JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 29, 2016
The psychopaths of the Islamic State are not the first murderers to try to create a Muslim theocracy – a Caliphate – in Syria and what is now Iraq.
But unlike their predecessors nearly a thousand years ago, the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are rank amateurs as fighters, as theologians, and as promoters of their cause.
Oh, we regularly see Western useful fools interviewed on television talking up the IS use of social media to broadcast its atrocities and thus attract recruits.
But the men who a thousand years ago lorded it over the same territory IS now holds were much more skilled at propaganda and political machinations. After all, their caliphate lasted 300 years. The steam is already fast running out of the IS version. It is beset on all sides by an extraordinary de facto coalition that includes the United States and its allies such as Canadian and European forces, together with Russia, Iran, the Kurds, plus Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The Islamic State will last no longer than the time it takes Washington and Moscow to agree to the fate of besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the framework for a political formula to end the war.
Yet there are several similarities between modern IS and its predecessors, who came to be known as the Assassins, and from whom we have taken the word to define hired killers.
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Like IS, the Assassins were born out of a religious schism within Islam. Like their modern counterparts, the Assassins used terrorism to further their cause. They were, however, much more discerning than the thugs of today, and never attacked civilians. They aimed to terrorize the leaders who opposed them, not the ordinary people.
The Assassins planned every killing as a suicide operation, and their murderers seldom survived. Like IS male suicide killers, who are seduced with the promise of immediate transport to Paradise and the company of 72 virgins as reward for their devotion, the young Assassins were lured with the belief that life in an enchanted garden awaited the resolute jihadi.
The Assassins were highly skilled at what we of the John Le Carré age would call “sleepers” or “moles:” agents deeply embedded in enemy organizations, ready to be activated when the time comes ripe. Assassins sometimes waited many years before committing the murders to which they had been assigned. IS attempts to do something similar by radicalizing disaffected young Muslims in Western societies. But these modern lone wolf jihadis are self-triggering hand grenades who can go off at any time and anywhere. They are not strategic weapons.
There is, though, a fundamental similarity between IS and the Assassins. That is that the religious justification for their atrocities is just gloss. When all is said and done, both their caliphates are not about the establishment of God’s law on Earth, but their own political power and possession of territory.
There are also echoes today of the political make up of the Middle East nearly a thousand years ago.
As now, there was the basic schism in Islam that followed the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632. On one side are the Shia’s, who believed and believe the leadership of the Muslim world should pass down among direct descendants of the Prophet. On the other are the Sunnis, who contend that understanding of the Koran and the accompanying “hadiths” – the sayings of Mohammed – comes from any generation’s most profound religious scholars, and not necessarily the family heirs of the Prophet.
The Middle East then, like now, experienced Western intervention. The First Crusade to “liberate” Christianity’s holiest places was launched in 1096 at the urging of Pope Urban II and by 1099 the European knights and their followers had captured Jerusalem. Another eight crusades followed, and the Christian knights hung on to territory in what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria for over 200 years. The last Crusader foothold, on Ruad Island off the Syrian coast, was lost in 1303.
On September 4, 1090 – six years before the launch of the First Crusade – Hasan-i Sabbah, a young fanatical adherent to the Nizari Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, captured the castle of Alamut in northern Iran from the ruling Seljuk dynasty and launched what became the Assassin caliphate.
Hasan was born in Qom, about 150 kilometres south of the present Iranian capital, Tehran. He rose to prominence as a religious leader in the Ismaili Shia community while in Cairo in the late 1070s and the early 1080s, which then as now was a centre of Islamic religious discourse.
In the early 1080’s Hasan’s formidable skills as a religious advocate, speaker, theologian and evangelist for the Nizari movement brought the unwelcome attention of the Seljuk authorities, and he fled to Isfahan in modern Iran. From Isfahan he spent several years travelling around what was then Persia preaching the virtues of the Nizari view of Islam. Hasan’s missionary efforts began to focus on the Elburz Mountains on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, where the local people were receptive to his message.
In the late 1080’s Hasan began looking for a suitable base within the mountain region to establish a capital from which to spread the word of Nizari Islam. He settled on the Seljuk castle at Alamut, deep in the mountains about 100 kilometres north of Tehran.
Hasan’s capture of the castle in 1090 was typical of his subtle and devious approach to winning and keeping the Assassins’ caliphate. Alamut is on the crest of a massive granite outcrop and could easily be defended by a handful of men. Hasan had no army, so he and his missionaries first set about converting the villagers of the surrounding plain to Nizari Islam. Then Hasan managed to get into the castle himself, and successfully converted most of the garrison. By the time the commander realized something was afoot, it was too late. The commander surrendered, and was sent on his way by Hasan.
Hasan remained in Alamut until his death 35 years later. But the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah and his chief advisor, vizier Nizam al-Mulk, could not let the capture of the castle go unanswered.
