IN AD 1191 CONRAD OF MONTFERRAT ASCENDED THE THRONE as King of Jerusalem, appointed to this position by the celebrated hero of the Crusades, Richard the Lion-Hearted. After instructing Conrad to rebuild Christian forces in preparation for his return, Richard departed for home, destined to achieve immortality as a fair-haired idol in tales of Robin Hood and fables of great heroics.
Conrad, who had campaigned against Henry, Count of Champagne, for the throne, planned to glorify his reign as King of Jerusalem by driving Muslims from the Holy Land forever, earning a hallowed place in history as a Christian hero, and a seat in heaven near the right hand of God.
He had precious little time to do it. Soon after Richard departed the Holy Land, three Christian monks entered Conrad's campsite, bowing and making the sign of the cross to all they encountered. Their pious actions persuaded Conrad and his warriors to let down their guard, a fatal mistake. As soon as the monks were within reach of Conrad, they withdrew daggers from beneath their cloaks and cut him to pieces, slashing and stabbing in a violent display of butchery before the guards could intervene. With Conrad dispatched, the young men, who were not Christian monks but devout Muslims, made no attempt to escape. Surrendering to Conrad's guards, they suffered silently through a ghastly ordeal that included first flaying them alive, then slow-roasting them to death. Such were the penalties in that unforgiving world.
Later, while mourning the loss of their leader, Conrad's followers whispered among themselves about the odd behavior of his killers, especially their passivity after the deed was accomplished. It was strange how they dropped their weapons and simply stood awaiting capture while the king's death rattle faded. Even when informed of the agony that awaited them, the young men actually appeared to welcome the grisly experience of a torturous death. No one had seen such behavior before. No one could explain it. No one knew what it meant.
Henry, Count of Champagne, spent little time pondering the manner of the young killers. Conrad's premature death may have proved a tragedy to some, but it was an opportunity for Henry who, had he been born eight centuries later, might have become an outstanding corporate ceo. Soon after the last shovelful of Holy Land earth had been tossed onto Conrad's coffin, Henry took strategic action by marrying Conrad's widow, hoping to inherit the title that had eluded him and cost her husband his life. Whether through lack of support within Conrad's court or simple bad luck, Henry failed to win the crown as king of Jerusalem, settling instead for an administrative position that required him to make several trips east from Jerusalem into Persia. During one of these journeys, he encountered the source of Conrad's demise, and tapped one of history's most chilling secret societies.
It occurred when Henry and his entourage were following a rarely traveled road through the rugged Alborz Mountains, north of Tehran in modern-day Iran. During the Crusades, this land was occupied by Shiite Muslims who permitted Christians to pass with relative safety. Nearing a large fortress poised on the brink of an elevated bluff, Henry and his guards were met by representatives of the castle's resident, the Dai-el-Kebir. At first apprehensive, the Christians were reassured when the servants displayed every mark of honor to them before extending an invitation from their master to view the fortress and sample the Dai-el-Kebir's hospitality. Such an invitation could not be ignored without insulting the host. Besides, the impressive fortress captured Henry's interest. The prospect of both a tour of the intriguing structure and a good meal was irresistible.
Henry and his men followed the servants to the heights of the castle entrance, where their host greeted them with warmth and fanfare. The Dai-el-Kebir, a man of obvious wealth and power, took some pleasure in displaying the fortress to his guests, escorting them through extensive gardens and drawing their attention to the many stone towers that soared high above the rocky valley. At one point, he gestured at the tallest of the towers, asking if Henry was impressed by its height and magnificence.
Henry agreed it was an imposing sight, rising almost a hundred cubits over the edge of a steep rocky cliff. At the tower's summit, two sentinels dressed in immaculate white robes stood watching the Dai-el-Kebir's every move. Henry had noticed similar young men positioned atop other towers of the fortress, each smiling and nodding at their master and his guests, all apparently happy and contented. “These men,” the Dai-elKebir said, “obey me far better than the subjects of Christians will obey their masters.”
His guest appeared confused by his host's words. They had not discussed anything to do with armies or obedience.
