History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals

Khalid Elhassan - June 29, 2020

In 1946, Brazil’s government prohibited the country’s newspapers from mentioning Japan’s defeat in the recently concluded Second World War. The term “unconditional surrender” was also banned from the country’s official documents. Why? Because Japanese-Brazilian extremists, who believed that Japan had actually won WWII, launched a murderous terror campaign against those asserting that Japan had lost the war and surrendered. They were but one of many weird extremist groups from history. Following are forty things about some of history’s extreme, wacky, or extremely wacky radical groups.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Japan’s foreign minister signing his country’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945. Wikimedia

40. Extreme Denial

Japan put up a determined – and often fanatical – fight during World War II. 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 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, but many 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. In Brazil, which hosted a sizeable Japanese immigrant community, a radical group sprang up to terrorize people into denying that Japan had surrendered. As seen below, things got pretty weird.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
A Japanese poster drumming up immigration to Brazil Historic Museum of Japanese Immigration

39. The Japanese in Brazil

Brazil is home to 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 of them concentrated in the coffee plantation region in the state of Sao Paulo.

Assimilation was difficult. It 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 local Portuguese, they were effectively cut off from news beyond their immediate immigrant community.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Japanese immigrants working in a Brazilian coffee plantation. Historic Museum of Japanese Immigration

38. Extreme Isolation

In 1942, Brazil joined WWII on the Allies’ side. That further deepened the isolation of the country’s Japanese immigrants. All communication with Japan was severed, and no new Japanese were admitted. The immigrants’ radio sets 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 in the Japanese immigrant community 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 sincerely believed that Japan had triumphed. Those who disagreed or said any different were in for rough – at times lethally rough – treatment.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Colonel Junji Kikawa. Doc Player

37. The League of the Way of the Emperor’s Subjects

In 1942, violent clashes erupted between native Brazilians in rural Sao Paulo and the Japanese immigrants in the vicinity. So a former Japanese Army colonel named Junji Kikawa founded Shindo Renmei (“League of the Way of Emperors’ Subjects”), as a self-defense organization for Japanese immigrants.

Kikawa urged the immigrants to protest their mistreatment with steps such as ceasing the production of peppermint, which included ingredients used in making explosives, and silk, a vital wartime material for making parachutes. He also advocated more direct steps, such as acts of sabotage. By 1945, Shindo Renmei had a headquarters in Sao Paulo, and 64 branches in Brazilian localities with Japanese immigrant communities.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
US Marines celebrating victory over Japan in Okinawa. USMC Archives

36. Punishing “Defeatists”

Shindo Renmei took a turn towards ultra-nationalism during the war. With most Japanese-Brazilians cut off from reliable news, Colonel Kikawa and his followers stepped in and filled the information vacuum with “news” that amounted to little more than wishful thinking. Even as Japan was reeling 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. The victory was helped in no small part by a Japanese super weapon, the “High-Frequency Bomb”, which wiped out Americans by the hundreds of thousands and forced the Allies’ unconditional surrender.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Shindo Renmei members, whose organization insisted that Japan had won WWII after a decisive victory in Okinawa. BBC

Many believed that balderdash, or if they did not, they knew better than to open their mouths and 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.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Colonel Kikawa. Pintrest

35. America Lost WWII, and Douglas MacArthur Was Tried by the Victorious Japanese for War Crimes?

When Japan surrendered, Shindo Renmei dismissed it 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 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. They tended to be the better off and better-educated immigrants, who had better access to information and could differentiate between reliable and unreliable news.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
A Japanese immigrant family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia

34. Fake News Abounded

By war’s end, 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 Japanese immigrants’ land in the “conquered territories”.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Ikuta Mizobe, Shindo Renmei’s first victim. Discover Nikkei

33. Shindo Renmei’s Reign of Terror

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 assassinated. 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 trashcan.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Nisho Inoue. Aeon

32. The Aptly Named “League of Blood”

The Japanese-Brazilian secret society that tried to force everybody to pretend that Japan hadn’t lost WWII was bonkers. However, it was just another in a long list of nutty (and lethal) Japanese nationalist societies. One such emerged in the years preceding WWII. Back then, Japan was caught in a vice between an urge to preserve its heritage, and the need to modernize lest it succumbs to Western imperialism, as most of Asia had already done.

