Skip to comments.Curse of the Assassins. The Roots of Islamic Terror. (must read)
Posted on 04/01/2004 4:55:06 AM PST by dennisw
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 (Eagles 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, yet his story has an important lesson for our time, and for the war against terrorism that is now upon 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 Khans 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.
Hasans organization was clearly a prototype for modern Islamic terrorist groups. In some ways, it is eerily like Osama bin Ladens. As one historian put it,
Hasans 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. 
We must sadly amend this, until now.
It is extremely doubtful there is any direct connection between the Assassins of old and Osamas 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 Gods 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.
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, theres 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 prophets 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 Prophets 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 theres 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.
Hasan-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 lifes 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.
In 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.
Hasans 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 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.
Alamut: Bastion of Peace and Information
The Assassins: Origin of the Nizari Ishmailis
The Assassins of Alamut
 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
Events continued much as they had after the death of Hasan-i Sabbah. Alamut was besieged by the Turks, while Assassins in return struck down the Sultans Grand Vizir, and both the rival Egyptian and Arab Caliphs for good measure.
Gradually, the position of Master became even more exalted. Hasan did not want to found a dynasty or in any case was prevented by his executions of his own sons but his successor, Umid, did not have such limitations. Three days before his death in 1138 C.E., he named his son Muhammad as his successor.
Muhammads learned and popular son, Hasan II, who had avidly studied the writings of his namesake, interpreted doctrine more freely than his father did. Many came to believe he was the real Imam rather than merely his servant, fortified in their conviction by the rumor that he drank wine and was thus above the law. Muhammad denounced these ideas, and reportedly put to death 250 of his followers, which were strapped onto the backs of 250 others who were expelled.
As soon as Hasan became Master, things changed. During Ramadan, the Muslim penitential season (somewhat like Lent in the West), in 1164, Hasan declared to his assembled followers that he had received a message from the invisible Imam, and revoked the ritual law. The Ramadan fast was ended, even though it was only halfway through the month, and the feasting began.
The secret doctrine was made public, and Hasan was declared to be the Mahdi and the bringer of the Resurrection. By dispensing his followers from following Islamic practice, he brought a final rupture with the Sunni and in effect renounced the effort to conquer Islam. The Sunni were deemed henceforth to be spiritually dead.
Later it would be claimed that Hasan was actually the Imam Nazirs physical descendant as well as spiritual son. All this was too much to bear by his brother in law, who stabbed him to death only two years later.
His successor, Muhammad II, further developed the theology of the Imam, declaring that upon the Imam, the one, only, sinless, and infallible source of the knowledge of God, depended the worlds very existance. He is the Proof of God, the earthly focus of their religious life, and salvation solely depends upon knowing and following his will.
In 1099, the Crusaders reached the Holy Land and took Jerusalem in a bloodbath that spared no-one. Their first contact with the Assassins seems to have been at Apamea, where Syrian Assassins had recently burrowed under the wall and slain the ruler of the city and his household. The Regent of Antioch, Tancred, took the town, held some of the Assassins for ransom, and turned their leader over to the rulers surviving sons, who tortured him to death. Yet this intervention by the Christians does not seem to have roused the ire of the Assassins, who remained much more concerned with their Islamic enemies.
In fact, because of the enemies they had in common with the Crusaders, they took refuge among them, while still trying to take mountain strongholds in Syria as a base for further operations. One Assassin leader joined Raymond of Antioch, against Nuraddin, the lord of Aleppo, and fell with him in battle. Yet at other times they fought the Westerners, even murdering Count Raymond II of Tripoli. For this the Crusaders made war on the Assassins and even imposed tribute.
It is ironic that it should be the Knights of the Temple who exacted tribute, for founded a generation after the Assassins to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, their organization seems to have owed much to them. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, formed a hierarchy and also wore white. The weapon of assassination was ineffective against an order of their nature, for they could not be disorganized by the murder of their Grand Master. If he was killed, he was immediately replaced by a fellow knight.
In 1162, Hasan II sent a new dai to represent him in Syria, Sinan, physically lame but quick-witted, who became infamous for his devious ploys and deceits. Many tales surround him, often echoing those of Hasan-i Sabbah. Appearing first in Syria as a saintly ascetic, it was supposedly only after he had been serving the chief dai for seven years did he admit to the old man on his deathbed that he was his replacement.
