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.

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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.

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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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