At the sight of Henry's puzzled expression, the Dai-el-Kebir smiled, said, “Watch,” and waved his arms in an obviously pre-arranged signal. Immediately, the men on the peak of the highest tower threw themselves from the ledge and into the air, dashing their bodies to pieces on the rocks below.
Henry was appalled. The two young men had been content and physically fit, yet they had died at the whim of their master without hesitation.
“If you wish,” the Dai-el-Kebir said, “I shall order the rest to do the same. All the men atop my towers will do likewise at a signal from me.”
Henry declined with thanks, shaken at the sight of the senseless waste of life.
“Could any Christian prince expect such obedience from his subjects?” the Dai-el-Kebir asked.
The count replied that no Christian leader he knew could exert such power over his men. His own warriors, like the warriors of other leaders, would march into battle drawing bravery from their dedication to honor, devotion and loyalty, willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater good. They would die, if necessary, defending themselves and their honor, with the opportunity for victory and glory. But none would act with such apparent delight in the manner that the two young men had, responding to a simple wave of their master's hand.
“By means of these trusty servants,” the Dai-el-Kebir said with an attitude of unmistakable superiority, “I rid our society of its enemies.”
Henry, Count of Champagne, had encountered the organization that had murdered his predecessor and would terrorize lands from Persia to Palestine for more than a hundred years. He had met the Assassins.
The Assassins were neither among the earliest of secret societies nor the most widespread and enduring. Their actual power lasted little more than a hundred years, waning with the advance of the Mongol hordes, and by the fourteenth century they were no longer a viable force in Middle East politics. Yet so terrifying was their reputation for ruthlessness that many European nations believed the killers were responsible for political murders well into the 1600s, and some evidence suggests that descendants of the Assassins remained active in India as late as 1850. Their legacy extends down to this day in two significant measures.
One is their name. In English, assassin identifies the killer of a prominent individual, usually in a violent manner. The other provides a timely motive for probing their origins, because the methods and motivations of the Assassins, initiated almost a millennium ago, serve as the model for the most deadly and prevalent terrorist group at large today. Spiritual descendants of the Dai-el-Kebir and the smiling white-robed men who joyfully threw themselves to death have formed a small secret society that terrorizes the globe. Its members scurry among the hills and waddis of Afghanistan, meet in clandestine cells from Karachi to Cologne, and threaten the world's only remaining superpower. It is called Al Qaeda.
The Assassins grew out of a seventh-century schism among Muslims that produced two warring factions, Shiites and Sunnis. No event in any other religion, even the Christian Reformation, produced the enmity created by this division following the death of Mohammed.
Born in ad 570, Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be the last messenger of God, following Adam, Abraham, Moses and Christ. His visions and teachings, acquired in a cave near Mecca around 610, form the basis of the Koran and represent the foundations of Islam. Driven from Mecca for his beliefs, he fled to Yathrib, now called Medina (City of the Prophet) in 622, returning to conquer Mecca on behalf of Islam in 630. Muslims date their calendars from the Prophet's arrival in Medina. At the time of Mohammed's death in 632, Islam had spread across Arabia and into Syria and Persia.
With Mohammed gone, his followers had to deal with the question of naming his successor. Sunnis, who take their name from the Arabic phrase ahl as-sunnah wa-l-ijma (People of the Sunnah and the consensus), are considered today as the orthodox branch of Islam. They believed authority should be handed down to the Prophet's closest and most trusted advisers, or caliphs. Shiites (“Followers of Ali”) insisted that the bloodline must be rigorously sustained and proposed Mohammed's cousin Ali, who was also his son-in-law, as the Prophet's successor.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of this rift among Muslims, for it extends beyond the question of legitimate succession. Each group disagrees about numerous social and cultural mores, including the date and meaning of sacred ceremonies, the legitimacy of temporary marriages, and the use of religious compromise to escape persecution and death (Shiites accept it, Sunnis consider it apostasy).
