Islamist Assassinations in the West

by DANIEL PIPES February 27, 2013

Terrorism broadly takes two forms: against random individuals who happen to be at a market place or on a bus at the wrong time; or against specific individuals because of who they are. The latter in turn divides into two: against broad categories of people (the military, Jews, people who were eyeglasses) and against specific public figures, either individuals or institutions. In effect, these last are assassinations (defined by Merriam-Webster as "to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons").

Horrific as the first two genres are, assassinations are the most terrifying and effective. Whereas the first two can happen to anyone and have the effect of creating a universal but vague dread, the third focuses on a small pool of targets and sends a specific signal to others not to follow in their footsteps. In general, therefore, assassinations inspire the most consequential fear, intimidate the most, and have the greatest consequences.

Actual public Western victims of Islamist violence have included:

  • 1980: Ali Akbar Tabataba'i, Iranian dissident, in the United States*
  • 1980: Faisal Zagallai, Libyan dissident, in the United States
  • 1990: Rashad Khalifa, Egyptian religious innovator, in the United States*
  • 1990: Meir Kahane, Israel politician of American origins, in the United States*
  • 1991: Hitoshi Igarashi, Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses*
  • 1991: Ettore Capriolo, Italian translator of The Satanic Verses
  • 1993: William Nygaard, Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses
  • 2004: Theo van Gogh, Dutch artist*
  • 2010: Kurt Westergaard, Danish cartoonist
  • 2010: Lars Vilks, Swedish artist
  • 2010: Jyllands-Posten, Danish newspaper
  • 2012: Charlie Hebdo, French satiric magazine
  • 2013: Lars Hedegaard, Danish historian and political analyst

Notes: * indicates a fatality. Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi, head of the Libyan government, was an Islamist in 1980. I do not list here victims of Muslim but non-Islamist assassinations, such as Malcolm X in 1965. For the record, a Palestinian Christian killed Robert Kennedy in 1968.

Statistical comments:

(1) Other than one isolated attack in 2004, this listing of 13 inexplicably divides into two distinct periods, seven in 1980-93 and five in 2010-13.

(2) Listed by their identity, the victims include 8 connected to culture and the arts, 3 political figures, 1 religious one, and 1 analyst. Of the eight cultural attacks, 4 involved cartoons, 3 Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, and one a movie, Submission.

(3) Geographically, 8 took place in Europe, 4 in the United States, and one in Japan. Of the European cases, three took place in tiny Denmark. Britain and Germany are conspicuously missing from this list. Oddly, the 4 American instances took place in either 1980 or 1990.

(4) State involvement can be discerned only in the first 3 cases (Iranian, Libyan, and Saudi, respectively).

(5) In terms of deadliness, 5 attacks led to a fatality, 8 did not.

And a personal note by way of conclusion: the Feb. 5 attack on Hedegaard - a friend and colleague at the Middle East Forum - inspired me to compile this listing in the hopes that aggregating these loathsome crimes will help wake more Westerners to the danger within.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and a contributor to

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