A Medieval Al Qaeda — The Assassins

bin_laden-300x225From my History in Politics series:
May 16th, 2011

Al Qaeda’s leader Bin Laden was killed during a search and destroy mission in the Zhawar Kili area. This was a propaganda leaflet about him.

Al Qaeda is in the news more than ever these days, especially with the sensational report from Pakistan of Osama bin Laden’s unexpected death. It seems appropriate, therefore, to touch upon Islamic history and discuss the birth, development and demise of a very similar cult-like body of Moslem political killers, led by an equally charismatic figure, an austere fanatic named Hassan-I Sabbah. The precise setting of his equivalent of a Pakistani sanctuary was a fortress called Alamut in the wild Alborz mountains of northwest Iran. From this remote location, Hassan-I Sabbah periodically sent out members of his band on suicide missions, striking down politicians and major government officials throughout the Moslem world.

As background to the story of this murderous forerunner to Al Qaeda, a term popularized by Osama bin Laden, himself — the Caliphate — needs to be cited. Bin Laden’s ultimate goal, as he expressed it, was “to restore the Caliphate,” an imperial-type of monarchical government that from the 7th century had covered all or most of Islam. In reality, though, there was never a single Caliphate. The politics of the Moslem world were as complicated and fluid then as they are now.

The Assassins existed under a Caliphate referred to as the Abbasid, which lasted from the 8th to the 13th century AD, and at one time intermingled with the Fatimid Caliphate of the 10th to 12th century AD. Hassan-I Shabbah set up his operation in 1092. That year, his minions killed their first victim, the grand vizier of Baghdad. In a sense, Hassan-I Shabbah was very much like Osama bin Laden, holed up in a secret hiding place, orchestrating his hit teams throughout the Middle East. When the founder, who was known as the Old Man of the Mountains, died in 1124 of natural causes, his work of political assassination was still carried on for another 140 years.

Allegedly, Sabbah came from Qom, the Iranian holy city whose name is familiar to us because it housed the infamous Ayatollah Khomenei, the religious spark plug of the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. The Assassins’ leader was cut from the same sort of cloth as Khomenei, ascetic, dictatorial, single-minded, and ruthless. He was also diabolically clever. Marco Polo, relating his travel adventures in the land known as Persia, told how the Old Man of the Mountains would drug his young recruits with hashish, then bring them in their stupor into a beautiful garden filled not only with lush, lovely plants but also containing a number of fetching young maidens. Sabbah would promise his acolytes that if they carried out the killings he had ordered, he would bring them back to this Eden-like setting of which he’d allowed them a glimpse.

Of course, since many of their missions would end as most suicide bombings do today, in the demise of the perpetrators, their reward would have to be postponed until the hereafter.

These “self-sacrificing agents,” as Sabbah labeled them in the Assassins’ organizational chart, were the lowest level of the ordered structure he had created. Hassan-I Shabbah, himself, was at the top, naturally — the Grandmaster — and beneath him were sets of assistants, the Greater Propagandists, the Propagandists, the Companions, and the Adherents. Out of the last group were chosen the actual hit men, who did their deadly work at close range with swords or daggers. Intensively trained, they were so cool and disciplined that they would not leave the scene of their murders until someone arrived and discovered the body, or bodies, since Sabbah would often assign multiple assassinations.

Like much of Islam today, the Moslems of that era had splintered into various factions. The Assassins were Shiites, followers of Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, but also members of a subset Shiite branch, the Ismailis, whose modern-day counterpart, led by the Aga Khan, is still in existence. The larger branch of Islam, the Sunnis, were often targets of Hassan-I Sabbah’s band, who operated especially in Syria and Persia, but also made their presence felt throughout the Middle East. After the European Crusaders established their Christian enclaves in those regions and especially the Holy Land, the Assassins would do killings for the Crusaders, or just as well as kill Crusaders at the bidding of their Saracen enemies, as long as Sabbah approved the arrangement — an early example of Murder Incorporated’s style, contract killing for money.

After Sabbah’s death, for example, the gang, operating from a new stronghold in Syria, under a new Old Man of the Mountains named Rashidaddim Sinan, made two failed attempts to assassinate Saladin, the great hero of the Sunni Moslems, the Iraqi Kurdish warrior who was eventually to drive the Crusaders out of the Orient and back to Europe.

The derivation of the name Assassins has been a matter of dispute among scholars. It was accepted wisdom first that it derived from the Arabic word hashishin, or “users of hashish,” an addictive substance made from the same cannabis plant as marijuana but produced in solid, stronger form as blocks of resin. In that state, the narcotic can be eaten as well as smoked and thus the Assassins came down to us through history as “hashish eaters,” and their actual name as synonymous with “murderers,” only with the emphasis on important people in public life being victims, rather than simply average folks.

Not so, state other scholars, claiming that Hassan-I Sabbah called his subordinates Asasiyum — a similar sounding word, but meaning “people faithful to the foundation (asas) of the faith.”

Whatever the derivation, it has been proposed that the term “assassins” should be used in place of “terrorists” in describing the Al Qaeda network. Terrorist, linguistically, can be a two-edged sword. That was something I learned one night in Jerusalem at a dinner recognizing Israeli and Palestinian youngsters, who had participated in the Seeds of Peace program, which runs a summer camp in Maine, where teenage enemies are brought together to become friends. A handsome dark-haired Palestinian boy described to the gathering the role playing they did. “I had to be a rabbi,” he said, to some laughter. And then a very cute redheaded Israeli girl piped up and added: “And I had to be a terrorist.” In good humor, but with serious intent, her Palestinian friend immediately corrected her. “freedom fighter,” he interjected.

But there is no mistaking nor reinterpreting what is meant by assassin. This clearly denotes, in our context, a criminal who covers his acts of mayhem with bombastic justifications for resurrecting an unspecified Caliphate of some sort and waging holy war (jihad) against the West, with the goal in mind of a new pan-Arabic world conquest. Looking at Islamic history, we see really, instead, an ephemeral group — the Assassins — coming to an end in the 13th century, having accomplished nothing except a string of ultimately meaningless deaths of long-forgotten politicians. The removal of the founder of Al Qaeda — Osama bin Laden — may not betoken the immediate end of his gang of thugs, but does highlight the futility of their nihilistic predilection for senseless violence. Bin Laden boasted that 9-11 was “the conquest of America.” How hollow those words sound now.

History has taught us that in the past the Assassins led to nothing. So will Al Qaeda.

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