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Curse of the Assassins

Part 1: The Prototype of Terror

 Hasan-i Sabbah  Osama bin Laden

The evil that is terrorism is not new.
Today’s killers have their roots in an ancient plague that has long bedevilled the Middle East, epitomized in the deadly cult of Hassan-i Sabbah.

The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened.

When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will.

And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and say: ‘Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you return to paradise’. And the assassins go and perform the deed willingly.

— The Adventures of Marco Polo

Marco Polo brought the remarkable tale of Hasan-i Sabbah and his cult of Assassins to the West along with many other strange stories from his travels. He actually visited their former stronghold, the fortress of Alamut (“Eagle’s Guidance”), near Tehran, in 1273 C.E., nearly twenty years after the Mongols had first taken it, and a century and a half after the death of Hasan. Criticized by historians, often disbelieved as an Arabian Nights fable, even forming the basis of a famous Monty Python skit, yet his story has an important lesson for our time, and for the “war against terrorism” that is still with us.

For centuries beginning just before the First Crusade, the Assassins held the Muslim world in the grip of fear. From his mountain keeps, the Master, as he was called by his murderous devotees, the fidai, directed campaigns of holy terror chiefly against his Turkish and Persian neighbors. Rulers, generals, prime ministers, all could be struck down at any moment not just by a hidden assailant, but by a beggar or holy man on the street, even a trusted member of their own households. When captured, the attackers were contemptuous of death, resisting severe torture without betraying their comrades — sometimes even naming innocent people as their supporters, causing their deaths as well.

Sometimes a ruler would awake with a dagger in the pillow next to him, which usually was enough to make him reconsider his opposition. The great Saladin himself survived at least three attacks, and at times supposedly travelled in an armored wooden box for protection. Yet no Muslim force was ever able to eliminate the threat entirely: in the end, it took Hulagu Khan’s hordes of Mongols in a campaign of extermination to wipe them out as a military force in Iran. However even today, the descendents of the sect live on, in the millions of followers of the Agha Khan.

Hasan’s organization was clearly a prototype for modern Islamic terrorist groups. In some ways, it is eerily like Osama bin Laden’s. As one historian put it,

Hasan’s contribution to the art of assassination was that by careful selection, training, and inspiration he developed the practice into a sacred ritual and the prime weapon of a small state waging war against a great power. Thus, Alamut became the greatest training center of fanatical politico-religious assassins the world has known. [1]

We must sadly amend this, “until now.”

It is extremely doubtful there is any direct connection between the Assassins of old and Osama’s group, Al Qaida (“the Base”), or any other modern terrorist organizations with their suicide bombers. Yet many of their strategems of concealment and murder remain the same — not to mention their absolute conviction that Paradise awaits those who kill in God’s Name.

In one incident a thousand years ago that is oddly reminiscent of the attack on the USS Cole, a boat rammed into the barque of the Grand Vizir on the Tigris and a killer successfully leaped aboard. While even in this era of high-tech destruction, it seems that the terrorists who, disguised as Westerners, commandeered the doomed airliners on 9-11, did so with simple knives.

The history of the Order of the Assassins clearly illustrates the twisted depths and deadly tenacity of this monstrous evil which now threatens the entire civilized world. It shows the sort of enemies Western and moderate Islamic powers now must fight.

Believer against believer

There are several fundamental facts about Islam that Westerners need to realize to make sense out of the situation facing us.

First, in Islam, there is no real separation of church and state. This delicate balance that we now take for granted happened in the West because a foreign faith (Christianity) gradually supplanted the religions of the Roman Empire and the barbarian chieftains that replaced it. Countless arguments between popes and emperors, bishops and kings, made this division permanent in Western civilization, but it is totally alien to the Muslim spirit.

In Islam, a political movement is always also a religious movement, and a religious movement always has political implications and very often military ones as well. Even more than in the darkest days of the medieval West, heresy is treason, and treason, heresy.

Like Moses, Muhammad was a general as well as a prophet. Since the faithful are all expected to be fighters for God in some sense, there’s not much distinction between civilian and military, either.

Secondly, internal politics within Islam are all related to an ancient series of civil wars over who should succeed Muhammad. The schism began shortly after his death that persists to this day. This desperate feud between believers has gone on far longer than the petty squabbles between Catholics and Protestants, and has been at times even more bloody. It is out of these violent disputes that countless sects, including the Assassins, were formed.

Basically, after the prophet’s death, his successor (the Caliph) was initially elected by the faithful. The first three of these saw the initial explosion of Islam across Arabia and the Middle East, where the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zarathustrian Persian Empire lay exhausted from fruitless wars. However, in this process, Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, adopted son, and son-in-law, had been bypassed, finally being given the supreme authority shortly before being assassinated by another Muslim in 661 C.E.

The party that supported him and his son Hussain, likewise later martyred, became the Shiites. Though at times geographically and culturally extensive (at one time including Egypt and remaining the faith of Iran and much of Iraq to this day), they were, and remain, a substantial minority within Islam. The Shiites became the party of the opposition, of non-Arabs, of mystics and the discontented, plotting against the Arab-dominated “orthodox” majority faction of the Sunni.

(This is the reason there’s no direct link between Al Queda and the Assassins — Al Queda and its Taliban (“Seminarian”) sponsors are radical Sunnis sponsored by the Saudi Wahabi sect, while the Assassins were originally Shia. However, much of the underlying philosophy seems to be the same.)