A volatile mix of nationalism and militarism took an already touchy situation and made it worse, ultimately leading to the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. En route, there was plenty of craziness, such as “The League of Blood” – a violent ultranationalist organization, resembling HYDRA from the GI-Joe fictional universe, that sought to change Japan via murder.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
League of Blood defendants awaiting trial. Wikimedia

31. A Crackpot Leader For a Crackpot Organization

Japan’s League of Blood was headed by a crackpot Buddhist preacher named Nissho Inoue, who had experienced some mystical visions in the 1920s while wandering around China. That left him convinced that he had been chosen as Japan’s savior, and that the country needed a spiritual rebirth.

So Inoue returned to Japan and opened a school that pushed an agrarian philosophy that advocated the superiority of farmers over workers, and rural life over urban. Inoue slowly began radicalizing his students, and within a few years, his school had morphed into a training center for ultranationalists pining to make Japan great again, by returning to the traditions of past centuries. In 1932, Inoue preached that Japan should be reformed with an assassination campaign.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, murdered by League of Blood assassins. Prabook

30. “One Person, One Kill”

The ultimate aim of Nissho Inoue’s targeted assassinations was to dismantle Japan’s secular government, and restore supreme power to the emperor. So he and his disciples drew up a list of 20 liberal politicians and rich industrialists – pro Western types whom they viewed as evil obstacles, standing in the way of Japan’s nationalist rebirth. Then, with the slogan “one person, one kill“, the League of Blood’s killers fanned out to remake Japan.

They killed a former Finance Minister in February of 1932, and a wealthy industrialist the following month. Inoue turned himself in to the police, who treated him with respect as a “patriot”. In May, 1932, Japanese Navy officers associated with the League of Blood assassinated the Prime Minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi. Indicative of Japan’s weakening democracy, many sympathized with the killers, and all got off with light sentences. Inoue was sentenced to prison in 1934, but was amnestied in 1940, and spent the rest of his life a free man until his death in 1967.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Early Muslim cavalry during internecine fighting that erupted soon after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Art Station

29. ISIS’ Medieval Forerunner

The decades after the death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad saw bitter succession disputes, during which a radical fundamentalist faction of early dissenters known as the Khawarij (Outsiders) emerged. They formulated an ideological concept of Takfir, whereby Muslims who disagreed with them were deemed apostates and kafirs (infidels), and were thus no longer covered by the prohibition against killing fellow Muslims. Today, Takfir furnishes modern terrorists such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, with the key theological justification for their depredations.

It all began with a dispute that erupted after Muhammad’s death. Some believed that leadership of the Muslim community should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline. Others thought leadership should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, and became known as the Shia, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
A Shiite depiction of Caliph Ali. Haraji

28. Radicalization of the Khawarij

Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing his cousin and son-in-law Ali each time. On the fourth try, following the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was finally elected. However, the third Caliph’s relatives, the Umayyads, accused Ali of being implicated in the murder, and elected another Caliph. The rival Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali was prevailed upon to accept arbitration.

The Khawarij, who until then had supported Ali, opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they argued that Ali had no authority to make a decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was not his.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
The assassination of Caliph Ali. Lubpak

27. Islam’s First Terrorists Started Off With a Bang

Ali went ahead with the arbitration, but it turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute, and simply weakened him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched a plot to assassinate the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers. Ali’s assassins succeeded, but those sent after his rival only wounded him, and surviving, he emerged as sole Caliph.

The Khawarij rose in rebellion against the Caliph whom they had failed to assassinate, who was now Islam’s sole ruler thanks to a helping hand from the Khawarij’s botched plot that had killed his rival, Ali, but left him alive. They contended that he was illegitimate because he gained the Caliphate by force of arms, rather than election by the Muslim community.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Khawarij. Shafaqna

26. A Medieval Terrorism Campaign

The Khawarij’s democratic and egalitarian principles were more than counterbalanced by a fierce fanaticism that turned off many. They contended that backsliding or sinning, such as drinking alcohol, fornication, missing the daily prayers, failing to fast on Ramadan, or even idle gossip, rendered the sinner an apostate deserving of death. The Khawarij launched a terror campaign against the Caliph’s supporters, as well as those who did not meet their purity standards.

