February 21, 2024

Barely one day passed in 2024 before another reminder was issued of one of the most serious developments in national security and terrorism — the increasing prevalence of political assassinations around the world.  

In South Korea, Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, was stabbed in the neck on Jan. 2, by an assailant seemingly motivated by a corruption scandal surrounding Lee. The leader survived the attack. 

The attempt was just the latest in a long — and growing — line of assassination attempts against political leaders.  

In August 2023, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in Quito by Colombian hitmen. In September of the previous year, a man sporting Nazi tattoos attempted to assassinate Argentine vice president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, only for his gun to jam. That June, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was killed by a lone gunman with a homemade firearm, apparently for the leader’s ties with the Unification Church.  

The United States has avoided a successful high-profile assassination during the recent escalation in domestic political violence, but not for the lack of trying. In 2022 alone, serious plots targeted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In both cases, the would-be assassins made it all the way to their target’s home. Of note, these incidents underscore that assassination threats are not reserved by any one political ideology — they are weaponized by extremists of all stripes. Public service in the United States today often features a deluge of threats as an occupational hazard. 

Unfortunately, it is difficult to diagnose the cause of this apparent rise in assassination attempts targeting various nations.  

In the United States, to be sure, norms of civility have frayed, driven in no small part by a former president who seems to delight in threatening violence against his political opponents. In September 2022, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worked with Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation, Donald Trump posted on Truth Social that his former congressional ally “has a DEATH WISH.”

More recently, Trump fumed over former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s conversation with representatives of the Chinese government after the Jan. 6 riots, adding, “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Such language dehumanizes political rivals, and may in turn demystify the act of killing them. 

Other explanations include the rising prevalence of conspiracy theories targeting politicians. In my new co-authored book, “God, Guns, and Sedition,” we explore the rise in assassination threats surrounding both the COVID pandemic and 2020 presidential election, finding that both moments galvanized conspiracy theories that placed Democratic (and even centrist Republican) politicians in the crosshairs. Indeed, the gallows erected outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, combined with the crowd’s promise to “Hang Mike Pence,” was evidence of this rising trend. 

An even more concerning explanation might simply be a question of precedence. Recent trends in terrorist tactics and targeting, such as the ISIS-inspired van rammings that struck cities such as Nice and New York and the far-right lone actors who opened fire in places of worship, have proven once again that terrorists learn from one another. In other words, the pioneers who claimed the lives of Shinzo Abe and Fernando Villavicencio might ultimately have inspired others to follow in their footsteps.  

With this dark possibility in mind, politicians must be prepared to spend greater resources on their protection. According to the Washington Post, “Candidates running for House and Senate offices increased campaign spending on security by more than 500 percent between the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms.” 

But there is also a more optimistic possibility: Assassinations are typically chosen by “accelerationist” extremists who are particularly desperate to change the course of history, and should also, therefore, be interpreted precisely as a reflection of the strength of liberal democratic order. The most critical counterterrorism measure, then, is to continue reinforcing democratic institutions, including free elections and the free press, that isolate extremism to the fringes of society. 

Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he studies domestic terrorism and counterterrorism, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and DeSales University. He is the deputy editorial director at the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and serves on the editorial boards of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism and the International Counter-Terrorism Review. He is the co-author of “God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America,” published by Columbia University Press in 2024. 

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