Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History

Natasha sheldon - November 27, 2017

Poisoners, zealots, revolutionaries, outcasts, and warrior-assassins have been around since the beginning of time. Some killed for their beliefs or country while others did it for the money. All were specialized killers, trained to take out specific religious or political targets quickly and cleanly without widespread bloodshed.

Groups of assassins usually operated covertly; making stealth, speed, and cunning as essential a part of their arsenal of skills as weapon use. Some of these groups had no affiliations or allegiances, making them wholly neutral and socially independent, even if they had a governing agenda. Other assassins were very much part of society. Part of a broader military force, they were specialized units employed for particular purposes- on the field of battle and off it.

Whichever form they took, assassins were elite killing groups, trained to act with no regard for their safety. Here are just eight groups of assassins from the past.


Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Assassin. Google Images.

The Hashshashin

The modern name for covert killers ‘assassin’ takes its name from this Islamic sect, which operated between the eleventh and thirteenth century AD. During that period, the Hashshashin were greatly feared, as their operatives seemed to strike from nowhere.

The origin of the name ‘Hashshashin’ is debatable, the more so because most sources for the assassins are second-hand. Marco Polo claimed it came from Hashishi, or the ‘Hashish users’ as the Hashshashin reputedly used the drug before committing their murders. It is more likely that detractors applied the hashis reference, as Islam frowned upon the use of drugs – and the original assassins were devout Muslims.

The Hashshashin themselves referred to their sect as al-da’wa al-jadīda or ‘new doctrine’- a reference to their mystical roots in Shi’a Islam. They were founded in Persia in 1090 AD by Hasan I Sabbah, a leader of an Ismaili sect of Shi’a. At this time, the Shi’a were a minority ruled over by a Sunni caliphate. The Shi’a could not hope to overthrow their rival faction in open battle- so they adopted covert means. They started by establishing themselves in the mountain fortress of Alamut, ousting the King of Daylam. This castle became the headquarters for a network of Hashshashin forts stretching across modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The Hashshashin usually chose their targets from the Sunni political hierarchy. However, they did work for hire if it suited their cause, helping the Knights Hospitallers in the Crusades by assassinating the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was the Crusaders who carried the name ‘assassin’ back to Europe.

The Hashshashin studied the language and cultures of their targets so they could blend in. Then they struck. Agents could act immediately or lie in wait in disguise for years, seeking an opportune moment to strike. Each Hashshashin knew that his death would follow a hit. However, as they expected to awake in paradise, this did not trouble them.

However, the Hashshashin soon met their nemesis. By 1237, all of Persia- except for the Hashshashin‘s fortresses- was in the hands of the Mongols. The Hashshashin had pledged loyalty to the Khan. But in the mid-thirteenth century, this was tested when Mongke Khan, Genghis’s grandson, decided to invade Islamic Bagdad. The Hashshashin concluded that Mongke had gone too far. So their ally became a target.

However, the operative the Hashshashin sent to Mongke’s court was detected. In retaliation, Monhke sent his brother Hulagu to break the group. Mongol forces besieged Alamut. However, Hulagu promised clemency- if the Hashshashin‘s leader surrendered himself.

On Nov 19, 1256, the last leader of the Hashshashin gave himself up. The Mongols destroyed Alamat and paraded the defeated Hashshashin leader at each of his subordinate fortresses. They, like Alamat, submitted- and were demolished. Afterward, the Hashshashin survived in small, fractured groups. But their power was finally diminished.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Sicarii. Google Images

The Sicarii

The Hashshashin were not the first covert group in history. The Jewish Sicarii predate them and were most active in the ‘60s AD. Like the Hashshashin, the Sicarii were driven by religion and politics. In the Sicarii’s case, the aim was to drive out all Romans and Jewish collaborators from Judea.

The name Sicarii is the plural of the Latin Sicarius or ‘dagger man.’ Because of the Jewish assassins, the term also later became synonymous with an assassin or murderer. The group became most notably active under the leadership of Menahem, the grandson of Judah, a former Jewish dissident when it began a reign of terror in Jerusalem. Josephus in his War of the Jewsdescribes how the Sicarii would mingle with crowds at festivals, stalking their targets, then discretely stabbing them with their eponymous daggers which they hid under cloaks before melting away into the crowd.

The group’s first notable killing was the High Priest, Jonathan. After that, Josephus tells us that: “many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served was …afflicting…. and everybody expected death every hour as men do in war” (War of the Jews, Book II, Ch. 13)

The Sicarii also indulged in kidnap, their targets being the Jewish priests and wealthy elite who most obviously supported Roman rule. Often they executed their victims. However, the Sicarii were open to doing deals with their hated oppressors. When they kidnapped the secretary of the governor of the temple of Jerusalem, they agreed to free him unharmed for the safe return of ten of their captured assassins.