As the struggle intensified, the Khawarij grew in viciousness, and eventually viewed even neutral Muslims as enemies. They reasoned that failure to support the Khawarij, despite the glaringly obvious righteousness of their position, was proof of apostasy. That rendered the laggards kafirs, not fellow Muslims whose blood the Khawarij were prohibited from shedding.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Khawarij. Islami City

25. Islam’s Violent Anarchists

Atrocities abounded during the Khawarijs’ decades-long terrorism campaign. They ranged from widespread torture and disfigurement of captives to slitting the bellies of pregnant women, to massacring entire villages and towns. Their most extreme sub-sect, the Azariqah in southern Iraq, separated themselves from the entire Muslim community and declared death to all sinners – defined as all who did not share the Azariqah’s puritanical beliefs – and their families.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Modern successors of the Khawarij. Daily Express

Their rebellion was eventually crushed, but embers remained, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries, an ever present irritant and menace. Rejecting the Caliphate’s authority, they engaged in an extended campaign of terror and assassinations. They combined that with a low-level insurgency in backcountry regions, that would flare up every generation or two into a major rebellion that required considerable expense and effort to beat down.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Skulls from the Cambodian Genocide. New York Times

24. The Southeast Asian Genocidaires

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge was one of the twentieth century’s wackiest – and deadliest – extremist groups. They were led by Saloth Sar, better known to history as Pol Pot (1925 – 1998), a communist revolutionary who led his extremist followers into seizing power in 1975. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, then transformed it into a nightmarish ideological tyranny, masterfully depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields.

During the Khmer Rouge’s years in power, about a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed in a horrific genocide. The horror was made even worse by its irrationality. In an attempt at social engineering, Cambodian cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants toiling on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Saloth Sar, AKA Pol Pot. ThoughtCo

23. A Surprisingly Mild Leader for a Horrific Organization

The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, was a walking contradiction. A monster, he was also a charismatic figure who had given little indication of what he would become. Born into a prosperous family, he received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, France, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor, teaching French and Geography, and was beloved by his students as a “very kind man“.

In those days, he frequently lectured on the themes of human decency and kindness, and was described as: “an attractive figure. His deep voice and calm gestures were reassuring. He seemed to be someone who could explain things in such a way that you came to love justice and honesty and hate corruption“. Some students remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students became his most enthusiastic Khmer Rouge followers, and were among the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Ayman al Zawahiri, right, with Osama bin Laden. The Daily Beast

22. Al Qaeda’s Modern Forerunner

Egyptian Islamic Jihad was founded a decade before Al Qaeda. In many ways, Islamic Jihad inspired the more famous terrorist organization, furnishing it with both a theological basis for its ideology, as well as providing it with key staffers. Indeed, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s deputy and second in command – and successor after 2011 – got his start as a terrorist in Islamic Jihad.

The group was founded in the late 1970s, and within a short time catapulted itself to international fame with a stunning assassination that was filmed and aired live on TV. Its target: Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was killed during the country’s October 6th national celebration.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
From left to right, Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, at the conclusion of the Camp David Accords. Associated Press

21. Targeting Egypt’s President

October 6th has been a day of national commemoration and celebration in Egypt, ever since 1973, when the Egyptian military successfully crossed the Suez Canal at the start of the Yom Kippur War. The war ended in defeat, but it had been a tough fight that cost their Israeli opponents dearly, and marked the first time that the Egyptian military had put up a credible effort, so it was worth celebrating.

By the time the eighth anniversary rolled around in 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had been in office in 1973 and enjoyed a huge bump in popularity and prestige, as a result, was becoming quite unpopular. In addition to an economic downturn, Sadat had entered what was viewed by many Egyptians as a controversial rapprochement with Israel.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Anwar Sadat on the review stand, minutes before his assassination. BT

20. The Assassination Plan

The thaw between Egypt and Israel culminated in a 1979 peace treaty, the Camp David Accords. It won Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a Nobel Prize and applause in the West. However, many of his fellow countrymen and Arab neighbors saw it as a sellout. Their numbers included Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” later convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who issued a fatwa for killing Sadat.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Khalid Islambouli behind bars after assassinating Sadat. Pintrest

On October 6th, 1981, Sadat, surrounded by high-ranking officials and dignitaries, took his place at a reviewing stand to watch what by then had become an annual military parade. Things started well. As TV cameras transmitted the event live, jet overflights zoomed overhead, while army trucks towing artillery paraded by. One truck contained a lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, who had arrived that morning with some substitute soldiers for ones whom he claimed had fallen ill.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Egyptian Islamic Jihad extremists during the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Rare Historical Photos

19. Killing a President on Live TV

Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli was a secret member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. The group’s ranks included Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s future second in command and successor as head of Al Qaeda. Islambouli and his men had live ammunition for their weapons. As TV cameras broadcast the parade live, Islambouli’s truck passed by president Anwar Sadat’s reviewing stand. The lieutenant and his men disembarked and approached the review stand.

