26. An Innocent Start to the Medieval Middle East’s Scariest Cult
Those staying current with the news coming out of the Middle East are probably aware that the Muslim world is rent by rival camps, one led by Saudi Arabia, the other by Iran. Those even more up on their current news might know that a key factor driving the rivalry is a sectarian split between Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites. It is a rivalry with roots going back over fourteen hundred years.
Over the centuries, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry went through many phases and took on many forms. One of the weirdest – and to contemporaries scariest – phases began in the late eleventh century, kicked off by an Islamic scholar named Hassan al Sabbah. It began innocent enough, with missionary work to proselytize Shi’ism. It soon morphed into a murderous cult of stoned fanatics, that terrorized the Middle East for the next hundred and fifty years: the Assassins.
25. Upsetting Medieval Islam’s Balance of Power Between Sunnis and Shiites Set the Stage for a Weird and Scary Cult
Hassan al Sabbah, also known as “The Old Man of the Mountain” – a title passed on to his successor – abandoned his relatively innocent proselytizing to found the Order of Assassins. It was a politico-religious cult that was far from innocent. Despised as heretics by most Muslims, relatively few, and geographically dispersed, the Assassins cult punched far above its weight. It wielded considerable power and influence throughout the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations.
For much of the medieval era, there had been a rough balance of power between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites. The less numerous Shiites were 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. In the ensuing power vacuum, things took a turn for the weird and terrifying.
24. From Innocent Missionary to Not at All Innocent Old Man of the Mountain
The Fatimids, defeated militarily by the Seljuk Turks, responded with clandestine warfare, using assassination as a political tool against the Sunni leadership. That campaign was eventually led by Sheik Hassan al Sabbah (1034 – 1124), a shadowy Islamic scholar who began as a relatively innocent Shiite missionary. He did not stick with innocent pursuits for long, and eventually came to lead a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, as a prelude to founding the Assassins cult.
In 1090, with Fatimid funding, Sheik Hassan seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia. From that base, he and his followers expanded their reach and established a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria. That earned al Sabbah the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title that was 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.
23. These Medieval State-Sponsored Terrorists Went Rogue and Began Terrorizing on Their Own Hook
The killing campaign carried out by Hassan al Sabbah’s followers initially hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors. As with modern terrorists sponsored by states, their targets were prominent opponents of their patrons – in the Assassins’ case, prominent Sunnis who ran afoul of the cult’s Fatimid sponsors. Eventually, however, al Sabbah and his cult went rogue and asserted their independence.
While retaining some Fatimid financial backing, they 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 fear of the Assassins was an ever-present concern for Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations. One of the more remarkable things about them, as seen below, was their 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.
22. The Assassins Adopted One of History’s Most Innovative Recruitment Strategies
Recruits were summoned to Assassins’ fortresses, and housed in bare cells. They underwent daily religious lectures and education, during which it was gradually hinted that Sheik Hassan al Sabah or his successors controlled entry to heaven. Then, one day the more promising of the innocent young men were drugged with hashish – a practice that earned the group the Arabic name “Hashashin“, which Europeans might have transliterated into “Assassins” Europeans. A likelier origin is that the group referred to themselves as “Asasiyun“, from the Arabic word “Asas” or foundation, to denote that they were faithful to the foundations of Islam.
When the recruit came to, high on hash, he found 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. Amid the breathtaking surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful women to seduce the recruit, cater to his physical desires, and satisfy his sexual whims.
21. The Assassins Used Sex and Sensual Pleasure to Turn Innocent Young Men Into Suicidal Terrorists
In their pleasure gardens, the Assassins plied their innocent young recruits with wine, kept them high on hash, and fed them mouth-watering delicacies. The cult’s temptresses would then work to convince the besotted young men that they were in paradise, and that their 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.
Waking back in his bare cell and austere surroundings, the recruit was 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 was then told that he could return to paradise – if he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It worked: 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.
20. The Assassins Transformed Innocent Young Men Into Highly Trained Terrorists
The Order of Assassins’ first notable victim was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier in the Seljuk Empire. He wielded absolute power for twenty years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed many prominent Middle Eastern figures. Their victims included 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 took innocent young men and turned them into suicide killers. However, unlike modern suicide bombers, the Assassins’ killers 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, and cold. They also had to possess charisma, in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.
19. The Assassins Were Early Pioneers of “Propaganda of the Deed”
The Assassins were early believers in and practitioners of “propaganda of the deed” – spectacular political acts, in this case, political murders, meant to serve as examples for others, and as catalysts for further events. Whenever possible, the Assassins did not settle for simply murdering their victims. Instead, they sought to kill them in a dramatic and public manner as possible. Especially when it came to targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security.
