George Clooney plays a professional assassin in The American. Are there full-time assassins in real life?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 1 2010 6:39 PM

Do Freelance Assassins Really Exist?

They're huge in Hollywood.

The American poster. Click image to expand.
George Clooney stars as a professional assassin in The American.

In the new movie The American, George Clooney plays a mysterious professional assassin. The American got the Explainer wondering—are there people in the real world who commit murders for a living?

Probably not full-time. Lots of people kill for money, but they wear other hats as well. They may work as burglars, drug mules, or bodyguards in private security firms. And while national intelligence services occasionally task operatives with targeted assassinations, it's unlikely that any of them keep "assassins" in their employ who do nothing but kill. Of course, we only know about the murderers we catch. No one can rule out the possibility that a well-paid gun-for-hire is loafing around the Italian countryside right now waiting for his agent to call.


The profile of your average contract killer largely depends on where he plies his trade. In the United States and in England, contract killers are usually small-time criminals looking to make extra cash. (Gigs pay between a few hundred dollars and $25,000.) The FBI and London metropolitan police each investigate fewer than 100 contract killings per year, on average. Most are gang-related, but occasionally someone tries to bump off his or her spouse for insurance money. Trigger-men are often first-time killers, not well-trained international assassins.

In Russia, contract-killing is more systematized. With Russian police largely unable or unwilling to track down suspected murderers, organized gangs began offering killer-for-hire services in the 1990s to add to their usual repertoire of pimping, drug dealing, extortion, and burglary. But, as in the United States and the U.K., it's highly unlikely that any trigger men work exclusively in the murder business, and it's not a terrifically paid side-job: Most hits pay only about a $100, with a few lucrative exceptions. Some estimate that, at the peak of Russia's crime wave in the 1990s, there were around 1,000 contract killings per year. (Such killings seem to have diminished slightly in recent years, but remain a significant problem.) At that rate, it's unlikely that a gangster could feed his family on murder alone, and there's no evidence that any tried.

The killers who best fit the Clooney-profile—well-trained, organized, efficient, and discreet—work directly for governments. The Israeli Mossad has carried out a number of Hollywood-worthy hits, and investigators estimate that the recent murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at a Dubai hotel, presumably carried out by Israeli operatives, required 20 planners and months of reconnaissance and planning. But, again, even Mossad probably doesn't have a stable of dedicated assassination specialists—they just have agents who sometimes carry out assassinations.

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

Explainer thanks Jay Albanese of Virginia Commonwealth University, Frank Hagan, author of Political Crime: Ideology and Criminology, and Kris Hollington, co-author of Terror Cops.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 4:15 PM The Trials of White Boy Rick A Detroit crime legend, the FBI, and the ugliness of the war on drugs.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 1 2014 4:55 PM Blood Before Bud? Must a gentleman’s brother always be the best man at his wedding?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 4:46 PM Ebola Is No Measles. That’s a Good Thing. Comparing this virus to scourges of the past gives us hope that we can slow it down.
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?