(Ayman al Zawahiri and other Egyptian Islamic Jihad members on trial in 1982 in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination)

Sadat thought it was part of the parade, and saluted Islambouli, who responded by quickly lobbing three grenades at the president. Only one grenade exploded, but as it went off, Islambouli’s accomplices rushed the review stand and opened fire, killing Sadat and several others nearby.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
League of German Girls gymnastics. Wikimedia

18. The Nazi Group That Set Out to Breed a Master Race

Hitler and his Nazi followers believed in “good blood”, which should be sought out, preserved, and expanded. They also believed in “bad blood”, which was to be identified, and ruthlessly eradicated. The latter gave us the horrors of the Holocaust. The former led to the Lebensborn (“Spring of Life”), a Schutzstaffel (SS) association that went to bizarre and often sinister lengths in an attempt to increase the stock of “racially valuable” Germanic children.

It began in 1935, when the Lebensborn association was formed to increase the “racially pure” population by increasing the Aryan birthrate. The result was a selective breeding program, just like breeding prize cattle, whereby unmarried “pure” Aryan women were matched up with pure SS members. Upon impregnation, they were usually housed in SS-run maternity homes until they gave birth. The offspring were often adopted by pure Aryan families, particularly from the SS. The human breeding program was supplemented by a massive child kidnapping policy, to create yet another dark chapter in Nazi history.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Kidnapping of Polish children for the Lebensborn association. Wikimedia

17. A Human Selective Breeding and Child Kidnapping Program

When the Nazis overran much of Europe during WWII, German occupiers were encouraged to breed with women from Nordic populations. The offspring were often birthed in Lebensborn clinics, which were scattered across Europe, then raised as Germans. Thus, the wombs of acceptably Aryan-Nordic women from across Europe were utilized to increase Germany’s “Aryan stock”. The breeding program in occupied Europe was quite successful: more Lebensborn children were born in Norway during five years of German occupation, than were born in Germany during the program’s entire ten-year span.

Another part of the Lebensborn program involved straightforward kidnapping of children. Children who looked like pure Aryans were kidnapped by the hundreds of thousands from across Europe, and taken back to Germany. There, they were adopted by the same types who adopted the SS-bred children, and Germanized.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
An SS human selective breeding birth house. Bundesarchiv Bild

16. Establishing Human Breeding Facilities Across Europe

The Lebensborn association expanded its operations from Germany to much of occupied Europe, to help breed the “Master Race” with local “racially valuable” women. Eventually, the association had facilities in Germany, Austria, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. Breeding and birthing homes were set up in former facilities for the elderly or disabled, or in houses confiscated from Jews.

There, the mothers recuperated after giving birth. Some kept their children, while other mothers left them in the care of the association, until a “good” German family was found to adopt them. The association thus enabled unmarried pregnant women – provided they and the man who had impregnated them were “racially valuable” – to avoid the social stigma of illegitimacy by giving birth anonymously.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Nurses and babies outside a Lebensborn facility. Weebly

15. Bizarre Baptisms

About 60 percent of Lebensborn mothers were unmarried, and if they chose not to keep the child, the program ran nurseries where the children were cared for until adopted. At least they were adopted if they were healthy and hale. Even before the Holocaust, the Nazis had launched an extermination program, Aktion T4, that euthanized the disabled and undesirable. It would eventually claim about 300,000 lives. Lebensborn children with disabilities were prime candidates for euthanasia – they were literally born in the clutches of the SS.

Many newborns were baptized in bizarre SS occult ceremonies, not with a priest holding a pitcher of holy water over the infant’s head, but with an SS official holding a dagger. Instead of reading from a prayer book, the SS man would read from Mein Kampf. Instead of vowing to be good Christians, the children, through their SS interlocutors, swore lifelong allegiance to the Fuhrer and the tenets of Nazism.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Nazi children. Renegade Tribune

14. The Troubled Lives of Nazi-Bred Children

The Lebensborn association had planned to breed a racial elite for Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. However, the Reich lasted only twelve years before going down to defeat and ruin, reduced to rubble by Allied bombers and rampaging armies from east and west. The German Lebensborn children grew up in the war’s aftermath, many of them cowed by shame and uncertainty.

