Do spies and assassins really wear fake beards?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 17 2010 6:51 PM

Go Go Gadget Beard!

Do spies and assassins really wear fake beards?

A fake beard.
A fake beard

Dubai police revealed Tuesday that 11 disguised assassins strolled into one of the city's luxury hotels a month ago and killed Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Among other cloak-and-dagger accoutrements, the killers appear to have used hats, glasses, and false facial hair to conceal their identities. Do spies and assassins really wear fake beards?

Absolutely. When an assassin pulls off a hit in a public place, he usually wears what espionage experts call "light disguise," consisting of accessories that can be quickly removed—like glasses, a hat, a cane, or the old standby false mustache. That way, after pulling the trigger, he can duck into a restroom stall and change identities by peeling off his facial hair and ditching the chapeau. Beards also help to confuse electronic facial recognition systems that rely on precise measurements of the jaw line and cheekbones.

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Assassins may choose schlocky ready-made beards with self-adhesive backings when making a quick hit, because believability and unobtrusiveness are often counterproductive in these situations. Loud elements like a bad weave, gold teeth, patterned blazers, or prosthetic warts grab the attention of potential witnesses, who become so focused on the zany costume that they can't remember anything else about the suspect. One of the Dubai assassins, for example, wore a straw boater hat, which hasn't been a popular men's accessory for several decades and was sure to stand out in a crowd. (In the early 20th century, though, the hat was considered a kind of uniform for FBI agents.)

Verisimilitude is much more important when the agent is impersonating an actual person, or if he's working in the same area for a prolonged period. (Some operatives grow their own beards for these missions, but this doesn't work out so well if they have to dye their head hair for the sake of impersonation, or they're just not very good at growing a beard.) Human hair makes a more realistic beard than synthetic fibers. The only problem is that it tends to frizz up on humid days, which can expose the chiffon backing. The disguise can be stuck on with toupee glue or a similar adhesive, but you have to be careful. Faux-mustachioed upper lips can get sweaty in hot environments, and wet glue tends to fail. You don't want your whiskers peeling off on your first day undercover in a terrorist safe-house in sweltering Yemen.

Of course, in these sustained missions, facial hair is a small element of the overall disguise. Agents may self-tan, don color contacts, put pebbles in their shoes to change their gait, and adopt local mannerisms. Americans, for example, tend to slouch or lean against walls. Agents who are sent to Europe are taught to stand up straight and may be trained to use their hands more when they speak.

Fake beards have played supporting roles in several notable international incidents. When Australia's Nugan Hand Bank collapsed in 1980, amid accusations of having trafficked drugs to support American intelligence operations, one of the institution's founders was allegedly smuggled out of the country in a fake beard. Antonio Mendez, the former chief of disguise for the CIA, used fake facial hair extensively in Cold War Russia. He often put false mustaches on agents going to pick up Russian nuclear secrets from a double-agent called Trinity, so they would blend in with the other comrades. The CIA is so keenly aware of the importance of facial hair that it twice concocted schemes to remove Fidel Castro's beard, hoping that his nude face would seem less authoritative to the Cuban people.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Peter Earnest and Jonna Mendez of the International Spy Museum, and H. Keith Melton, co-author of Spycraft.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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