Christianity's Reformation wars were mere skirmishes compared with battles between Shiites and Sunnis—battles that usually ended in defeat for the Shiites, who have always been outnumbered about ten to one. Not long after the death of Ali, his grandson Husayn and every member of his family were brutally murdered by the Umayyads, an opposing faction. All Muslims were horrified by this event, which further solidified the split between Sunnis and Shiites; it also provided the Shiites with a sense of tragedy and persecution that colors their beliefs and inspired their melancholy mood down to this day. In Western vernacular, Shiites see themselves as underdogs, an oppressed minority willing to sacrifice themselves if necessary for their convictions. And, as current events demonstrate, they often do.
In the period leading up to the Crusades, individual Shiites living among Sunnis risked death upon discovery. Forced to live in a clandestine manner to survive, they became adept at maintaining secrecy and demanding that members be totally obedient to instructions from their leaders. With time, Shiites arranged themselves into factions, scattered throughout the Middle East, to promote their beliefs and protect their adherents, and while the differences between the factions may appear inconsequential, they fueled enmity and suspicion that helped spawn the Assassins.
Two of the most significant splinter groups were the Twelvers and the Ismailis. The Twelvers believed only twelve true imams (the word means “leader” in Arabic) existed in the Muslim faith and the twelfth imam has remained alive and in hiding for the past thousand years. The Ismailis are further split into various segments including the Seveners, who believe in only seven imams, and the Nizaris, who insist that the imams will never vanish from the earth and identify the Agha Khan as their imam. While the Twelvers are substantially larger in numbers than the Ismailis, comprising 90 percent of the current population of Iran and perhaps 60 percent of Iraqis, the Ismailis have tended to be more violent in response to their minority status within a larger minority.
These divisions, unfamiliar and confusing to non-Muslims, grew insistent upon even the smallest distinction between actions and philosophy, often to the point of violent dissent. In preparation for prayer, for example, purification rituals must be performed. Shiites accept wiping the feet with wet hands to be sufficient, but Sunnis insist that a total cleansing is necessary. In the standing position of prayer, Shiites believe that hands must be held straight down; Sunnis (with the exception of the Malikis group) insist that the hands be folded. Minor concerns? Not to sincere Muslims. These and dozens of other issues remain contentious today; in the Islamic world of a millennium ago, they led to enmity that was often resolved in pitched battles to the death, a fact that must be understood in order to appreciate how the Assassins developed and maintained their ruthless character.
Around ad 1000, a group of Ismailis in Cairo founded the Abode of Learning and began attracting acolytes with promises of secret techniques that would enable believers to carry out divine missions on behalf of Allah. The movement became known as Ismailism, and teachers in the Abode of Learning acted under direct orders of Egypt's ruler, the Caliph of the Fatimites, a direct descendant of Mohammed.
Much of the faculty at the Abode of Learning was drawn from the caliph's own court, and included the commander-in-chief of the army and various ministers. To ensure the Abode's success, the caliph bestowed on it a collection of advanced scientific instruments and an annual endowment of a hundred thousand gold pieces. In its early stages, the group welcomed both men and women into its movement, although the genders remained segregated.
Along with opportunities to acquire an education, students of the Abode were promised that elevations to the highest degrees of learning would earn them a similar level of respect as their teachers. In a culture where government officials and teachers were drawn from the same class, this opportunity held enormous attraction for young people eager to rise above their lowly state, and the prospect of improving their lot while learning to strike back at their Sunni tormentors must have been especially exciting for hot-headed young men.
Whatever goals the caliph may have had for the Abode of Learning, it failed to achieve them directly. Nothing within the Muslim world was altered by the Abode's existence. Its impact, however, continues to resonate to our present day, and the structure it pioneered and implemented became a model employed, with minor variations, by secret societies through the centuries.
Government organizations and large corporations traditionally organize themselves in a pyramid configuration, with one individual at the apex. Immediately below is a small, generally cohesive group of advisers—think of the cabinet in a democracy, and a board of directors in a corporation. From the summit down, in steadily decreasing levels of influence and authority, layers of bureaucracy extend towards the wide base, which consists of the lowest-paid and least-recognized workers. This common means of corralling and controlling power remains familiar and understandable to us today. It is not the only method of structuring an organization, however, and in the case of secret societies it is far from the most appropriate.
