Q&A: Cleaning up the Cleaner

Hi! I really enjoy your blog and it’s always useful for my WIPs! I stumbled upon your assassins posts recently and I’m wondering, what is the way to kill an assassin, realistically? Maybe intentionally, or by accident? Thank you so much for all your helpful posts!

The good news is, your assassin is basically just another person. When it comes to accidental deaths, they’re as vulnerable as anyone else. A previously unknown food allergy, an auto accident, or any number of other things that could kill a random person will also end them.

If you’re talking about engineering an “accident,” then, the same rules apply, but this stuff is a lot harder to pull off in the real world, so it’s less of a consideration. Though, your characters who were hired to kill the assassin could start by engineering a car crash, to soften them up. Then, when they’re recovering from their airbag going off, execute them and leave.

As for the best way to kill an assassin? A rifle at long range. Preferably on a semi-auto with the ability for quick follow up shots, and a shooter who knows how to use it. That’s a lot of options.

Note, I didn’t say “suppressed,” up there. Even a block away, firing from a window, the sniper’s going to have time to vacate before anyone comes looking. So, the suppressor just buys time they don’t need, and messes with the ballistics. A couple clean shots and they’re done. Maybe have a support team on the ground closer to the target to finish them off if the sniper doesn’t get the job done.

I mean, ultimately, assassins aren’t superhuman. Even when we’re talking about the mythical master assassins that may not even exists, they survive because no one knows who they are. If you strip that anonymity, they’re as vulnerable anyone else to being killed.

So, let’s step back from tactics, you need an assassin dead. You have options. First, you need to know who’s hunting your assassin, this sets the ground rules that will determine how effective your assassin’s tradecraft will be. Second, your hunters need to ID your assassin. Finally, once you have those two pieces of information, your hunters need a plan.

There’s a lot of people who could want an assassin dead. Who they are will determine what they can bring to the table.

Private citizens are, probably, the least dangerous over all. If your assassin is no longer in the same zip code, their options are going to be limited.

A cop (corrupt or not) is a little more dangerous. If your assassin is operating in their jurisdiction, they can probably call in a SWAT team, or something similar. They’re also dangerous because they’re specifically trained to investigate crimes. They have the best training and skills to track down your assassin after the kill. They may also have the training to kill your assassin, but if they don’t they can make a phone call and get people who do, and they will. Police don’t operate alone. A stray detective figures out who your assassin is, and next thing you know, every cop in the city will be aware of this, and keeping an eye out.

Finally, while a cop can’t hunt your assassin around the globe, they can share their information with other police agencies. In some cases, they may even be able to travel and explain the situation to others in person. They won’t have enforcement authority, but when it comes to investigating your assassin, they don’t really need that if they can cultivate a good working relationship with the locals.

Also, since we’re talking about globe hopping, it’s worth remembering, INTERPOL agents are not an international version of the FBI, they’re liaisons between national police agencies. They have no arrest or enforcement authority. Their job is simply to alert and inform police about criminal actives that have jumped borders. They’re a recognized organ of the UN, but they are administrative, not enforcement.

Ironically, organized crime figures have similar limitations to the police. If the assassin stays out of areas they have influence over, they’re (basically) out of reach. They’re not as well trained to investigate an assassin, and they don’t have the same resources. The difference is, that organized crime figures may have access to corrupt cops. How much control may vary, but it’s possible they could point the police at your assassin, just to make things messier. They’d benefit from some of that investigation, and might be able to turn that into useful information.

A spy with access to their agency’s intelligence resources is probably one of the most dangerous foes to have hunting your assassin. They will have access to highly trained specialists, their investigative skills are probably on par with the local police. In some cases they may even be able to direct local law enforcement or military responses. Worse, these guys can go (pretty much) wherever they want to pursue your assassin. Your assassin hops a flight out of the country, and for most cops, that’s the end. An intelligence officer has people on the ground there already.

An intelligence agency also has the resources to start putting together the entire picture. If your assassin’s been flying under a dozen assumed identities, given time, and resources, an analysis team can blow your assassin’s covers, and find out where they’re going before they get there.

For an agency to get involved, two things need to happen. The assassin needs to target someone that warrants the agency to look into the killing. (Or attempted killing.) We’re probably outside of the range of simple political hits, or witness cleanup here. The assassin was paid to kill someone who was important, whether they succeeded or not. Also, the assassin needs to be exposed as an assassin. This might sound obvious, but when we’re talking about “master-class assassins” in the real world, there’s significant debate whether they’re even real. So, to get an intelligence agency hunting them, their existence needs to become credible, at least to the spy and the people they report to. (This second part isn’t a particularly high bar to hit, but it’s worth remembering this stuff, “doesn’t happen,” in the real world.)