Hasan and his Nizaris managed to fight off the Seljuk attempts to retake Alamut, but by late 1092, it was clear they could not hold out forever. It was then that Hasan hit on the strategy that came to characterize his movement and which brought us the word assassination. Hasan decided that it was the sultan’s vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, who was the heart, soul and brains of the Seljuk offensive. Without Nizam, Hasan concluded, the siege would crumble. A young Nizari, Bu-Tahir, was slipped out of Alamut Castle and sent to find the vizier. On October 16, 1092, Bu-Tahir, disguised as a religious mystic, found Nizam being carried in a litter to his tent. Bu-Tahir called out that he had a petition for the vizier, and when Nizam leaned out of the litter to take it, the young Nizari fatally stabbed him in the chest before himself being killed by the guards.
This was the first of scores of targeted killings by the Nizari over the following 300 years in their campaign to expand and hold their caliphate. The list of victims is extraordinary, and includes two Seljuk caliphs, many of their vizier advisors, and dozens of emirs and sultans. The Nizari killers even managed to murder the formidable Crusader leader Conrad of Montferrat in 1192, soon after he had been chosen leader of the Christian enclave. The killing was accomplished by infiltrating two Nizaris into Conrad’s household, posing as Christian Arab monks. Conrad’s death probably hastened the end of the Crusader occupation of the Holy Lands.
There is still much debate about when and why the Nizaris began to be called assassins. A well-worn argument is that it is a corruption of the word “Hashishin,” meaning users of hashish. The first recorded use of the word “Hashishin” is from 1122, when it was used to describe the Nizaris, who by that time had occupied much of Syria. The Nizaris’ enemies claimed that Hasan’s killers were plied with hashish before being dispatched on their murderous assignments, though there is no real evidence to support this, and Hasan himself was such a puritan, it is unlikely he would have countenanced the use of drugs.
Anyway, the name quickly caught on and was even recorded by Marco Polo in the late 1200s in his account of his travels to China and back.
In his capital in Alamut Castle, Hasan established a clear hierarchy in the Nizari caliphate. He and his successors were at the summit as Grand Headmasters of the order. Next came Greater Propagandists, then ordinary Propagandists, then Rafiqs – “Companions” – and finally Lasiqs – “Adherents.” It was from the Lasiqs that the assassins were recruited and carefully trained. They became known as “Fida’i” meaning suicide agents.
The Fida’i were no mere brainwashed cannon fodder, as today’s suicide attackers often seem to be. They were highly trained, both physically and mentally. They usually operated well beyond the direction of their masters, so the ability to show initiative, infiltrate enemy territory, assimilate themselves into their target’s community, and win trust in preparation for the murder were all essential.
And their purpose was to create terror, though only among their enemies’ leaders, not the people. That’s why the assassins always used daggers for their killings. It was intended to be up close and personal. This tactic was so successful that there are several incidents recorded where it was enough to leave a dagger in an enemy’s bedroom for him to immediately accede to the Nizaris’ demands. Even Saladin, the great Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and scourge of the Crusaders, made a deal with the Nizaris after several attempts on his life. Indeed, in later years when the Nizari caliphate had grown to stretch from northern Persia across present-day Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean coast, most neighbouring leaders found it wise to come to accommodations with the Assassins rather than to provoke them. The number of killings by the Assassins tailed off dramatically in the caliphate’s later years.
In the end the destruction of the Assassins’ empire came not from among their Arab, Persian, Kurdish or Turkish neighbours, but from the east. By the early 1250s the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan had conquered all of Central Asia and were reaching down into Persia. In 1256, Hulegu, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, led an army to destroy the Assassins’ empire, now led by an inconsequential young man named Rukn ad-Din Khur-Shah. He attempted to negotiate with the Mongol leader, who swiftly lost patience and captured Khur-Shah after over-running his castle of Maimun-Diz, west of Alamut.
Khur-Shah was told to order the Assassins’ remaining castles to surrender, and 40 followed the instruction, including Alamut. All were razed by the Mongols. Two of the Assassins’ castles held out; Lamassar and Girdkuh. Lamassar was captured within a year by Hulegu’s army, but Girdkuh held out for 17 years before it was overrun.
The Assassin’s caliphate was destroyed by the Mongols just as their empire – the largest land empire the world has seen – was about to shatter into four parts and sink into oblivion. The common thread in the story of all earthly empires is that they seldom long outlast the death of their founding genius. Hasan-i Sabbah was clearly a brilliant man who understood how to capitalize on his enemies’ weaknesses. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not in the same class.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”
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Related on F&O:
- Analysis: In crisis, interests trump European values. Paul Taylor, January, 2016
- Paris, Pilots and our rhetoric around ISIS. Sheldon Fernandez, November, 2015
- Why ISIS is winning, with America’s help. Tom Regan, SUMMONING ORENDA, November, 2015
- ‘JIHADI JOHN’: how one man became the Islamic State symbol, November, 2015
- Crisis just beginning of massive migrations.
- Tom Regan, SUMMONING ORENDA, September, 2015
- Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, July, 2015
- War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan Jonathan Manthorpe, 2014
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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