Instead of pyramids, many secret societies and religious cults tend to be organized at the epicenter of a series of concentric circles, with the ultimate power residing somewhere in the hub. Circular organizations are not nearly as easily understood or penetrated as pyramid structures are because their internal mechanism remains concealed. In addition, the number of circles can vary, meaning that outsiders are never aware of how close they may be to the actual center of power. From the foot of a pyramid, you can see the summit, but from anywhere within a circular organization you can never accurately measure your proximity to authority. In this manner, circular organizations conceal and protect their centers more effectively than pyramid structures.
The circular configuration of the Abode of Learning, copied by religious-based secret societies over the years, began with study groups called Assemblies of Wisdom, designed to discard candidates lacking sufficient dedication.
Successful graduates of the Assemblies of Wisdom entered a nine-stage initiation procedure built upon the characteristic circle structure. This initiation process represents a classic method of securing allegiance to a group's cause and building a foundation of unquestioned obedience.
In the first initiation stage, doubts were planted in the minds of students about the values and concepts they had been taught to respect throughout their lives. Applying false analogies, teachers began to dismantle their students’ entire system of beliefs and any who were unable to deny their beliefs and values were dismissed. Those who accepted the teachings—essentially emptying their minds—were warmly congratulated by their instructors. Today, we refer to this technique as brainwashing. With no value system in place, students were forced to rely upon their teachers as a source of knowledge and the means to apply it. The most dedicated students swore a vow of blind allegiance to their masters, elevating them to the second degree.
Students who reached the second degree were informed that seven great imams represented the source of wisdom and knowledge delivered by the prophet Mohammed, and these imams had personally communicated that knowledge to the teachers. Teachers in the Abode of Learning were all highly placed officers in the caliph's administration, meaning that students could trace divine inspiration directly from the Prophet to the very people who were passing His wisdom to them. With this awareness, the students moved through the second degree with enthusiasm.
In the third degree of initiation, the names of these seven imams were revealed, along with secret words to summon them for assistance and protection.
Revelations continued through the fourth degree, when the teachers added the names of the Seven Mystical Law-givers to the seven imams, along with magical properties attributed to each. The names of the Mystical Law-givers were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ismail, and they had seven mystical helpers: Seth, Shem, Ishmael, Aaron, Simon, Ali and Mohammed, son of Ismail. Through further lessons other names were revealed, including those of the twelve apostles under the seven prophets, along with their individual functions and magical powers. Finally, students learned the existence of a mysterious deputy known as the Lord of the Time, who spoke only through the caliph.
Qualifying students moved to the initiation's fifth degree, where they acquired the ability to influence others through the power of personal concentration. Documents suggest this was actually a form of deep meditation, with students required to repeat, for endless periods of time, a single word: ak-zabt-i. Meditation can be an effective means of relaxation because it effectively blocks the thinking process. Extend the technique long enough and intensely enough, however, and it severely damages the ability of individuals to think for themselves, which was the goal of the fifth degree.
The sixth degree consisted of instruction in analytical and destructive arguments, precisely the technique used by teachers to disarm students in the first degree. Successfully passing an examination qualified students for the seventh degree, where they were informed that all humanity and all creation were one, including both positive and negative powers. Students could use their power for either creativity or destruction, but the power was available only from the mysterious Lord of the Time.
Now they were prepared to accept the teachings of the eighth and ninth degrees even though, to our eye, the teachings appear in total contradiction to the spiritual values that motivated the movement in the first place.
Reaching the eighth degree required students to recognize that all religion and philosophy were fraudulent; the primary force on earth was the will and dedication of the individual; and individuals could attain true fulfillment only through servitude to the imams. This prepared students for the ninth degree, which taught there was no such thing as belief; all that mattered in life was action, taken in direct response to instructions from the leader, who alone possessed the reasons for carrying out these orders.
Throughout the levels of instruction, the lesson of the nine degrees could be summed up in a single declaration: Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted.
The Abode of Learning created an organization populated with members willing to perform any task assigned by their leaders. Its most significant achievement was the taking of Baghdad in 1058 by a graduate of the Abode, who crowned himself sultan and coined money in the name of the Egyptian caliph. No other achievement by a student from the Abode of Learning compared with this feat, but the glory proved short-lived, as was the graduate himself. He was soon slain by the Turks, who swore that anyone associated with the Abode of Learning would pay with his life. Along with other events, including a weakening of moral and financial support from the caliph's descendants, the society's operations began to dwindle until, in 1123, they closed forever.