A plot formed against him among the fidai, but Sinan was warned by his own spy network. Disconcerted by their discovery, the plotters thought he was clairvoyant and submitted. Some other stories involve a belief in reincarnation, such as the one that he prevented his guards from killing a large snake because it was actually a recently-dead Assassin leader being punished for his sins.
He used spies and a secret system of carrier pigeons to communicate. One night, his attendant caught him talking to such a pigeon, and Sinan informed him it was the late Hasan II.
Then one day, Sinan called his fidai into his chamber. On the floor was a plate with the head of one of their comrades, apparently decapitated after the accomplishment of a murder. Addressing it, Sinan asked whether he wanted to return to Earth. The head replied without hesitation that it preferred Paradise, describing it in glowing terms. After the fidai left, Sinan was said to have uncoupled the plate from the neck of the man, whose body was hidden in a space below the floor. He then rewarded the young man who had just spoken so rapturously of Paradise by sending him there with a single blow of his scimitar.
One of Sinans enemies was Saladin, reknowned for his chivalry, who took over Egypt and returned it to the Sunni confession after the death of the last Shiite Caliph. His push into Syria caused no less than three attempts on his life, but he finally came to some sort of agreement with Sinan, who left him unmolested while Saladin took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Sinan however did send his fidai disguised as Christian monks after Conrad of Montferrat, the titular King of Jerusalem who was rebuilding forces to try to regain the city. The fidai were slow-roasted and flayed alive, naming Richard the Lion-Hearted as the one who had hired them. Although Richards previous choice for King of Jerusalem, Henry of Champagne, married the widow and was acclaimed King with unseemly haste, it seems unlikely. (Henry later made peace with Sinan, it will be recalled, after witnessing fidai throw themselves off the parapet at their Masters whim.)
Hasan III became Imam in 1210 and seemingly converted to the Sunni faith, restoring Muslim ritual law and invited Sunni teachers to come to Alamut. He was the first to recognize the danger of the Mongols and sought to pledge allegiance to the new terror of the steppes.
His son, Muhammed III or Aladdin (Height of the Faith), went back to the old ways, but his reign was overshadowed by his own madness. Anyone who contradicted him risked mutilation, amputation of limbs, and dead by torture. Whether it was his insanity or his determination to resist the Mongols, the Assassin leaders swore fidelity to his son Khurshah, but before he could act, the father was mysteriously murdered, apparently by a former favorite catamite.
The initial friendly relations between Assassins and Mongols quickly waned, and Hulagu Khan was sent from Karakoram to destroy the Assassins. He slowly and deliberately went after each mountain stronghold. Khurshah submitted and pleaded that Alamut be spared, but it was not. Neither was he finally being murdered on the way back from a useless trip to try to see the Great Khan. Through trickery and brutality, the Mongols slew all the Assassins they could find, including babies.
Then Hulagu advanced on Baghdad, besieged it, and when the Caliph surrendered, butchered his retinue. The last Arab Caliph was trampled to death by horses after he revealed the hiding place of his treasury. Then Baghdad was raped, pillaged, and sacked 800,000 were slaughtered indiscrimately. The ancient irrigation system was wrecked and Mesopotamia never recovered.
However, some Assassins of Alamut survived. Several years after Marco Polo visited, it was retaken by them, only to have the fortress finally reduced by the Mongols.
The Mongols advanced on Syria, causing the Assassins there to seek a treaty with St. Louis of France. The hordes were finally being stopped near Nazareth in 1260, thus sparing Egypt. Later Assassins stabbed King Edward I five times at Acre at the behest of the Sultan of Egypt, but Edward survived. The Assassins, however, had acquired a reputation for political murder among the Europeans, and would be blamed for many such in Europe until the 1600s at least.
Islam, which had produced a magnificent, tolerant civilization, became narrow, rigid, and adverse to new ideas after the Mongol holocaust, even though the Mongols converted. After them came Tamerlane, another butcher from the steppes, but slowly Persia recovered under the Safavid dynasty. But around 1780, Aga Muhammad began to conquer the land. Castrated as a child, he brought brutality to new levels. Enraged by the resistance of one city, he ordered the defenders eyes torn out, personally counting 7,000 of them and assuring his officer in charge that had one had gone missing, his own would have been added to the pile. He gave the women and children of the city to his warriors. Yet he created modern territorial state of Iran, which includes neither Iraq nor Afghanistan the latter having become independent in 1747.