Once you know who’s hunting them, you can start evaluating how hard it will be to ID them. The reason is because people hunting your assassin will have radically different resources and skill sets at their disposal. Much like the above groups, the kind of assassin we’re dealing with will determine how well protected they are.

I’m using the classifications from that UK article in 2014, (which was paywalled sometime in the last five years.) You can find an article we wrote on the subject here.

A lot of amateurs (both Novice and Dilettantes if you’ve read the link), don’t really hide their identity. You want them dead, you can just find and kill them. This includes most hitters working for organized crime. They’re only interested in hiding from the police, not from their own community. So, if you’ve got someone who was hired to kill a mobster without family approval, finding them is going to be relatively easy if you have mob connections. Ironically, in a case like that, the hard part would be getting to them before the cops.

Because they don’t travel, Journeymen are also pretty easy to track down and eliminate. If someone has a reputation as an assassin, you’re in the know, and recognize their work, you know where to find them and who to kill. These guys are legitimately dangerous, as they likely have a military background, but there’s not much one person can do against an organized squad with similar training, sent to kill them.

And before someone asks, yes, I’m entirely familiar with the cliche where one person picks off an entire squad of assailants. That’s mostly fantasy. A squad that actually behaves and moves like a squad, will be able to outmaneuver and eliminate any a single foe who lacks superpowers.

I’m guessing we’re talking about someone more insulated. If your assassin is one of these master-class types, who’s working through cutout connections, they may be pretty well protected. Your people never meet the assassin, they meet a representative somewhere. That representative passes the contract to the assassin, and there’s never any direct connections between them. IDing them later could be tricky. You can’t take a city like New York or London and scrutinize everyone that came and went on a given day.

You need a plan to find out who this is. There are options here. Luring the assassin into a situation where you might be able to collect evidence on them, leading to their identity. Trying to use them multiple times, in different places, while trying to collect evidence on people who were in all of those places. (Problem here is, like I mentioned, it’s hard to filter individuals out the mass of people moving around the globe at any given moment.

I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be, though. If you’re wanting to burn an assassin, all you need to do is make sure your people are there, and can respond, to take out them out when they strike. Put a hit on your friend, warn their security detail, beef it up, give them the time frame. Assassinating someone who’s well protected is dangerous work to begin with. A trapped contract is an entirely legitimate danger, and one that will be hard to account for before hand. Bonus points if you’re supplying the means to get through the security cordon, because at that point you can rig “silent alarms” to their access, letting security know that the assassin is on the premises, and it’s time to start clearing the place.

Another solution is to pull them out of their comfort zone, sabotage their exit strategy, and hunt them down. With enough corruption or the right incentives, this may be possible in some metro areas around the world. Though, the “standard” answer would be someplace isolated, in the wilderness. Send them out there to kill someone, then hunt them down using advanced technology.

Of course, you could just hire someone that knows them. Though, that could get tricky when you’re evaluating their loyalties. Will they kill for you, or will they just warn their buddy?

So, when I listed intelligence agencies earlier, this is the only kind of assassin they’re likely to be facing. Even journeymen can be dealt with by local law enforcement, someone operating at this level may warrant that kind of attention. This kind of a threat can bypass a lot of basic tradecraft that an assassin may employ. That whole cutout thing might not work if the people hunting them can set up a Stingray without oversight or pull their all of the cutout’s satphone data via a National Security Letter. The kind of security necessary to prepare for this kind of scrutiny would directly interfere with your assassin being able to do their job.

As for a plan to kill the assassin once you know who they are and where they live, that’s the easy part. They’re just human. Find them, put a bullet in them. Maybe put a few more in just “to make sure.” I mean, you can get more creative, but the efficient methods will, usually, be more reliable.

So, goals are to look for places where the assassin will be unprotected (basically outside of their home, and familiar haunts.) Hitting them on the road is a good way to achieve that, as everyone has to go somewhere sometime. You can also exploit this, if you have enforcement authority over a zone that normally prohibits weapons. For example: An airport; you can lock the place down, and hunt them in an environment where they’re not normally able to arm themselves, and they cannot flee.

Like I said, they’re not superheroes, you can gun them down like anyone else. The only hard part is finding the assassin, not the actual killing.

-Starke

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