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.