By Tahiat Mahboob  

In 1453, Dmitry Shemyaka, the Grand Duke of Moscow, met an unfortunate end while eating a chicken dinner. Bribed by agents of a rival, his cook had laced his meal with arsenic.

In the five centuries since, advances in chemistry, have meant that assassinations by deadly chemicals have become more and more sophisticated. From presidents to dissidents to rebel leaders and former spies, many have been targeted using poison.

Hunting the KGB Killers
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Here are seven cases of political assassination attempts using deadly chemicals:

Target: Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man
Poison: Cyanide
Status: Poison attempt unsuccessful, killed by shooting

Grigori Rasputin, a faith healer and mystical adviser in the court of Czar Nicholas II, had quite the influence in imperial Russia. His relationship with the czar and czarina were further strengthened when he supposedly helped alleviate their only son Alexei’s hemophilia. By the First World War, he was providing political advice and making recommendations for ministerial appointments. Some Russian elites were not pleased.

A group of conspirators, including the czar's first cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and Prince Felix Yusupov, invited Rasputin to Yusupov's palace on the night of December 29, 1916. The food and drinks they served to Rasputin were laced with cyanide. Oddly, the poison didn’t work. Undeterred, the conspirators shot Rasputin and threw his body into the Neva River, where it was discovered three days later.

Target: Georgi Markov, Bulgarian dissident writer
Poison: Ricin
Status: Deceased

A novelist and playwright in Bulgaria, Georgi Markov defected to the United Kingdom in 1969 and became a journalist. Once in the UK, he was openly critical of the Bulgarian government. In September 1978, Markov was walking towards a bus stop in central London when he was jabbed in the back of his leg with an umbrella. The man carrying the umbrella hailed a taxi and left. Markov developed a high fever that night. When he was checked by a doctor, the only thing the doctor found was a puncture on his leg. Within days Markov was dead.

It turned out that Markov had been injected with ricin, a deadly poisonous toxin. “The first thing he said was, ‘I was warned three months ago that they are out to get me and I’ve been poisoned by the KGB. I’m going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” recalls Dr. Bernard Riley, who treated him. Suspects in the murder include the KGB and many senior members of the Bulgarian secret police.

Target: Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas
Poison: Fentanyl
Status: Survived

Khaled Mashaal has been a member of the Hamas Political Bureau since its inception in 1987 and became its leader in 1996. Mashaal has been linked to multiple deadly suicide bombings and thousands of rocket attacks against Israel.

In September 1997, Israeli Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists, sprayed fentanyl into Mashaal's ear in an assassination attempt in Amman, Jordan. The Mossad agents were captured and King Hussein of Jordan told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the agents would be tried if Mashaal did not receive the antidote. Netanyahu reluctantly agreed and Mashaal recovered.

Target: Omar Ibn al Khattab, military leader the First and Second Chechen Wars
Poison: Possibly sarin or a derivative
Status: Deceased

Rebel commander Omar Ibn al Khattab fought in both Chechen Wars against Russia. In 1999, he played a key role in leading a rebellion by Islamic militants in Dagestan, a neighbouring region of Chechnya.

In March 2002, Khattab received a letter laced with a form of the nerve agent sarin, that killed him. It is alleged that Khattab’s killer was the messenger who delivered the letter — a Dagestani double agent by the name of Ibragim Alauri, turned by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Khattab would receive letters from his mother in Saudi Arabia and that was used as the opportune moment to carry out his killing.

Target: Viktor Yuschenko, third President of Ukraine, 2005-2010
Poison: Dioxin
Status: Survived

Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko was admitted to the hospital on September 10, 2004 with a case of dioxin poisoning. Doctors determined that he had ingested the concentrated poison five days before he was hospitalized — the same day he had dined with leaders of the Ukrainian Security Service.

Yushchenko's supporters pointed to his opponent and the Kremlin's preferred nominee, Viktor Yanukovych, as the likely suspect. They accused Russia of providing the dioxin.

The dioxin caused many problems including a noticeable impact on his face — bloating, pockmarks, and a greenish hue. Yuschenko survived and won the election, becoming Ukraine’s third president.

Target: Alexander Litvinenko, former officer of the Russian FSB secret service
Poison: Polonium-210
Status: Deceased

In 1998, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko was arrested on charges of abusing his office after exposing an alleged plot to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon. He was detained for nine months before being acquitted. He left Russia and sought asylum in the United Kingdom in 2000 and became a fierce critic of the Kremlin.

Hunting the KGB Killers

Litvinenko fell violently ill on November 1, 2006 after drinking tea with two Russian men at a London hotel. Three weeks later he died of "acute radiation syndrome." On his deathbed, he gave a statement to British detectives that he was poisoned on orders from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The poison used to kill Litvinenko is a rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210. The two prime suspects in the poisoning, Andrei Lugavoi and Dmitry Kovtun, are both former agents of the Russian security services. They both deny involvement in Litvinenko’s death. The Russian government refuses to extradite either to the UK to face trial.

Target: Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un
Poison: VX
Status: Deceased

After North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il passed away in December 2011, his youngest son Kim Jong-un assumed leadership. Reports reveal that Kim Jong-un learned of a coup his uncle had planned. It would overthrow him and put his older half-brother Kim Jong-nam in power. The uncle was executed in 2013.

North Korea: Murder in the Family
Kim Jong-Nam: Meet the Half-Brother of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un Who Was Poisoned

Kim Jong-nam had been living outside of North Korea since the 1990s, primarily in Macau and Beijing. While he still worked for the North Korean government, his world views were much different from his brother’s. “Personally, I’m against the third-generation succession,” he said in 2010 interview, following the announcement that Kim Jong-un would succeed their father as the leader of North Korea. “But I think there were internal factors behind the decision, and if this is the case, then we should follow that.” He also mentioned that he had no interest in taking power himself.

In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam walked into Kuala Lumpur airport to catch a flight to Macau. Two hours later he was dead. He had been assassinated using one of the most deadly chemical weapons on earth — VX. Within days, two women from Vietnam and Indonesia were arrested for his murder, but CCTV appeared to show several North Korean secret agents orchestrating the events in the airport that day.

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