That attack followed the July assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe by a man wielding a homemade gun in Nara city. And Abe was slain almost exactly a year after gunmen killed Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in a raid on his home in Port-au-Prince.
Together, these high-profile acts of violence potentially point to a new, volatile era in global politics, experts say. After years in which terrorist bombings dominated the headlines, this new spate of attacks is reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, when major U.S. figures such as President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. were killed in pivotal moments.
“There’s never going to be an end to individuals who want to assassinate public individuals,” said Colin P. Clarke, director of research and policy at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy. But Clarke also said there were several factors that could lead to a rise in assassinations, including the “decline, at least in some parts of the world, of jihadi organizations” that favored different tactics.
In their place, “you’ve got the rise of far-right extremists who are far more decentralized,” he said. “And then you’ve got what people are calling ‘salad bar terrorism,’ which is when they kind of pick and choose different aspects of what motivates them to engage in these types of acts.”
Data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which includes figures up to 2020, shows a sharp increase in assassination attempts on government figures around the world starting in 2014. The number of assassinations has stayed consistently high since then — even as the number of terrorist attacks has fallen.
It’s a trend that may have been overlooked in recent years. Erin Miller, program manager at GTD, noted that most of the attacks targeted low- to mid-level officials — and not prominent political leaders such as Khan or Pelosi. The most recent statistics, she said, were dominated by insurgent-led attacks in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover in 2021.
GTD’s data suggests that the late 1980s was another period when assassinations spiked. Miller said terrorist attacks such as suicide bombings that often kill indiscriminately were used much less then.
“Targeting political leadership was a tactic used to get attention for a cause with less risk of alienating the civilian population,” Miller said. “In more recent years, assailants adopt both targeted assassinations and mass-casualty strategies.”
Part of the shift may be structural. As groups like the Islamic State lost their territory, Clarke said, there was a rise in violence committed by people working alone, some of whom had been radicalized online to hate or target specific individuals.
To some extent, there may also be a tactical logic to the shift. Assassination attempts on individuals can often prompt significant political changes. Some attacks have changed the course of history, though not always in precisely the way their perpetrators intended: The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Austria-Hungary in 1914, for example, is considered the spark for World War I.
Views of assassinations can also change over time. In India, the assassin who killed beloved independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi has retroactively been branded a “patriot” by some supporters of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some historians consider the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right extremist in 1995 a disastrous moment for the Middle East peace process. But almost three decades later, the far right has emerged as kingmaker in the country’s most recent election.
Even in Japan, the shocking assassination of Abe in July sparked a surprising turn: The country took the alleged assassin’s motives seriously.
The alleged killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he wanted to carry out the assassination because his mother had made large donations to the Unification Church, a religious group with which Abe apparently had close ties. After the killing, Abe’s former party pledged to end its relationship with the church, though it later backtracked.
Japan, while generally nonviolent, has a significant history of political assassinations. But some countries that had long avoided attacks on senior officials have seen assassinations in recent years: Two British lawmakers have been killed in separate politically motivated attacks since 2016.
In Brazil, where there has long been political violence around election periods, the number of violent incidents involving political party representatives and supporters in the lead-up to the 2022 vote “eclipsed” that in the election four years before, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
At least some of the apparent rise in assassinations may be due to technological changes. Abe was shot with a “craft-made” gun created with readily available materials. Designs for similar weapons, which can be bought without a background trace and sometimes produced in a way that avoids metal detectors, can be found easily online.
There have been reported assassinations attempts via drone in recent years, such as the 2018 attack on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during an event in Caracas. Maduro survived the alleged attempt, a low-tech echo of U.S. drone attacks like the one that killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in 2020.
“Cruder technology lowers the barriers to entry for attackers, allowing even untrained or unprepared extremists … to attempt serious plots,” Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, two experts in counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote for the War on the Rocks website.
Experts have also noted an increase in assassinations committed with state backing, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the killing of Kim Jong Nam by North Korean agents, and numerous deaths linked back to the Russian state.
But the ever-widening political polarization around the world, aided by online echo chambers that can radicalize potential perpetrators and demonize potential victims, has only added to the risk of assassination — as in the attack at Pelosi’s home that left her husband, Paul, wounded.
Clarke noted that figures on both the left and the right in the United States have been targeted in politically motivated attacks. In some ways, the spate of attempted killings felt worse than what came before.
“We’ve been here before. We’ve survived it,” Clarke said of U.S. political violence. “But there are people I speak to who say this feels fundamentally different. It feels like nothing’s beyond the pale, at least in terms of the rhetoric.”