In the meantime, the belief that the Assassins had been wiped out by Hulagu and Tamerlane proved false. The Imams remained in Persia and gradually came out of concealment, although in 1817 one was slain by a mob led by enraged mullahs.
The Shah, fearful of revenge, tortured the murderers (the leader was thrown into an icy pond and beaten to death with thorny sticks), and bestowed on the slain Imams son the title of Aga Khan, the hand of his daughter, a governorship and lands.
During this period, while some Assassins reverted to the old practice of concealing their faith, others had fled to India and the Himalayas. In India, several missionary dais or pirs (saints) were particularly successful. Some performed miracles, including raising a child and some fried birds from the dead. Others adopted their doctrine to the Hindus, teaching that Ali was a long-awaited incarnation of Vishnu. The Indian Assassins became known as the Khojas (honorable converts) and paid their tithes to the Imam, but they should not be confused with the Thugees, the stranglers devoted to the bloody Hindu goddess Kali.
In 1840, the Aga Khan, who had moved to Bombay, sought to make his own kingdom in Afghanistan. Defeated, he turned to the British who were occupying Kandahar for assistance. The British, fearful that the Persian Shah might try to invade India with Russian help, were willing to listen.
The ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, had welcomed a Russian representative. This alarmed the British, who invaded in 1839, captured the emir and sent him to captivity in India. They were still engaged in hostilities with his son when the Aga Khan arrived and offered them his sword.
In January 1842, the British occupation of Kabul became untenable, and it was decided to retreat through the passes to India. 17,000 left Kabul yet only one single man made it through. In the course of less than a week all the others were slain through betrayal, the inept leadership of their commanders, the winter weather, and the constant ambushes by the Afghanis. It is arguably the worst disaster in British military history.
The redcoats returned the next year, and in revenge, blew up the grand bazaar in Kabul, and rampaged indiscrimately. The First Afghan War inspired many Aghanis with hatred for the West and with their own invincibility that served them well in the war with the Soviets a century and a quarter later, and now perhaps in the conflict the Taliban (religious students) find themselves in today.
In 1850, some dissidents, claiming that the Aga Khan was not divine, refused to pay the tithe. This so enraged the orthodox Assassins that a band invaded the rebels council hall and killed four of them. A British court ordered four of the assailants hung. The hanged men were regarded as martyrs and the Aga Khan himself wrote verses from the Quran on their shrouds. But as far as is known, this was the last time the Assassins settled a dispute in their traditional manner.
The Aga Khan and his descendants generally remained friends of the British, supporting them during the Sepoy Mutiny and also the First and Second World Wars. From playboys and libertines, they slowly matured through several generations into spokesmen for the Muslims in India and worked for Indian independence.
The third and now current Aga Khans, around 1953
The Aga Khans have more recently played down their divine claims, though the third was given his weight in gold on his jubilee of his Imamate, and in diamonds ten years later. His son, Aly, like his father married Western women, including the actress Rita Hayworth, but was considered by his father to be unsuitable as Imam, and was passed over in favor of his grandson, Karim, in 1957. This Harvard-educated Imam, having his own fortune, and possessing title to the Assassin properties, generally busies himself with managing that fortune for the benefit of his followers.
As the song says, what a long, strange trip it has been for the Assassins, from murderous insurgents to social reformers and organizers of charity. The lesson here is that cults and cultures can change. Terrorism takes root only when there is crushing poverty, despair, and such powerlessness that such things as otherworldly cults fomenting murder make sense.
These underlying causes must be fought in this war against terrorism as well as the hidden minions of bin Laden and others like him. As history shows, military might can be used to destroy networks and support, but as even the Mongols could not wipe out the Assassins, neither will we ever be able to prevent every fanatic from succeeding in a suicide mission.
There is another obvious lesson here as well: do not seek to occupy Afghanistan. Let us hope our leaders have read their history very carefully.
Ismaili.net: The Heritage Society
The First Anglo-Afghan War
The Old Man of the Mountains
Trial by Blood and Fire: Allies and Enemies in the Holy Land
Rashid al-Din Sinan
 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 106. Back
11 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.
12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.
--have to say, that shows some inventiveness.
That was part of the point of my post.