poisons in the mediaeval period appear to have more to do with rumour than fact. In the early sixteenth century, Lucrezia Borgia had a reputation as a femme fatale. It was even said that she possessed a hollow finger ring containing poison ready for her use. But although the Borgias murdered with alacrity, the evidence suggests they preferred the dagger or the axe to the use of poison. It appears that Lucrezia was a pawn in her family’s plans who has been much maligned by history.
Poison did concern the rarely noted Vatican secret service in 1659, but this was its use for criminal rather than espionage purposes. For several years there had been a spate of poisonings in Rome. Priests who had heard confessions from young widows were alarmed and informed the papacy. The victims of the poisonings were usually wealthy men. The supplier of the poison seemed to pick female clients who could amply reward her. The papacy investigated and found that the supplier of the poisons was probably a woman named Hieronyma Spara, but her meetings with clients were secret and no evidence could be obtained. The pope called on his secret service advisors and a woman was sent as an undercover agent. She dressed herself in the most magnificent style and was given plenty of money. She put it about amongst La Spara’s contacts that her husband was a multiple adulterer and cruel abuser and that she was desperate to be rid of him. Sure enough she was invited to a secret meeting and was given poison. The sample was analysed and when it was confirmed, La Spara’s house was surrounded and she was arrested. She and four women who had poisoned their husbands were hanged in Rome. Thirty women were publicly whipped through the streets and numerous others, who being high born must be spared such punishments, were banished and/or heavily fined.
At one time there were allegations that Napoleon Bonaparte had been poisoned by the British by putting arsenic in the wallpaper of his bedroom. But, in exile far out on St Helena, Bonaparte was never a threat and subsequent investigation showed that the arsenic detected in the wallpaper was part of the green colouring process. Traces of arsenic were detected in hairs taken from Napoleon’s body, but not in levels high enough to kill him. Stomach cancer was the far less dramatic cause.
In 1916, Russian noblemen tried to rid the country of the monk Rasputin by poisoning him with tea and cakes laced with cyanide. It was a plot in which it is alleged that the British secret service had a role. But once again poison did not work. Rasputin had to be shot and stabbed before he finally died.
Unfounded accusations of the use of poisons continued into the 1960s. At this time, the part of the CIA responsible for assassination was known as the Health Alteration Committee. Its activities were exposed in the mid-1970s by a Senate committee headed by Frank Church. There were contested allegations that the CIA had a plan to send poisoned cigars to Fidel Castro and even a monogrammed poisoned handkerchief to a pro-Communist Iraqi colonel. But most of these plans never materialised and certainly no one died even if they did.
It is really in the current era that poisoning finally arrived as an espionage tool. On 7 September, 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident and journalist working for the BBC’s World Service, was attacked on Waterloo Bridge in London with an air gun umbrella containing a ricin pellet. He died four days later. Markov’s death warrant had been sealed because he wrote scripts for Radio Free Europe mocking Bulgarian President Todor Zhikov. Zhikov had Markov declared an enemy of the state and the attack was carried out on the date of Zhivkov’s 67th birthday. The assassin has since been named as Italian Francesco Guillino, a drug smuggler who was turned by the Bulgarians after being arrested for a minor offence in 1972. He has never been charged.
Interestingly, a similar attack had taken place in Paris two weeks earlier, but the victim had survived. His name was Valdimir Kostov and he had been hit in the back as he was leaving a Parisian Metro station. He fell ill, but after 48 hours began to recover. Kostov was another Bulgarian defector. He contacted Scotland Yard when he heard about Markov. Kostov was examined and an identical pellet was found. Kostov had survived because the thickness of his clothing had meant that the pellet was not implanted deeply enough in his skin to be effective.
Mossad are the leaders in the use of assassination by intelligence services. They most often use bullets or bombs, but they are quite prepared to use poison as well. In 1997, Mossad planned to assassinate the Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Amman. There had been two Hamas bomb attacks which had killed many Israelis and demanded a reprisal, but at the same time the Israeli government was worried that an attack on Jordanian soil might provoke King Hussein. So it was decided to use poison rather than a bullet or bomb. Mossad developed a contact poison similar in some ways to the Novichok poison used against the Skripals. The plan was that two members of Mossad’s Kidon assassination section would come up behind Mashaal as he was walking in the street. One would spray the target, the other would shake up and open a coke can so that when the target turned round that was what they would see and not be suspicious. The officers also carried an antidote in case of blowback. The problem was that the attack failed. Mashaal was not killed in the initial attack and the two attackers were caught by his bodyguards. As predicted, King Hussein was furious. He told the Israeli government that if Mashaal died he would have to execute the two Mossad men or he’d have a Palestinian uprising on his hands. So Mossad did a deal: they gave Mashaal the antidote in order to save their own men.
Finally, in September 2004, the Russians got in on the act. Viktor Yuschenko, a Ukranian politician was poisoned with dioxin during his Ukrainian Presidential campaign. But the FSB got it wrong. He survived.
In the same month, the Indonesians used the same method. Human rights activist Munir Thalib, 38, died after eating noodles laced with arsenic on an international flight to Amsterdam. In December 2005, a state enquiry found the intelligence services complicit. An off-duty pilot with the state-owned airline, Garuda, Pollycarpus Priyanto, was jailed for his part in the assassination.
On 1 November 2006, the FSB finally, and tragically, made poisoning work. Former KGB officer Aleksander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium added to his tea by Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun. He died on 22 November despite all efforts to save him. But although he died, the FSB still hadn’t got it right. The use of a radioactive poison left a trail that clearly implicated the two assassins and Russia suffered sanctions as a result.
One of the burning questions of modern intelligence work is: Did the FSB then get their use of poisons right? In the period after Litvinenko’s assassination, there were a spate of suspicious deaths. Around fourteen men who had fallen foul of Putin’s regime were found dead in suspicious circumstances, such as Alexander Perepilichny, 44, whose body was found 10 November 2012 after he had been out jogging. The cause of death and the circumstances tended to vary, but the evidence is certainly compelling.
Then in March 2018, former FSB officer Sergei Skripal was attacked using a Novichok contact poison. Once again the use of poison failed as it has so often before. Three victims survived and the only person killed was an innocent bystander who found the poison some days later. If the FSB really had cracked the problem of poison use, then they definitely slipped up this time.
There is also the fact that there is an atmosphere of panic in the Russian emigre community. In October 2008, a Russian lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, was due to travel to Moscow for the preliminary hearing of three suspects accused of murdering the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Shortly before her flight, Moskalenko and members of her family suffered headaches and nausea. They then discovered a mysterious metallic liquid on the floor of her car. It looked like another FSB poisoning hit. However, the French police found that the liquid was mercury which had spilled from a barometer that had been broken while being moved by the car’s previous owner. It was exposure to this that had led to the symptoms. Similarly, Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to the British has claimed that he has been poisoned just as Litvinenko was, but so far all the evidence indicates that he suffered a stroke. In May 2018, Vladimir Kara-Murza, former Cambridge University student, who had once acted as interpreter for Boris Berezovsky, suffered what he thought was a poisoning attack. He had returned to Russia and become involved in the Russian opposition. He thought that there may have been two previous attempts in 2015 and 2017. This final attack was enough to force him abroad for his safety. But three failed attempts? Is that really credible?
The one recent and undisputed use of poison occurred in February 2017 and it was not by the Russians. Kim Jong-nam, half brother to the North Korean leader, was poisoned by having a substance rubbed on his skin at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The assassins had been tricked into applying the poison thinking that it was part of a TV reality show stunt. They were both released. The North Korean hit team escaped.
In conclusion, even though poison is used by some intelligence services, fear of its use may be just as effective a deterrent. It may be that the Russians have perfected its use, but the evidence is contradictory. Poisons are uncertain and often leave incriminating evidence. For intelligence services, drones, bombs and bullets are likely to be the favoured assassination option for some time to come.