By killing their victims – some of them innocent, some not so much – in public, in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Assassins advertised their cult’s reach. They also struck 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.
18. This Cult’s Killers Went to Great Pains to Properly Plan and Execute Their Murders
Order of Assassins killer squads usually planned their hits carefully. They began with studying the routines of a targeted leader. Then they laid 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 abound of Assassin sleepers, outwardly innocent of guile, who spent years diligently working their way up the ranks and into the inner circle of a given court. There, 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 bodyguard were Assassins cultists.
17. Instead of Murder, the Assassins Sometimes Relied on Intimidation
The Assassins did not always kill their targets. Sometimes the cultists turned to intimidation instead 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.
The note informed the sultan that if the Assassins had wished him ill, the dagger stuck into the hard ground could have easily been stuck into his soft breast instead. The message was received loud and clear. Peace reigned between the Seljuks and the Assassins for decades. During that stretch, the Old Man of the Mountain was paid protection money, face-savingly described as a “pension”, and he was permitted to collect tolls from travelers passing near his fortresses.
16. The Assassins Even Managed to Scare Off the Middle East’s Most Famous Figure
The most famous Order of Assassins’ target to be intimidated instead of murdered was 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 with his army near the Assassins’ holdfasts in the mountains of northern Syria, Saladin awoke in his tent one morning to discover that the cultists had bypassed all his bodyguards and layers of protection. They left 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.
15. The Scary Assassins Finally Encountered Enemies Who Were Even Scarier: The Mongols
The Order of Assassins was finally destroyed by the Mongols, when they overran the region in the 1250s. The Mongols were an alien people from far away, with no connections to the Middle East. 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. That neutralized the Assassins’ tactics of patient infiltration and blending in, which had worked so well in a region they knew and whose peoples they understood. Such tactics 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 strategies and tactics for getting to their leadership. The Mongols’ bloodthirstiness, savagery, speed of action and reaction, and lack of interest in negotiations, was beyond anything the Assassins had ever experienced.
14. The Mongols Reduced the Assassins From Terrifying to “But a Tale on Men’s Lips“
In the runup to their invasion of the Middle East, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, began attacking and seizing Assassin fortresses. 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. It was a thorough bloodletting that broke the Assassins’ power for good. It reduced the cultists, according to a contemporary historian, to “but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world“.
13. The Order of Assassins Withered and Vanished Into History
Remnants of the Assassins survived in Syria, which lay outside the Mongols’ control. Eventually, the Egyptian Mamelukes first reduced them to vassalage in the 1260s, and finally forced them to surrender their last fortresses in 1273.
The last cult members were allowed to live, kept on retainer as contract killers. However, their independence was forever gone. In that final phase of existence as contract killers, the steadily dwindling cult existed for a few decades more. It survived, at least in name, into the following century before vanishing into the mists of history.
12. BMW Was Once Up to its Neck in Collaborating With the Nazis
Ever since its founding, Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) has been known for high-quality luxury automobiles, and until 1945, for aircraft engines. The company, which today makes a living off the innocent pursuit of manufacturing luxury cars and motorcycles, is a multinational with plants in Germany, the US, UK, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Less known is that its major shareholders, the Quandt family, were close friends and admirers of Hitler and the Nazis.
After a 2007 TV documentary aired unpleasant revelations about BMW’s activities during the Third Reich, the Quandt family launched an investigation which reached a troubling conclusion about the company’s Nazi past. In a nutshell, the Quandt family patriarch, Gunther Quandt, and his son Herbert were up to their necks in collaborating with Hitler’s regime. To their credit, the current generation of Quandts, unlike many other companies with Nazi ties, eventually came clean and refrained from ducking the issue or sugarcoating things. They commissioned a respected German historian to research the company’s past and set him loose on BMW’s and the Quandt family’s archives and files.
11. BMW’s Chief Shareholders “Were Linked Inseparably With the Crimes of the Nazis“
The result of the study commissioned by the Quandt family was a 1200-page report, which concluded that: “[t]he Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis … The family patriarch was part of the regime“. Among other things, the Quandts profited from the Nazis’ “Aryanization Program”, which dispossessed Jews of their property and turned it over to Germans approved by the new regime. Taking advantage of their friendship with Hitler and their excellent Nazi connections, BMW’s owners took over dozens of businesses that were seized from Jews and handed over to the Quandts.