Whether they had been kept by their mothers or adopted by “good” German families, the lucky Lebensborn children were those who grew up unaware of their origins. Children known to have been products of the Lebensborn had a rough time of it, not least because their mothers were widely scorned as “SS whores”. They also grew up with not only the social stigma of illegitimate birth, which was a big deal back then, but also the fact that their very existence was an uncomfortable reminder of a dark past best forgotten.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Artistic reconstruction of the Assassins’ chief fortress, Alamut. Grand Poobah

13. The Old Man of the Mountain and His Followers

The eleventh century saw the emergence of The Order of Assassins, an Islamic 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, the Assassins punched far above their weight. They wielded considerable power and influence throughout the medieval Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations.

The Assassins’ origins can be traced back the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, there had been a rough balance of power. The more numerous Sunnis were led by the waning Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq, while less numerous Shiites were championed by the smaller but rising Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. 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. Defeated militarily, the Fatimids resorted to clandestine warfare, using assassination as a political tool against the Sunni leadership.

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Sheik Hasan al Sabah. Wikimedia

12. Founding the Assassins Cult

The architect of the Fatimids’ assassination campaign was Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124). A shadowy and exotic Islamic scholar, the Sheik led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. In 1090, with Fatimid funding, he seized Alamut Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia.

Al Sabah expanded his operations from Alamut, and established a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria. That earned him the nickname Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, the Sheik sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self-sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Rudkhan Castle, one of the Assassins’ fortresses in the mountains of Persia. Wikimedia

11. Kicking Off a Reign of Terror

Initially, the Assassins’ killing campaign hewed to the goals of their sponsors, and the targets were prominent Sunni opponents of the Fatimids. However, it did not take long before the Assassins began asserting their independence. While retaining a degree of Fatimid financial backing, Sheik Hassan al Sabah and his followers 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 Middle Eastern leaders and prominent figures of all faiths and denominations lived in constant dread of the Assassins.

The cult’s strength relied on the fanatical dedication of its followers. That dedication was secured by one of history’s most bizarre – yet most effective – recruitment strategies. As seen below, hashish played a key role in the Assassins’ recruitment and training. That earned the cult its Arabic name of Hashshashin, which became “Assassins” or variants thereof in various European languages.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Medieval seductresses. Kolybanov Live Journal

10. Innovative Recruitment Methods

The Assassins used innovative recruitment methods, that relied on convincing recruits that their leader, the Sheik known as The Old Man of the Mountain, held the keys to paradise. Prospects were summoned to an Assassin fortress, where they were housed in bare cells. They received daily religious lectures and education. It was gradually hinted that Sheik Hassan al Sabah or his successors held the keys to paradise. Then, one day, the more promising young men were drugged with hashish.

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 lambs and tame deer frolicked and gamboled 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.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
The Assassins got their recruits to wallow in a surfeit of sensual pleasures. Return of Kings

9. Hope You Enjoyed Your Stay in Paradise. If You Would Like to Come Back…

In their pleasure gardens, the Assassins plied their young prospects with wine, kept them high on hash, and fed them mouth-watering delicacies that most recruits never knew existed, let alone tasted. In the meantime, their sexy temptresses would convince each besotted and befuddled youth that he was in paradise, that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into the Muslim heaven. Then, after days of wallowing in delights and indulging in the pleasures of paradise, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.

He would awake 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 Assassins’ enemies. It was extremely 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.

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The attempted assassination of Edward I of England. Wikimedia

8. A Medieval Cult’s Trail of Terror

The Assassins’ 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.

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 Edward’s tent when he was Crusading.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
A medieval pleasure garden. Pintrest

7. A Murderous Elite

The Assassins’ killers did not expect to survive their missions. Indeed, not surviving was the whole point. They wanted to die while killing for the Old Man of the Mountain, so they return to the “heaven” in whose existence they had been drugged into believing during their recruitment.

However, unlike modern suicide bombers, the Assassins’ suicide 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 no small degree of charisma, in order to infiltrate their opponents’ defenses, and gain access to and come within striking distance of their target.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
The assassination of Seljuk grandee Nizam al Mulk. Quora

6. Medieval Propaganda of the Deed

The Assassins practiced “propaganda of the deed” whenever possible. They were not content to simply murder their victims, but sought to do so in as dramatic and public a manner as possible. Especially targets who had enveloped themselves in the heaviest layers of protective security. Assassin killer squads studied the routines of targeted leaders, then lay in wait for them during heavily attended public events, 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.

By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Assassins aimed to advertise their cult’s reach. They also sought to 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.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Sultan Sanjar. Wikimedia

5. Deadly Sleepers

Some Assassin sleepers 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 his life’s final moments that one or more of his bodyguards were Assassin cultists.