When the Great Jewish revolt began in 66AD, the Sicarii started their part of the campaign by capturing the Roman fortress at Masada. Menahem ordered the slaughter of the garrison and replaced them with 900 of his men. He then marched to Jerusalem to join Eleazar, the leader of the rebellion.

However, the alliance did not go well. Firstly, the Sicarii tried to bully the people of Jerusalem into fighting the Romans by destroying food supplies within the city. Their logic was, without food, the people would have no choice but to fight rather than waiting to sue for peace. Then Menahem alienated rebels and civilians alike by claiming to be the Messiah. Eleazar executed him to limit the damage. However, the discord and disunity fermenting in the city weakened Jewish unity and helped the Romans to retake Jerusalem in 70 AD. They destroyed the temple and dispersed the Jews.

Meanwhile, the remaining Sicarii held Masada, and there they stayed until the Romans retook the fortress in 73AD. However, when the Romans entered the fort, they found only dead bodies. Defiant to the last, the Sicarii had chosen suicide to crucifixion or enslavement.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Japanese Ninja. Google Images

The Ninja

The term ‘Ninja’ is a western one. In Japan, these bands of covert operatives were known as ‘Shinobi‘ from the Japanese to “to steal away’ or ‘to hide.” The shinobi or Ninja may have originated in China, as their mode of operation was similar to that of Chinese assassins described by Sun Tzu in his ‘Art of War. However, they did not begin to appear in the Japanese historical record until the twelfth century AD.

Some historians such as Stephen Turnbull maintain that the Ninja were recruited from the lower classes or rejected samurai. However, most elite Ninja groups were raised and trained in families. These families lived in independent territories, they ruled without an overlord. The Iga and Koga areas of Japan were renown for their Ninja ‘training schools’ and soon gave their names to the two most prestigious groups of Ninja: the Iga and Koga.

At these schools, Ninja trained in the art of Ninjutsu, which equipped them with stealth as well as fighting techniques. Ninja needed to learn how to camouflage themselves in different environments and move swiftly and quietly. To this end, their arsenal of equipment was diverse. As well as weapons such as darts, spikes throwing stars chains, poison, swords- even hand grenades, they used ropes, hooks, a particular listening device called a mizugumo and the happo, a small eggshell filled with a blinding powder to aid swift exits.

The Ninja enjoyed their heyday in the Sengoku period of the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries when they became indispensable to Japanese ruling clans vying with each other for supremacy. Ninja carried out the secret tasks the honorable samurai would not. One example of Ninja activities came from the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-1638 when the Shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu hired Koga Ninja to infiltrate Christian rebels in Hara castle, Hizen province. The Koga assassins were sent into the castle every night to report on weak spots, also raiding the castle’s provisions and sabotaging the defenses.

Ninja also carried out covert killings. Those at risk from a Ninja assassination began to take precautions, hiding weapons in bathrooms and under floorboards so some attempt could be made to protect themselves. Houses and castles were modified to incorporate anti ninja devices: traps and tripwires, as well as deliberately squeaky floorboards and noisy gravel paths, to warn of the ninja’s approach.

In the late sixteenth century, the warlord Oda Nobunaga curtailed Ninja activities. However, in the eighteenth century, the Ninja became respectable again, forming the core of the fledgling Japanese secret service.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Forty-Seven Ronin. Google Images.

The Ronin

Not all Samurai were able to keep to their lofty ideas of honor. Some fell into the category of the assassin by default: by becoming Ronin. Ronin means ‘wandering man’ or ‘vagrant.’ It refers to Samurai left without a daimyo or overlord to represent. This was a common occurrence during the early Edo period of the seventeenth century. Then, many daimyos lost their territory meaning they could not keep their Samurai. The numbers of masterless fighters swelled. For these men, fighting and killing were all they knew. Although some took up other careers in commerce and farming, others became mercenaries.

However, many Samurai also chose to become Ronin as a form of resistance against the Tokugawa shogunate. Free of any oaths of loyalty, they could group with other Ronin to act against the regime covertly and without endangering the honor of their Lord. Some daimyo even ordered their samurai to become Ronin so they could move against the system without jeopardizing their domain.

The most famous band of Ronin were the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin who in the eighteenth century banded together to seek vengeance against the killer of their master. The men were left leaderless when their Daimyo Asano Naganori was forced to kill himself after assaulting a court official, Kira Yoshinaka who had insulted him. The ronin waited for over a year, planning for just the right moment to kill Kira.

