The Assassins; the Medieval Birthplace of Modern Terrorism

Updated on March 2, 2017

From the Shiv to the Suicide Vest

Terrorism has likely existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, and will continue to exist for thousands more; it has only recently however been defined as such. Academic debate into defining terrorism is a turbulent and disputed field, becoming impossibly problematic when looking at historical examples. Separating acts of political violence and religious struggle from terrorism can be argued ad infinitum, especially when supported by dozens of variations of definitions and conflicting theory. When considering the Order of the Assassins, a murkily obscure period of history is entered that is intertwined nearly inseparably with myth and legend. The self-sacrificing Assassin and the suicide bomber are not one, but are bound together through history by the vision of paradise awaiting them.

A resurgence of interest in the Assassin Order has been brought about in recent years through highly romanticised media. Despite this fictionalisation, it is based on true events. Areas of current conflict are deeply rooted in the colossal bloodshed of the medieval Crusades, and the Assassins played their part in shaping the Holy Wars and the history that has followed to the current day.

Present Day Terrorism Globally

Global Terrorism Index incidents:  Blue: 0 /// Green: 1 to 2,000 ///  Light orange: 2,001-4,000 ///  Dark orange: 4,001-6,000 ///  Red: 6,001-8,000 ///  Dark red: 8,001-10,000
Global Terrorism Index incidents: Blue: 0 /// Green: 1 to 2,000 /// Light orange: 2,001-4,000 /// Dark orange: 4,001-6,000 /// Red: 6,001-8,000 /// Dark red: 8,001-10,000 | Source
Historical Artistic rendering of Hassan-i-Sabbah
Historical Artistic rendering of Hassan-i-Sabbah | Source

Creeds & Credentials

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Despite the questionable reliability of sources, these are attributed as the words of a man called Hassan-i-Sabbah; the first Grandmaster of the ‘Hashishim’, the Assassins. This was their creed. Hassan-i-Sabbah was an early and passionate devotee of Nizari Isma’ili, a minor sect of Shia Islam. Nizari teachings primarily emphasise the importance of human reasoning and social justice. Sabbah was a charismatic man and was admired throughout the Middle East by other Isma’ili and began to gain traction building up to a small following of disciples. As his popularity grew, he founded what would become the Order of the Assassins.

The might of the Sunni majority severely threatened the stability and existence of the Nizari Ismaili state in the late 11th century, and the assassins under Sabbah would become the vanguard to protect the overwhelmed minority. Those who were willing to bear arms against the enemies of the Nizari were trained as the Fidai, which means “sacrifice” and is understood to be those who were willing to sacrifice themselves for God. The Fidai were the military wing of the Nizari Ismaili state, however did not possess the strength in numbers to fight in open combat; the Fidai instead were trained in targeted killing and went on to become some of the most feared assassins in the known world.

This is not all they were known for however. the Assassins were also renowned for their libraries. Archaeological evidence from former Assassin headquarters' have confirmed the significant scale of the archives at the time. Scholars and priests would travel from around the world to visit the Assassins in the hope of being permitted to browse their tomes. Travellers would also seek to make use of the Order’s observatories. Many Assassin fortresses were built in the hills and mountains, a significant advantage strategically. Additionally they were masters of hydrological engineering for the time and were able to irrigate and farm the valleys which provided ample food for themselves and to trade. This is believed to have been significant to the Assassin Order gaining traction. Many areas of Iran and Syria were living in squalor and starvation in the 10th and 11th century, by successfully irrigating and farming the arid land, a second lease of life could be offered to local community in exchange for servitude.

Raw opium
Raw opium | Source

The name “Assassin” is thought to derive directly from the Arabic word Hashishim (also spelled Hashshashin), which means “users of hashish” or opium. It is thought that the Assassins were users of opium to fortify their courage, but it is argues that this may have been a legend created by the Crusaders. The Fidai’s complete fearlessness of injury or death was unquantifiable by the Crusaders; it is considered that enemies of the Assassins propagated legends about the Order such as the use of opium to provide feasible explanations as to how and why they acted as they did.

Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

Although assassinations are largely asymmetric in contemporary examples of warfare, and even Islamic terrorism currently: At the time targeted killing was a conventional and widely used strategy employed by the Nizari, Seljuqs and Crusaders, the difference however is that the Nizari used assassinations as a means to spread a message and effect change. The Fidai were men of far more substance than the everyday contract killer; their ruthlessness was only matched by their courage. The Fidai’s self-sacrificing spirituality was due to their belief that the Nizari Imam-ul-waqt (“Imam of time”) contained the light of God within him. It was therefore their religious duty to obey his orders without question and protect the Nizari Isma’ili’s without compromise, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves for the cause. Not only did the Fidai Hashishim practice their beliefs to the highest level, they were exceptionally well trained in furusiyya (the Islamic warrior code); with a comprehensive knowledge of combat techniques, equestrianism, linguistics, strategy, espionage, disguises and concealment. This mix of unwavering faith and tremendous combat ability made The Assassins an especially formidable foe.