Like Jews and Christians had before them, the Shiites borrowed many mystical ideas from the Persians. In particular they adopted beliefs in divine incarnations and transmigration of the soul. Many came to accept the existance of hidden Teachers, the true heirs of the Prophet, who had direct knowledge of God beyond the authority of Scripture and Tradition. These teachers were omniscient, infallible, and usually obscure or unknown. One such sect from whom the Assassins sprang followed an Imam (supreme authority) called Ishmael. The Assassins themselves were subservient to a later mysterious Imam called Nizar, supposedly in telepathic contact with Hasan, but never even seen by him.

As an underground movement already forbidden for three centuries before Hasan, the Ishmaelis spread their secret doctrines via small cells throughout the Middle East. The evangelists or dai concealed themselves as beggars, merchants, or mystics within the larger communities. By a careful, slow process of indoctrination, they would inculcate doubt in the minds of those drawn to them, holding out the promise of secret, liberating knowledge. They would gradually lead their disciples to see outward forms of religion as unnecessary, and systematically question everything — except blind obedience to the teacher. Through a series of as many as nine initiations, the disciples would come to depend entirely upon their teacher for truth, until he could command anything of them.

The Lord of Alamut

Hasan-i SabbahHasan-i Sabbah, from whose name the words “assassin” and “hashish” have been reputed, rightly or wrongly, to have been derived, was born into a Shiite family in concealment in the city of Ray in Persia around 1050. Nothing is really known of his early life, but like many other noted leaders, he is said to have been converted to his life’s work after an illness.

However he became an Ishmaeli, he was apparently quite charismatic from the start. Hasan conquered his first fortress by persuasion alone. He was smuggled into the otherwise impregnable castle and converted all the guards. When the castellan realized he was no longer in charge, Hasan presented himself with the promise of gold and a safe conduct, which he kept.

So Hasan took the rock of Alamut, which became his headquarters and training base. He expelled women, children, the old and infirm, and ultimately even his wife and daughters. He fortified it further, stocked it with supplies to resist seiges, and possibly even built his legendary garden of delights there.

AlamutIn any case, it was there that he began his program of terrorism; to train, equip, and send forth his deadly agents. These young men were chosen for strength of body and mind, and firmness of character. They could be thrown out for any sign of weakness or lack of seriousness, even for simply playing the flute. From a young age, they were instructed in disguises, languages, and court etiquette along with the use of the dagger. By secret oaths, mysterious rites, and isolation from the world, the fidai were thoroughly indoctrinated in the cult. They were taught that revealed religion was for the masses, that only the true Imam and his representative (Hasan) to whom they owed unquestioning obedience possessed divine truth, and that as they gained his secret knowledge, so would they gain hidden powers.

According to Marco Polo, often they would be sent to kill someone in the local area first, so their resolve could be secretly observed, before being sent after bigger targets farther afield. Thus when someone important had to be eliminated, the Master could send proven and proficient daggermen. Timing as well as choice of victim was essential, in order to sow the maximum amount of confusion, hampering the operations of their enemies by taking out key leaders usually just before the start of a campaign.

Hasan’s actual military conquests were few, and mainly confined to hilltop fortresses, as he had to fend off the Seljuk Turks’ persistent attempts to besiege him as well as the Sunni backlash. But as his fanatic followers spread chaos, so did his reputation for utter ruthlessness add to the fear. He even had both his sons executed, the elder for participating in a murder plot against another Assassin, the younger for drinking a skin of wine.

Amazing stories are told of the fiery zeal of the fidai. To demonstrate his power to the emissaries of the Sultan Sanjar whom he had just warned with one of those daggers in the tent, he once had one of his followers slit his own throat and another throw himself off a parapet. The Turk was impressed enough to sign a truce. A similiar scene was later witnessed by the titular King of Jerusalem at the behest of Sinan, the wily head of the Syrian Assassins.

The followers’ families could also be equally devoted. Thus a mother, told that her son had been killed on a mission, rejoiced and put on her brightest gown; when he returned alive, she then put on her mourning robes (which sounds like a story from the West Bank today). When the fortress of Shahdiz was doomed to fall, the wife of the commander bedecked herself with jewelry and leapt to her death, while her husband, one of the few defenders captured alive, was marched through the streets of Isfahan, mocked, pelted with filth, and flayed alive.

But even with such followers, Hasan never reached his goal of supplanting the Caliph or the Sultan, though at last reaching some sort of compromise with the latter. He died peacefully in his bed in May, 1124 C.E., after choosing his successor, Umid. It is said that just before he passed away, he whispered to him, “Remember, nothing is true; everything is permitted.

Then, according to a Sunni historian, Hasan departed for Hell.

The Later Assassins

The passing of Hasan-i Sabbah did not end the threat of the Assassins by any means. In the following millennium, his heirs claimed the semi-divine status of Imam themselves, and their followers spread to Syria where they fought with the Crusaders and the Knights Templar.

They roamed further afield, to India and even to that ancient graveyard of armies once again in the news, Afghanistan, and were remarkably transformed in the process.

All this, and what conclusions can be drawn from history about what the West faces in this strange conflict, will be related in the following essay, Assassins Among Us.

[1] Much of this article was derived from History of the Order of Assassins, by Enno Franzius, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1969. This quote is taken from page 45. Back

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