The Abode's demise may have ended the formal training procedure of the movement, but it did not end the secret society, whose members remained underground for many years, each describing its operations and achievements to the next generation. One of those who listened with wonder was a remarkable man named Hasan, son of Sabbah, whose family originated in Khorasan, the vast open regions of eastern Iran bordering Afghanistan. Sabbah, a prominent politician and learned man, was descended from Abode members who had achieved the ninth degree of Ismailism, and he passed at least some of this knowledge to his son.
As a young man, Hasan was placed under the tutorship of Imam Muwafiq, who chose to instruct only the most promising students and taught them the secrets of achieving power. There must have been something to the Imam's teaching techniques because among Hasan's colleagues at the school were the future poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam and a brilliant youth named Nizam-al-Mulk, who rose to become prime minister of Persia. While studying with the Imam, these three young men agreed that whoever rose to power first would assist the other two.
Hasan Sabbah. His creation of the Assassins launched a terrorist technique that functions to this day.
Nizam kept his promise. After achieving a position of authority and influence among the Persians, he secured a pension for Khayyam, enabling the poet to live a life of ease in his beloved Nishapur region, where the Rubaiyat was composed. For his friend Hasan, Nizam obtained a ministerial post in the shah's palace.
Hasan proved to be an excellent administrator, winning first the favor and later the trust of the shah, who assigned him the duty of managing the regime's wealth. Whether Hasan was larcenous from the beginning or his ethics became blinded by the sparkle of gold and jewels, the shah's trust was misplaced for Hasan embezzled enormous amounts of the kingdom's riches. Fleeing just ahead of the shah's guards, Hasan escaped to Cairo, remembering his father's tales of the Abode of Learning, where he believed he would be safe from certain execution. There he encountered a group of Ismailis who comprised the remaining nucleus of the old society. They had been waiting generations for both an opportunity and a leader to restore its power. Hasan was that man.
Charismatic, cunning, ruthless and intelligent, Hasan gathered a number of adherents, convincing them that he possessed magical powers awarded by the Prophet himself. Their devotion to him grew stronger when, on a sea voyage to Africa, Hasan and his followers encountered a sudden violent storm. Soon waves were towering over the small ship, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and winds threatened to smash the craft against the rocks if the water didn't first engulf the vessel and its occupants.
Everyone on board panicked, and began to wail and pray. Everyone except Hasan, who remained calm and undisturbed. When they asked how he could remain tranquil when facing almost certain death, Hasan smiled and replied, “Our Lord has promised that no evil shall befall me.”
And no evil did. The storm soon passed, the sea grew calm, and Hasan's devotees regarded him with even greater awe and respect. Back in Cairo, the tale of Hasan's stoic nature was repeated over and over again. Hasan was a blessed man protected from evil, a man to heed, and a man to follow. Hasan himself tended the tale with all the care and patience of a shrewd farmer anticipating a rich harvest.
Meanwhile, he continued to absorb the training techniques employed by the Abode of Learning, recognizing that the power available to anyone who could refine the Abode's methods could be applied in a different context, with different goals. After a few months Hasan, accompanied by his most trusted supporters, returned to the region of his father's birth. He had found his destiny. Investing the riches he had stolen from the shah, and applying the brainwashing procedures of the Abode, he would construct a murderous society around a spectacular deception.
Hasan's plan was based upon building trust and loyalty among a cluster of young followers by adapting methods pioneered at the Abode of Learning. After arriving in the Alborz Mountains, he traveled to a massive fortress shadowed by high mountain peaks north and west of the present Iranian city of Qazvin. The land here is exceptionally rugged, with nearby volcanic Mount Damavand soaring almost 6000 meters in height, creating a natural barrier between the Caspian Sea and the gently flowing plains of central Iran. For many years, Shiites fleeing persecution from Sunnis fled to the Alborz for safety. Tehran, the capital, may be barely a hundred kilometers distant, but the region remains remote to this day.