Despite their combat ability, The Assassins simply did not have the strength in numbers to match a standing army and would have been slaughtered in battle. Single target assassinations were therefore picked in favour of factional open combat.

The Fidai were specialised in inserting covertly into towns or regions where they would assimilate themselves to the local populous. A strategic position would then be and held whilst waiting for the target; this would give the assassin the highest chance of success. The assassination itself would be carried out in full view of public spaces and in broad daylight if possible. This was to ensure that act was witnessed by as many people as possible, magnifying the fear and intimidation generated.The attacks were normally carried out with a dagger, sometimes tipped with poison; this was most likely used if the target was wearing armour or if a clean kill was uncertain.

Assassinations were made almost exclusively against political and religious targets, and in particular individuals whose elimination would most greatly reduce the aggression the Isma’ili’s faced, and have greatest psychological effect. Assassinations were also used against those who had perpetrated massacres against the sect. Civilians or other soft targets weren’t ever targeted however.

  • We can see a great variance in global terrorism today between 'soft' and 'hard' targets. Typically attacks that occur in Western Europe and North America are against very soft targets. These Western countries are normally well defended and have considerable counter-terrorism and intelligence measures in place to prevent and disrupt terrorism. Countries with more rudimentary approaches and ultimately less funding potentially see harder targets in the crosshair of extremism: East Africa (Al-Shabaab), Iraq and the Levant (So called Islamic State) for example.

A 14th-century painting depicting the killings of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire.
A 14th-century painting depicting the killings of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire. | Source

The Assassins would not always kill their targets, threatening the enemy into submission could be equally as effective if not more so once the Order had established its unstoppable reputation. By forcing an enemy to comply, demands can be made that would be beneficial to the order, even to establish mutual allies. This is an example of psychological terror through the threat of violence. This was typically achieved by leaving a dagger and a threatening note on an enemy’s pillow. Under no circumstances would the Fidai commit suicide unless absolutely necessary, such as to protect intelligence. The Assassins would regularly wait by the body to be captured or killed; with being killed the preference as to reach ‘paradise’.

Depiction of the capture of Alamut by Hulagu Khan.
Depiction of the capture of Alamut by Hulagu Khan. | Source

The Downfall

The Assassin order was however unable to sustain its momentum politically, eventually another faction would become disgruntled enough to attack following the assassinations of its people.

The inevitability of attack from a superior force came in the 13th Century when the Mongol Empire was sweeping across western central Asia. Sources claim that assassins were dispatched to kill Möngke Khan in his palace which had failed, and set in motion the downfall of the Order of the Assassins. A decree was then handed over to the Mongol commanders Kitbuqa Noyan and Hugalu Khan to exterminate the Isma’ili sect. Möngke ordered the additional generals to support the Mongolian expedition in Iran and drafted in 1,000 siege engineers from China. The Mongols began to siege Hashishim fortresses’ of Iran in 1253 and just three years later in 1256, the Assassin Order in Iran had been driven completely underground. In 1273, the Syrian sect of the Assassins was destroyed by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars.

The Assassins were able to briefly recapture and hold Alamut, their main Iranian fortress in 1275, but were crushed once more, their political power and influence was tarnished beyond repair and the order died. The Assassin order only functioned as a clandestine entity, as soon as conventional open conflict begun; they were doomed, especially against the might of the Mongol Empire.

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

In exploring such shadowy figures, myth becomes almost impossible to discern from empirically-provable history. Nevertheless, looking objectively at what is known about the Order of the Assassins, they can be considered freedom fighters by definition. By standing on the other side of the blade, it is conceivable to consider the targeted killings and psychological warfare employed by the Assassins as acts of terror. Facing eradication from one of many superior powers, the Nizari Isma’ili’s felt that they were forced to defend their community and faith through the threats and use of violence; in the hope that the fear generated, would lead to political and societal change that would allow the faction to endure and survive. By this explanation, the Assassins could be considered terrorists by definition too, despite how noble or just the cause may be viewed.

Regardless of which side is taken, the Assassin order is truly fascinating. We will never understand in any great detail what really happened all those centuries ago. I however personally find it extremely interesting to consider that as I am freerunning around the ancient world as Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad; a young man my own age was doing this for real over a 1000 years ago.

If you were born into the same situation as the young Nizari Ismailis, would you have fought?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Harry Edgar


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