The Ronin kept the residence of Kira under surveillance. Many of their number settled in the area, disguised as tradesmen and monks so they would not attract undue attention- and so that they could gain access to the residence. In their disguises, they were able to enter the Yoshinaka mansion and familiarize themselves with the layout. After nearly two years, they were satisfied that they had enough information and made sufficient plans to strike. The reconnaissance group then summoned the rest of the band, and the Forty Seven Ronin struck.

On January 30, 1703, during a snowstorm, the ronin stormed Kira’s mansion. One group entered at the front, the other at the back. The band searched the house for their target, managing to avoid killing all but fourteen retainers during the search Eventually, they cornered Kira and beheaded him after he refused to kill himself. The ronin then laid his head on Asano Naganori’s tomb. As the vendetta was illegal but governed by honor, they were allowed to commit suicide. They were buried at the Sengakuji temple in Tokyo.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Sacred Band of Thebes. Google Images.

The Sacred Band of Thebes

The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite infantry unit formed after the liberation of Thebes from Spartan occupation in 378BC. The Theban Commander Gorgidas installed the group initially as a special guard for the Theban citadel. The 300 men were chosen from the cream of the Theban fighting force to ensure the Thebans never lost their fortress again. However, the unit was also unique in another way.

Greek army units usually separated male lovers. However, Gogidas’s citadel guard was composed of 150 pairs of lovers. According to Plutarch, this was because “since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.” (Life of Pelopidas). In other words, forming it from elite soldiers with a special attachment to each other created a more dedicated, coherent fighting force.

Initially, when the citadel guard was required to fight in open battle, they were dispersed throughout the rest of the infantry. This situation changed in 375 BC when the Sacred Band proved their worth as an elite unit of army assassins during the battle of Tegyra. Under the command of Pelopidas, they were sent out on recognizance with a few cavalries for backup. However, on the way, they encountered Spartan troops who greatly outnumbered them.

However, Pelopidas did not despair. He formed the Sacred Band into a single dense unit, the cavalry behind them and sent them to the Spartans- not to attack the whole force but to pick off the leaders and best fighters. This tactic sent the Spartans into disarray, and they dispersed. According to Plutarch, it was the first time the Spartans were defeated by an enemy force smaller than their own. It was also the occasion that saw the Sacred Band become Thebe’s assassins: a single shock unit sent out into battle to deliberately weaken the enemy by picking off key targets.

Using the Sacred Band and similar tactics, the Thebans were able to defeat the Spartans again in 371 BC at the battle of Leuctra. For the rest of the fourth century BC, the Greek states regarded Thebe’s assassins as undefeatable. However, in 338 BC the band was surrounded and overwhelmed by the forces of Philip II of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea. The entire unit was wiped out and buried under a gigantic statue of a lion. Excavations under the lion uncovered 254 skeletons laid out in 7 rows- confirmation that the sacred band was indeed buried with honors.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Stone carving of a Vishkanya. Google Images.

The Vishkanya

Not all assassins were male. The name ‘Visha Kanya’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘poison girl’ or ‘poison damsel’ – a literal description of the role of the Visha Kanya who were female assassins who killed with poison. The group began between 340 and 293 BC when they were set up by the first Indian Maurya Emperor, Chandragupta. Their utilization by the state was recorded in the Arthashastra, a manual of statecraft written by Chanakya, the prime minister of the emperor.

The Arthashastra recommended that the Emperor needed to maintain a network of agents to monitor and manipulate his enemies. Assassination was a form of covert war, and to that end, the King needed to retain operatives who could deal with specific targets. These agents were not just men. They also included women.

To undermine a ruling oligarchy, make chiefs of the [enemy’s] ruling council infatuated with women possessed of great beauty and youth, ” advised Chanakya, “ When passion is roused in them, they should start quarrels by creating belief (about their love) in one and by going to another.” (Arthashastra 11.1). This is where the Vishakanya came in. However, although noted for their beauty, they were not just deployed to cause fights between love rivals; they killed their potential lovers.

The training of a Vishakanya began as a child. After recruitment, each girl was fed a modulated diet of poison. This practice, known as Mithridatism was designed to render the future assassin immune to the poison they would use on their targets. This meant the Vishakanya could administer poison directly, perhaps even tasting it themselves to divert suspicion before – and after – the kill.

Many girls did not survive the training, as they could not withstand preparatory dosage. Those that did were sent out in their King’s service in the guise of courtesans. So legendary was the skill of the Vishakanya, it was believed their bodily fluids were naturally poisonous so that even a kiss from them was death. In all probability, the girl’s administered the poison in other ways, using alcohol or food as a carrier. This way, they could share the tainted feasts with their targets, safe because of their immunity.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
Hitler’s Werwolves. Google Images.

