A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations

Khalid Elhassan - August 26, 2017

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassination of Seljuk Grand Vizier Nizam al Mulk. Quora

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.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassin seductresses. Kolybanov Live Journal

The Assassins’ Remarkable Recruitment Methods

The Assassins adopted one of the most innovative recruitment strategies known to history, by convincing recruits that their leader, the Sheik known as The Old Man of the Mountain, held the keys to paradise. Potential recruits would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, and there they would be housed in bare cells, and attend daily religious lectures and education, during which it would gradually be hinted that Sheik Hassan al Sabah or his successors held the keys to paradise. Then, one day the more promising of the young men would be drugged and plied with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin – a word that was rendered into “Assassins” by various Europeans.

When the recruit came to, high on hashish, he awoke to find himself amidst carefully landscaped orchard gardens through which clear streams meandered between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Cute animals such as lambs and tame deer frolicked about; peacocks wandered around, ruffling and spreading their gorgeous tails; while brightly colored birds flitted through the branches above, trilling and filling the air with their song. And amid the breathtaking surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful women to seduce the recruit, cater to his physical desires, and satisfy his sexual whims.

Plying the youth with wine, keeping him high on hash, and feeding him mouth-watering delicacies that most recruits never knew existed let alone tasted, the temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days of wallowing in delights and indulging in heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.

He would wake to find himself back in his bare cell and austere surroundings, and informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It proved highly effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Assassins’ attempt on Edward I of England when he was on Crusade. Wikimedia

The Assassins’ Trail of Terror

The cult’s first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who had held absolute power in the Seljuk Empire for 20 years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed many prominent Middle Eastern figures, including numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher-ups including a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, King Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin who snuck into the royal tent when Edward was on Crusade.

The Assassins’ suicide hitmen, unlike modern suicide bombers, were carefully selected and well trained in combat and disguises. Aside from the requisite physical fitness, they had to be quick thinking, well-read, intelligent, patient, calculating, cold, and possessing no small degree of charisma in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.

Early believers in and practitioners of “propaganda of the deed”, whenever possible, the Assassins were not content to simply murder their victims, but sought to do so in as dramatic and public a manner as possible – particularly when it came to targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Assassins aimed to advertise their cult’s reach, and strike fear into the hearts of leading men by fostering the perception that those targeted by the Assassins were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken.

The most common tactics were for Assassin killer squads to study the routines of a targeted leader, then lie in wait for him during a heavily attended public event, such as a festival or Friday prayers at the mosque. At a signal given at an opportune moment, they would spring into action to stab and slash their victim, while shouting the name of their cult’s leader and whatever offense the victim had given. Stories also abound of Assassin sleepers who spent years diligently working their way up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court, where they would patiently await instructions that might take decades to arrive, if ever. In some instances, a victim would discover during the final moments of his life that one or more of his bodyguards were Assassin cultists.

Sometimes the Assassins resorted to intimidation in lieu of murder, such as with the Seljuk sultan Sanjar, who had rebuffed ambassadors from the cult. He changed his mind after waking up one morning to find a note pinned to the ground near his bed by a dagger, informing him that had the Assassins wished him ill, the dagger stuck into the hard ground could have easily been stuck into his soft breast instead. Peace reigned between Seljuks and Assassins for decades, during which the Old Man of the Mountain was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and permitted to collect tolls from travelers passing near his fortresses.

Another whom the Assassins intimidated was the sultan Saladin, leader of the revived Islamic resistance against the Crusades. After retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saladin marched on the Assassins, who had murdered his predecessor, and sought to end the cult once and for all. However, while encamped near their holdfasts in the mountains of northern Syria, he awoke in his tent one morning to discover that the Assassins had bypassed all his bodyguards and layers of protection to leave a menacing letter pinned to his pillow by a poisoned dagger, advising the sultan that they could kill him whenever and wherever they wanted. Saladin turned his army around, abandoned the campaign, and sent officials to negotiate an understanding with the current Old Man of the Mountain. Via such means, a grudging live-and-let-live relationship developed between the Assassins and the region’s powers.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Ruins of Alamout Castle atop summit in center of photo. Note the rugged and difficult surrounding terrain. Wikimedia

It Took the Mongols to Break the Assassins

The cult was finally broken by the Mongols, under Hulagu, when they overran the region in the 1250s. The Mongols were an alien people from far away, with no connections to the Middle East, and their leaders were not surrounded by Middle Eastern courtiers, but by their own kind in armed and highly mobile camps in which strangers conspicuously stood out. As such, the cult’s tactics of patient infiltration and blending in, which had worked so well in a region they knew and whose peoples they understood, were useless against the Mongols whom they neither knew nor understood, and whose ranks they had neither the means nor time to infiltrate.

The Mongols appeared too suddenly, acted too swiftly, and were too alien for the Assassins to get a handle on them or work out viable strategies and tactics for getting to their leadership. The Mongols’ bloodthirstiness, savagery, speed of action and reaction, and lack of interest in negotiations, simply went beyond anything the Assassins had ever experienced.

