The Order of Assassins
The Order of Assassins was a politico-religious cult led by a shadowy figure known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”. Despised as heretics by most Muslims, relatively few, and geographically dispersed, they punched far above their weight and wielded considerable power and influence throughout the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations during the Middle Ages.
Their origins trace to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. For much of the medieval era, there had been a rough balance of power, with the less numerous Shiites championed by the smaller but rising Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt, while the more numerous Sunnis were led by the waning Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. That balance was upset when the Seljuk Turks, who had recently adopted Sunni Islam, fell upon the Fatimids with all the zeal of the recently converted and broke their power between 1056-1060.
The Fatimids, defeated militarily, responded with clandestine warfare, using assassination as a political tool against the Sunni leadership. The architect of that campaign was Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), a shadowy and exotic Islamic scholar who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. With Fatimid funding, in 1090 Sheik Hassan seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia, and from that base expanded to establish a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria – earning him the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, he sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self-sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East.
Initially, the killing campaign hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors, and the targets were prominent Sunni opponents of the Fatimids. However, the Assassins soon asserted their independence, and while retaining a degree of Fatimid financial backing, went into the killing business on their own hook to further their own agenda and goals. The result was nearly two centuries of terror, during which the fear of Assassins was an ever-present concern for Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations thereof.