Hitler’s Werwolves

By 1944, Germany’s war was faltering. So in a last-ditch attempt to turn things around, Henrich Himmler came up with a plan. Himmler had studied Soviet sabotage tactics earlier in the war and was confident that he could now apply them to Germany’s advantage. So he set up squads of young assassins that were sent beyond enemy lines into former German-held territories to erode the Allies’ authority.

This group of last-minute assassins was known as Hitler’s Werwolves. Himmler recruited them from 5,000 elite volunteers from the Hitler Youth and the Waffen SS. The Werwolves were hastily trained up in covert activities. They were taught to make makeshift explosives, create diversions with arson and move with stealth. They also learned unarmed combat, including how to strangle a target with a piece of string.

The most remarkable and shocking aspect of the Werwolves was that many of them were children- some as young as ten. Indoctrinated with Nazi ideals in the Hitler Youth, these young operatives were easy to manipulate- and had the advantage of blending in smoothly with the general civilian population.

Operation Werewolf, as it was known began in early 1945. Operatives started hiding weapons caches around their regions for future use. They also began to take out critical official targets in Allied-held towns. One of the most famous assassinations was of Franz Oppenhoff; a German lawyer put in charge of the town of Aachen on the German border with Belgium and the Netherlands.

However, overall, the operation was not a success. The assassinations achieved little and Allied forces discovered the weapons caches before the Werwolves could put them to use. The Werwolves were just too little too late. Ill-prepared, poorly trained and too young and inexperienced, they were little more than a last-minute desperate measure by a failing regime.

Eight of the Deadliest Assassin Groups in History
The Black Hand Gang. Google Images

The Black Hand Gang

The ‘Union of Death’ or the Black Hand gang formed in 1911 with the single purpose of liberating and unifying Serbia. Army officers, headed by Colonel Dragutin ‘Apis’ Dimitrijevic, formed the gang but by 1914, its ranks had swelled. Membership now numbered around 2500 people, consisting of government officials, intellectuals, and ordinary Serbians.

Members were organized in isolated cells of only 3-5 members to protect the overall structure of the organization, and all swore oaths to kill- and be killed for their cause. These measures were essential as the gang’s campaign of terror was in full swing, and they could not afford to have it brought down. It began by exerting pressure by terrorizing government officials. However, in 1914, the group’s focus was on one, critical target.

Apis had learned that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was planning to offer concessions to the Serbs. If this had gone ahead, the Black Hand Gang’s much longed for Serbian revolution would not occur. So a plan was hatched. Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo in June of that year. If the gang assassinated him, a war would break out between Serbia and Austria. Russia, Apis believed would side with the Serbs, and the outcome would be a liberated Serbia.

Three young Bosnian members: Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, and Trifko Grabez, were secretly transported into Sarajevo to carry out the assassination. After learning the route of the archduke’s motorcade, the operatives were distributed along its route so that at least one of them would succeed. The authorities, although aware of the plot were unable to apprehend the men beforehand. However, at first, it seemed the assassination would fail as the assassins initially failed to carry out their mission. Yet, as the archduke began the return leg of his journey through Sarajevo, Princep killed both him and the Archduchess.

The assassins were arrested, and the ringleaders identified, and the Austro-Hungarian government demanded the Serbians hand them over to stand trial in Vienna. When the Serbian government refused, Austria declared war. However, after that, the outcome was not quite as the gang had planned. The intricate network of treaties between the various European states meant that more and more countries were drawn into the conflict, resulting in a war that went far beyond the Balkans: the First World War.


Sources For Further Reading:

ThoughtCo – Hashshashin: The Assassins of Persia

Haaretz – The Historic Mixup That Made People Fear Hashish

India TV News – How The Word Assassin Originated From Hashshashin Of Persia

AEON – Samurai, Spy, Commando: Who Were The Real Ninja?

Inside Japan Tour – Ninja Vs. Samurai

ThoughtCo – The Tale of the 47 Ronin

Quora – Is It Possible That Vishkanyas, The Poisonous Maiden Assassins, Actually Existed?

Ancient Origins – The Venomous Visha Kanyas Versus the Thugs: Which Would You Prefer Were Real?

Brewminate – The Theban Defeat of the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra

History Net – Werewolves of Aachen

War History Online – Nazi Werewolves? The Secret Nazi Guerrilla Organization

ThoughtCo – The Black Hand: Serbian Terrorists Spark WWI

History of Yesterday – Why Did the Black Hand of Serbia Want to Kill Franz Ferdinand?

The Washington Post – What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Start Of World War I