So instrumental was BMW and the Quandts to the Third Reich’s military that Hitler Named Gunther Quandt a Wehrwirtschaftsführer, or “Leader of the Defense Economy”. During WWII, at least 50,000 slave workers from concentration camps toiled in BMW and Quandt family enterprises to manufacture weapons and fulfill armaments contracts. Many of them died from the inhumane working conditions. Some from avoidable accidents, some from neglect, some were starved, and others were executed for workplace infractions.
10. The Terrorist Organization That Started Off as an Innocent Charity
South America does not usually come to mind when people think of WWII. Nor does it often conjure images of fanatical Japanese, refusing to accept that their country had been defeated. However, South America’s biggest country, Brazil, witnessed just that during the war and in the years after its conclusion.
The country was shaken by fanatical Japanese immigrants, who formed a group that waged a campaign of terror against other immigrants deemed disloyal to Japan. After the war ended in Japan’s surrender, the group’s definition of “disloyalty” came to include the mere utterance of the fact that Japan had surrendered. Ironically, Brazil’s Japanese terrorist organization, Shindo Renmei (“League of the Way of Emperor’s Subjects“), began as an innocent charity.
9. From Innocent Origins, to Not at All Innocent Fanatical Terrorism
Shindo Renmei was neither the sole nor first organization founded by Japanese immigrants to Brazil. All such organizations, with the notable exception of Shindo Renmei, were innocent entities that were formed to offer mutual support for the Japanese-Brazilian community.
One such was Pia (“Pious”) a charity founded by Japanese Catholics, with the approval of both the Catholic Church and Brazil’s government, to help the poorer Japanese immigrants. One of Pia’s more active members was a former Japanese Army colonel, Junji Kikawa. In 1942, violent clashes erupted between Japanese immigrants and local Brazilians. That led Colonel Kikawa to split from the innocent Pia and form the not-at-all innocent Shindo Renmei, which urged Japanese-Brazilians to engage in sabotage. That began a dive down a rabbit hole of crazy that terrified Kikawa’s fellow immigrants, and bewildered and alarmed Brazil and the Brazilian government.
8. Japan’s Surrender in WWII Shocked the Japanese, and Led Many Into Extreme Denial
During WWII, Japan fought tooth and nail. Despite that, the conflict ended in abject defeat, with the country forced to throw in the towel and surrender in 1945. The shock of defeat sent many Japanese into paroxysms of grief, and quite a few around the bend and into denialism. For them – especially for those outside the country who did not get to see with their own eyes enemy troops occupying Japan – news of the surrender was “fake news”.
Most eventually came to their senses and accepted reality. Many, however, persisted in resisting facts. Thus, thousands of Japanese soldiers in isolated locales around the former Japanese Empire kept on fighting, for months, years, or even decades. Some were innocent cutoff troops, who had not gotten the memo. Others were just stubborn jerks. In Brazil, which hosted a sizeable Japanese immigrant community, a radical group sprang up to terrorize people into denying that Japan had surrendered.
7. Brazil Has Long Hosted the Largest Japanese Population Outside of Japan
Brazil hosts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, with over 1.5 million nationals or naturals of Japanese ancestry living there. Significant numbers of Japanese began arriving in Brazil early in the twentieth century. By 1940, the country had about a quarter-million Japanese immigrants and their descendants. Most were concentrated in the coffee plantation region in the state of Sao Paulo.
Nearly all of them were hard workers, engaged in the innocent pursuit of creating a better life for themselves and their families. However, assimilation was difficult. Brazil was a completely different country with a different language, religion, customs, climate, and food. So quite a few reacted by becoming hyper-Japanese, embracing their birth country’s traditions, mores, and nationalism, with a fervor exceeding that of those actually living in Japan. In the 1930s, Brazil’s government embarked on a course of forced assimilation, which effectively banned Japanese language media. Since many Japanese could not speak Portuguese, they were effectively cut off from news beyond their immediate immigrant community.
6. During WWII, the Japanese-Brazilian Community Was Cut Off From News of the Outside World
Brazil joined the Allies in 1942, and declared war on Japan. That deepened the isolation of the country’s Japanese immigrants. All communication with Japan was severed, and no new Japanese were admitted. The immigrants’ radios were confiscated. Those living in the more urban coastal areas, where access to news was easy, were expelled and relocated to the more rural interior, where access to news was quite limited.