In the runup to their invasion of the Middle East, the Mongols began attacking and seizing Assassin fortresses in 1253, and as a preliminary to his conquest of the region, Hulagu took a detour in 1256 to storm the cult’s strongholds in Persia. He captured the last Old Man of the Mountain and forced him to order the remaining Assassin fortresses in Persia to surrender. Forty of them, including the main fortress of Alamout Castle, did so, and the Mongols razed them to the ground. Hulagu then sent the Old Man of the Mountain in chains to the Grand Khan in Mongolia, who had him executed. The Mongols then slaughtered all whom they could lay their hands on of the Nizari cult to which the Assassins belonged, along with their families, in a thorough genocide that broke their power once and for all, and reduced them, according to a contemporary historian, to “but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world“.

Remnants of the Assassins survived in Syria, which lay outside the Mongols’ control, until the Egyptian Mamelukes first reduced them to vassalage in the 1260s, and finally forced them to surrender their last fortresses in 1273. They were suffered to live and kept on retainer as contract killers, but their independence was forever gone. In that final iteration of contract killers, the steadily dwindling cult existed for a few decades more, surviving into the following century before vanishing into the mists of history.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Execution of People’s Will members in 1881. Executed Today

Narodnaya Volya – People’s Will

Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will”, was an underground 19th-century revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy of the Russian Empire by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They are best known for their assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and for being the forerunners of even bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations in the following decades.

People’s Will had its genesis in radical student study circles in the 1870s, which openly sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were quickly repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. That led to a rethink, a growing consensus that only revolutionary violence could overthrow Tsarism, and the adoption of more clandestine and aggressive tactics – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.

The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization which advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials but stopped short of viewing terror as a means of political struggle against the government. People’s Will, which splintered off from Zemlya I Volya in 1879 after the latter was nearly wiped out by the secret police following a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar, was more radical and viewed terror as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation.

From the outset, People’s Will called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and issued a proclamation declaring a death sentence against the Tsar, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.

People’s Will attempted to kill the Tsar in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, planting a bomb in his palace, but he was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. Amid mounting repression, including the hanging of People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to assassinate the Tsar.

On March 1st, 1881, they finally succeeded. Waiting in ambush along a route taken by the Tsar every week, a People’s Will assassin threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. A shaken Tsar emerged from the carriage, and a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him crossing himself as he surveyed the damage. Shouting “it is too early to thank God!“, the assassin threw another bomb, this one landing and going off directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. A third assassin in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb if the first two had failed, but his explosives were unnecessary.

The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime, drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance, and transformed the Russian Empire into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Surviving veterans of People’s Will, who began emerging from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Emblem of the Black Hand. Forbidden Symbols

Serbian Black Hand

The Black Hand was an early 20th-century irredentist secret society that employed terrorist methods in a bid to free Serbs outside Serbia’s borders from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule and unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group’s assassins would go on to murder the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

The group’s founders first came together when junior officers, led by a then-Captain Apis, launched a coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen in 1903. In 1908, following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, an act Serbia resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means. The following year, a furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to abandon those activities.

In 1911, the Black Hand was established to resume the anti Austro-Hungarian clandestine campaign, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into the Hapsburg empire to destabilize it with terrorism and stirring up nationalism and resentment among its Serbian subjects.

Serbia was a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism in that era, as the Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high-ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the crown prince, and the Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. Apis, who had led the coup that murdered the royal family in 1903, had risen to colonel in charge of Austria’s military intelligence by 1914, and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker. That year, he hatched a plot to send assassins to murder Austria’s successor to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

A Bloody Legacy: 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations
Capture of Black Hand assassin Gavrilo Princep after shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. BBC

The Black Hand Committed History’s Most Impactful Terrorist Act

No single act of terrorism has had a greater impact than did the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo by Black Hand assassins. After a comedy of errors in which various assassins tried but failed to kill the Archduke, including one who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide that had expired, and drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep, the royal’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princep, an assassin who had given up on the affair and gone to grab a bite. Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

Austria eventually declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That, in turn, dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally, which brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany, which prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. That gave Britain a more palatable justification to join as an outraged guarantor of Belgium’s violated sovereignty, in lieu of the realpolitik European balance of power considerations which would have compelled her to fight Germany anyhow.

In the ensuing war, over 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a new fervent and fast-paced era of democracies juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism emerged in its place. The Black Hand’s bullets in Sarajevo irrevocably changed the world.

Serbia did not fare well. It stood off an initial Austrian onslaught, but in 1915 the Germans joined and helped the Austrians overrun Serbia. One-fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest casualty percentage suffered by any country in WWI. Serbia’s prime minister finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders, including Apis, were arrested and tried on trumped up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.

Advertisement