Sometimes the Assassins resorted 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. It informed 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.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Hulagu. Pintrest

4. Scaring Saladin

Those intimidated by the Assassins’ cult include Saladin, who recaptured 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. They left a menacing letter pinned to his pillow by a poisoned dagger, advising Saladin that they could kill him whenever and wherever they wanted.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
The ruins of the Assassins’ chief fortress, Alamut, atop the steep rise at the center of the photo – note the rugged surrounding terrain. Wikimedia

Saladin turned his army around, abandoned the campaign, and sent emissaries 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. It lasted for generations until the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, wiped out the Assassins. Hulagu stormed their mountain fortresses, massacred the cultists, and sent the last Old Man of the Mountain in chains to the Grand Khan in Mongolia, who had him executed.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Qarmatians. Daily Motion

3. The Islamic Sect That Sacked the Kaaba

The ninth-century Qarmatians combined elements of Zoroastrianism with Shiite Islam to form a radical sect that was deemed heretical by other Muslims. Starting off as bandits who earned a living attacking trade and pilgrimage caravans, the Qarmatians grew religious after coming under the sway of a mystic. Preaching that the End of Days was near, he gathered a large following of fanatics, and transformed the bandits into a millenarian cult.

Fired up by religious zeal, the Qarmatians rose in the ninth century and captured eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they founded a utopian religious republic in 899. From that base, they terrorized the Middle East for generations during which they pillaged their neighbors, engaged in widespread banditry, and massacred pilgrims by the tens of thousands. They also seized Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, with its holy shrine of the Kaaba, and sacked both.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
Pilgrims jostling to touch the Kaaba’s Black Stone. My Meteorite

2. The Muslims Who Sacked Islam’s Holiest Cities

The Qarmatians believed that pilgrimage to Mecca, a Pillar of Islam, was a superstition. So they sent raiding parties to interdict the pilgrimage routes. In one such raid in 906, they massacred over 20,000 pilgrims. In 930, as part of a millenarian quest to speed up and usher in the End of Days, the Qarmatians seized Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, and sacked both.

The Qarmatians massacred over 30,000 pilgrims in Mecca, desecrated religious sites, and ritually and literally polluted the holy Well of Zamzam by stuffing it to the brim with corpses. They also seized the Black Stone, a meteorite rock affixed to the Kaaba and deemed holy by Muslims, took it back to their republic, and smashed it to pieces. They held the shards for a huge ransom, which was paid by the Abbasid Caliphate, who then reassembled the bits and restored them to the Kaaba.

History’s Out of the Ordinary Radicals
The Kaaba surrounded by pilgrims during the Hajj. Encyclopedia Britannica

1. Extorting the Muslim World

After the Qarmatians sacked Mecca and Medina, Muslim pilgrimage came to a halt for nearly a decade. It only resumed after the Qarmatians were paid protection money from the region’s states, the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates, to lay off attacking the holy cities again.

The tribute payments continued until a defeat in 976 to the Abbasids, which initiated a decline in Qarmatian fortunes. Their radicalism waned along with their power. By 1058, the Qarmatians had abandoned the beliefs deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims and reverted to orthodox Islam. A decade later, the Seljuk Turks inflicted a decisive and final defeat upon the Qarmatians, and brought their republic to an end.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Asian Conference on Asian Studies – Buddhist Terrorism?

Association For Diplomatic Studies & Training – The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

Bouchard, Gerard – National Myths: Constructed Pasts, Contested Presents (2013)

Burman, Edward – The Assassins (1987)

Cambodia Tribunal – Khmer Rouge History

Cracked – 6 Real Life Villains Who’d Be Too Crazy For Comic Books

History Collection – 12 Steps in the Evolution of Historic Terrorist Organizations

Encyclopedia Britannica – Assassin Sect

Encyclopedia Britannica – Kharijite Islamic Sect

Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World – Kharijities, Khawarij

Huffman, James L., Editor – Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism (1997)

Jewish Virtual Library – The ‘Lebensborn’ Program (1935 – 1945)

Lesser, Jeffrey – Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (1999)

Lukas, Richard C. – Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945 (2001)

Spiegel, November 7th, 2006 – Lebensborn Children Break Silence

Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation – Egyptian Islamic Jihad

History Collection – Historic Groups that Started Innocent then Took an Evil Turn

Wikipedia – League of Blood Incident

Wikipedia – Order of Assassins

Wikipedia – Shindo Renmei

World Bulletin – The Qarmatians: The World’s First Enduring Communistic Society