Cut off from the outside world and reliable news, Brazil’s Japanese immigrant community became ripe for, and ready recipients of, unreliable news. As a result, many were hurled headfirst into a world of alternative facts – one in which Japan was winning WWII. By the time the war ended in 1945, many Japanese-Brazilians, innocent of the world beyond a small circle, were exceptionally vulnerable to bad information. They sincerely believed that Japan had won the war. Those who disagreed or said any different were in for rough – at times lethally rough – treatment.
5. The League of the Way of the Emperors’ Subjects Sprang From Innocent Roots
In 1942, violent clashes erupted between native Brazilians in rural Sao Paulo and the Japanese immigrants in the vicinity. So former Japanese Army Colonel Junji Kikawa left an innocent Catholic charity in which he had been active, to found Shindo Renmei, as a self-defense organization for Japanese immigrants.
Kikawa urged his followers to protest their mistreatment with steps such as ceasing the production of peppermint, which included ingredients used in making explosives, and to stop making silk, a vital wartime material for making parachutes. He also advocated more direct steps, such as sabotage. By 1945, Shindo Renmei had a headquarters in Sao Paulo, and 64 branches in Brazilian localities with Japanese immigrant communities.
4. Innocent Japanese-Brazilians Were Led to Believe that Japan Was Winning the War
During WWII, Shindo Renmei took a turn towards ultra-nationalism. With most Japanese-Brazilians cut off from reliable news, Colonel Kikawa and his followers stepped in to exploit their innocent countrymen. They filled the information vacuum with “news” that amounted to little more than wishful thinking. As Japan reeled from defeat after defeat, Shindo Renmei told the Japanese immigrants that Japan was marching from triumph to triumph. The claims included a decisive Japanese victory in Okinawa, where America lost 400 warships. Victory was secured in no small part by a Japanese superweapon, the “High-Frequency Bomb”, which killed Americans by the hundreds of thousands and forced the Allies’ unconditional surrender.
Many believed that or if they did not, they knew better than to say so. If for no other reason than that Shindo Renmei also took it upon itself to punish “defeatists” in the Japanese immigrant community. Those who voiced doubts about how well the war was going for Japan were shunned, boycotted, and sometimes violently assailed.
3. Shindo Renmei Convinced Brazil’s Japanese that America Lost WWII
Shindo Renmei dismissed Japan’s surrender as “fake news” and American propaganda, and redoubled its efforts to punish those who said otherwise. According to Colonel Kikawa and his followers, Japanese immigrants were divided into two camps: good guys, and bad guys.
There were the virtuous Kachigumi (“Victorious”), who knew that Japan had won the war. They were mostly the poor and poorly educated. Then there were the vile Makegumi (“Defeatists”), also pejoratively labeled “dirty hearts”, who bought the fake news about Japan’s defeat. The latter tended to be the better off and better-educated immigrants, who had better access to information and could differentiate between reliable and unreliable news. However, even those innocent of Shindo Renmei’s fanaticism were terrorized into toeing the group’s line, or at least into staying silent.
2. Purveyors of Fake News and Charlatans Exploited Innocent Japanese-Brazilians
By the time WWII ended, Shindo Renmei had about 50,000 followers. They went on a buying spree that emptied local shops of red and white cloth to make Japanese flags, intended to welcome Brazil’s new overlords. The situation was further complicated by the circulation of fake Japanese newspapers and magazines peddled by charlatans.
The fake media included articles about Japan’s “great victory”; the arrival of Japanese occupation troops in America; photographs of President Truman bowing to Emperor Hirohito; and coverage of the trial of General Douglas MacArthur for war crimes. The charlatans did not do it just for kicks and giggles: they made a bundle selling the duped innocent Japanese immigrants’ land in the “conquered territories”.
1. Shindo Renmei Launched a Terror Campaign Against Innocent Civilians
Those who dared doubt Shindo Renmei’s assertions of Japan’s victory were beaten up or murdered. By the time it was over, dozens had been killed. In 1946, Japan’s new government prepared documents for distribution in Brazil, outlining reality and declaring that Japan had surrendered. Shindo Renmei dismissed that as fake news, and beat up or murdered Japanese immigrants caught reading or distributing the documents.
To reduce the violence, Brazil’s government prohibited newspapers from publishing news of Japan’s defeat, and ordered the term “unconditional surrender” removed from official communications. Things then gradually simmered down. A last gasp occurred in 1950, when Japan’s Olympic swimming team visited Brazil. When its members expressed shock at the idea that Japan had won the war, diehards claimed that the athletes were actually Koreans masquerading as Japanese. That was so ludicrous, that it eroded Shindo Renmei’s last remaining support, and the organization soon vanished into history’s dustbin.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading