On September 12th my flight to Tehran was cancelled. All flights to the Middle East, I was informed at check-in, were cancelled. My plan had been to spend three weeks in Iran and then a month touring Central Asia. Suddenly, as of the day before, the entire region was suffused with the subcutaneous promise of war, and my excitement was giving way to uncertainty. Three days later I called my host in Tehran to let him know that flights were now available. He sounded uncomfortable. “If they take you it will be very difficult to get you released,” he said with an apologetic air. Who “they” were was unspecified, but the conclusion was clear enough. My travels were to be temporarily lived out in the vicarious ink of the newspapers.
One story I followed in the papers encouraged me to pursue what I was already coming to see as an intriguing historical precedent to the brand of terror now issuing from the East. The story was about the Bush administration’s proposal to lift the ban on foreign assassinations by U.S. agents or those in their employ. The ban was introduced by President Gerald Ford in 1976 following the discovery of a CIA plot to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro (though this is only the most notorious incident in a list that includes CIA involvement in the murder of Congo’s Marxist leader Patrice Lumumba). In fact, former president Bill Clinton admitted in late September that he approved an assassination order on bin Laden following the U.S. embassy bombings in 1998. The return (at least to the public eye) of such murky, not to say desperate, tactics to U.S. espionage makes it timely to revisit the origins of the term assassination. However, it is not as startlingly reminiscent of those origins as the coalescence of murder and ideology that we now ascribe to Osama bin Laden.
My first excursion out of Iran’s capital was to have been to the ruined castle of Alamut, a few hours’ drive north into the Elburz mountains. In the year 1090 an itinerant preacher named Hasan-I Sabbah, with the help of his converts and followers, seized Alamut and established there a stronghold of the Ismaili faith. In the late 11th century, when the Seljuk Turks had imposed Sunni Islam as orthodoxy from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, the Ismailis, a mystical sect from the Shi’a branch of Islam, were considered heretics. Hasan-i Sabbah’s objective was to restore to power the true Imam and to overturn the Sunni order centered on the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. Since the Ismailis were a minority, Hasan knew that he could not meet the military might of the Seljuk Empire head on. And so, from the seclusion of his mountain fortress, he diverted a campaign of terror that would leave generations of Sunni autocrats fearing death at the hands of Ismaili killers called Assassins.
The word assassin is thought to derive from the Arabic hash sh n, meaning those who consume hashis. Legend holds that the Old Man of the Mountain, as Hasan and successive Ismaili leaders came to be popularly known, would pick prospective assassins from his followers and give them a potion of hashish to drink so that they fell into a dreamy slumber. Upon awakening, they found themselves transported to Hasan’s garden where they were indulged with women and wine and thought themselves in paradise (that garden and paradise share the same word in Arabic illustrates the inter-relation of the two concepts). After a second drugging they found themselves before Hasan, who confirmed that they had glimpsed paradise and that the surest way to return there was the act of pious murder which he would now divulge.
The term hash sh n was derogatory if anything, since drug use is prohibited in the Koran, but the epithet stuck and by the 12th century Crusaders were returning to Europe with tales of Assassins who were not hampered by fear of death and against whom it was seemingly impossible to defend. They had this impressed upon them in 1192 when Conrad of Monferrat, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, fell to an Assassin’s dagger. But Crusaders only rarely made Assassin targets and the Ismailis concentrated their terror on the figureheads of Seljuk and Sunni authority. Their first and most famous victim was Nizam al-Muk, the Caliph’s grand vizier, killed on the way to his harem by as Assassin who was granted an instantaneous return to paradise by the vizier’s guards. This spectacular success was followed by roughly fifty other assassinations under Hasan’s rule alone, virtually paralyzing the Abbasid Caliphate with fear and causing army after army to be sent against Assassin castles perched in the mountains of the Elburz. The medieval historian Rahid al-Din quotes one enemy of the Assassins who opined poetically, “To kill them is more lawful than rainwater.”
What impressed the Crusaders above all about the Assassins was the devotion, which, as historian Bernard Lewis points out from medieval European literature, “made their name a by-word for faith and self-sacrifice before it became a synonym for murderer.” Martyrdom was effectively implicit in Assassin attacks because of the close-quartered use of the dagger –ritually presented by the Old Man before each mission—but one also gets the sense that it would have been considered shameful to survive. Hasan-I Sabbah’s sustained terrorism, like bin Laden’s, relied upon organization, ideology and extreme devotion. Daggers have transmogrified into airplanes –each weapon corresponding to the size of the target—but the lure of paradise remains. That suicide is forbidden under Islamic law is simply another side-stepping of conventional morality by extremist ideology. After all, the West has its own proud history of pious murder exemplified in the granting of indulgences –otherwise known as tickets to heaven—to those who joined the Crusades: as sure a way as any to rally the rank and file.
The self-sacrifice inspired by Sabbah and bin Laden –coincidentally both sons of Yemeni emigrants—was and is directed against ideology enemies bolstered by the prevailing empires of their day (behind the Abbasid Caliphs, the Seljuks, and behind Israel, America). Ironically, there were those who did not share the Assassins’ cause but enlisted their services thinking that they could dispense with them when they had fulfilled their usefulness. The CIA’s enlisting of bin Laden and the mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan is too tempting a comparison not to make. On another note, the Assassins’ reputation— an inevitable by-product of their lethal reliability—was such that almost certainly more murders were attributed to them than they committed, and it is likely that they provided a convenient and unchallengeable scapegoat for many a personal vendetta. One thinks of how quick we all were to blame the Oklahoma bombing on Islamist militants, and even on one occasion how slow the U.S. government has been to provide concrete evidence that Osama bin Laden was directly responsible for the World Trade Center attack, though he is undoubtedly the inspiration for it.
Hasan-I Sabbah’s most potent achievement was to funnel the frustrated anger and hopes to the disenfranchised and impressionable into a keen army of revolt. His legacy seems to survive in the exhortations to violence of a modern messianic figure tucked away in the mountains of Afghanistan. But though the Assassins’ campaign of terror endure for over a century after Hasan’s death, their countless murders brought them scarcely any closer to their objective. Instead, the Ismailis' still vibrant generations sought to cast off the stigma of their association with the Assassins. While the Ismaili strongholds were finally sacked by the Mongols in 1257, the decline of Ismailism owed more to the fact that it had long since ceased to offer a philosophically and theologically viable voice of opposition.
A voice of opposition is the only thing that bin Laden embodies. The majority of Muslims across the Middle East and Asia are not under the illusion that he offers any reasonable or even practicable solutions to the sources of his discontent. Yet, to thousands upon thousands of the distressed and selectively informed whose frustrations Bin Laden redirects against America, he is a focus of pride and defiance. Collective Islam is not about to rally to his cause, but it will be doing his cause no harm at all if the beleaguered Afghans are seen to be dying in the thousands at America’s hands. Similarly, as the Assassins may have begun to realize at their demise, killing the head will not guarantee that the body will die. Rather, America must look afresh at its foreign policy, in particular its unflinching and solitary support for Israel’s settlements policy, and recognize the roots of a widespread malaise whose fanatical fringes are now resorting to far-reaching terror.
JUSTIN MCGUIRK is the editor of Icon, the international architecture and design magazine.