On a warm autumnal morning last month, three men lounging outside a mosque in Istanbul were chopped down with military precision by a burst of automatic fire.
The gunman took the time to make sure none of his targets had survived, firing a bullet at point blank range into the head of each victim as they lay sprawled on the ground.
The three dead men – Rustam Altemirov, Zaurbek Amriyev and Berg-Khakh Musayev – were all Chechens. A Russian arrest warrant had been issued for Amriyev in connection with the January 2011 bombing of Moscow airport, which claimed 35 lives.
The Turkish police investigation of the incident has identified what appears to be a team of eight individuals traveling under false Russian identities who had kept the targets under surveillance in the weeks before the hit.
The Turkish police believe that they were all members of Russia’s Military Intelligence Service, the GRU. Since 2006 Russian secret services have been authorized under a law signed by then President Putin to kill terrorists abroad.
There is little practical difference between the apparent Russian hit on three Chechen militants in Turkey and the US killing later the same month of militant Islamic preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki and Inspire editor Samir Khan in Yemen by firing a missile from an airborne drone.
Similarly, we might add to the mix the murder of alleged Hamas quartermaster Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, suffocated in a hotel in Dubai January 19, 2010, by a team of assassins apparently working for the Israeli Intelligence Service, Mossad.
And just this week we have heard news of a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC, allegedly hatched by the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy seems to be making a comeback, and the US adoption of drone strikes as an almost reflex response to potential terrorist threats is helping empower other states around the world to use lethal force against enemies overseas.
More often than not these states are quick to cite the ‘war on terror’ rubric to justify their actions.
This is something that should concern us all, because if intelligence agents start bringing violence and mayhem to the streets of towns and cities around the world, quite apart from the illegality of such tactics, a lot of innocent people are going to get caught in the crossfire.
Israel’s history of targeted killing is instructive. No matter how high-minded the intention, these operations soon careen out of control.
In April 1973 Israeli Special Forces launched an attack on several Palestinian targets in Beirut including the headquarters of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP). The strike on the PDFLP building claimed the lives of two Lebanese policemen and an Italian housewife who was shot dead when she opened her front door to investigate noises coming from outside.
The Mossad car bomb that killed the alleged mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre, Ali Hassan Salameh, in Beirut in January 1979 also claimed the lives of four innocent bystanders including a German nun and a British student, as well as injuring 18 others.
An earlier assassination attempt in Lillehammer, Norway, claimed the life of an innocent Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, after incompetent Mossad agents mistook him for Salameh.
This kind of contempt for innocent life starts to look a lot like terrorism, and that is the road we are heading down at breakneck speed.
President Obama needs to take a good long hard look in the mirror, and if he doesn’t want to see once and future President Putin staring back at him he needs to reign in his administration’s baser instincts and bring America’s counterterrorism policies back within the rule of law.