Crowning a rugged mountain crest almost half a kilometer long and in some places only a few meters wide, the fortress appeared as a natural wall of rock from a distance, blindingly white in the afternoon sun, blue-gray in the dusk light, and blood-red at dawn. Approaching the structure, travelers encountered a steep gravel slope that foiled any attempt to reach its vertical walls. In fact, the fortress was inaccessible except by a steep spiral stairway designed so that it could be defended by a single archer guarding its summit.
Hasan was familiar with both the terrain and the castle, and he knew many of its guards were sympathetic to Shiite extremists. With the cooperation of these backers, Hasan won entry to the fortress and confronted the owner, demanding that he turn the fortress over to him. Surprisingly, considering later developments, Hasan paid the man a reasonable sum for his property and sent him on his way, winning total control of the bastion without drawing his sword. He renamed the fortress Alamut, meaning Eagle's Nest, and began converting it into a training facility and operations center dedicated to the murder of Hasan's chosen enemies.
The remains of the Assassins’ original stronghold, Alamut, in northern Iran. At one time, over twenty such fortresses dotted the landscape.
Hasan's next step was to transform a secluded corner of the valley into a walled garden out of the castle's view. Diverting streams through the garden, he constructed numerous fountains and settled beautiful young houris there. According to the Siret-al-Hakem(Memoirs of Hakem), an Arabian historical romance from that era, Hasan
caused to be made a vast garden in which he had water conducted. In the middle of this garden he built a kiosk raised to the height of four stories. On each of the four sides were richly ornamented windows joined by four arches in which were painted stars of gold and silver. He had with him twenty slaves, ten males and ten females, who had come with him from the region of the Nile, and who had scarcely attained the age of puberty. He clothed them in silks and the finest linens, and gave them bracelets of gold and silver….
He divided the garden into four parts. In the first of these were pear trees, apple trees, vines, cherries, mulberries, plums and other fruit trees. In the second were oranges, lemons, olives, pomegranates and other fruits. In the third were cucumbers, melons, leguminous plants and so on. In the fourth were roses, jasmine, tamarinds, narcissi, violets, lilies and anemones….
The view from Alamut.
Marco Polo passed through the region some years later, and described the scene in detail:
In a beautiful valley was a luxurious garden stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works of gold and paintings and furniture of rich silks. Streams of wine and pure honey flowed in every direction. Entry to the garden was restricted to a secret passage out of the castle fortress.
The inhabitants of these places were elegant and beautiful damsels accomplished in the arts of singing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and especially games of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses, they sported and amused themselves in the gardens and pavilions.
The object of the chief was this: Mohammed had promised that those who obeyed his will would enjoy the pleasures of Paradise forever. In Paradise, every species of sensual gratification would be found, including the company of beautiful and willing nymphs. The chief, claiming to be a descendant of Mohammed and thus also a prophet, had the power of admitting to Paradise after their deaths those whom he favored, which included those who had sacrificed their life on this earth in the fulfilling of his orders.
With his earthly paradise in place, Hasan attracted young men between ages twelve and twenty to Alamut, choosing those whom he believed could become killers. He also purchased unwanted children from their parents, raising them with all the fixed purpose of a contemporary horse trainer shaping a future winner for the Derby. Along with techniques drawn from the Abode of Learning that elevated students towards a promised position within a circular command structure, Hasan added further motivation among the young men with repeated descriptions of the pleasures of Paradise. Once their curiosity was sufficiently heightened, Hasan revealed that he was able to transport the youths to Paradise for a short time so they could sample its pleasures without having to undergo the inconvenience of dying first.
Marco Polo accurately described the chilling control Hasan held over his young Muslim disciples.
Those who appeared to believe his tale were drugged with hashish and other narcotics until they sank into a deep, almost comatose sleep. In that condition, they were carried through a secret passage to the kiosk in the hidden garden. Once Hasan and his trusted assistants had returned to the fortress the houris, obeying Hasan's instructions, splashed the young men with vinegar to wake them. The confused youths were told they had entered Paradise, a concept that, in their drugged condition, appeared plausible. With fruit and wine in abundance, they lay back on plush satin cushions while the houris filled—and probably exceeded—all of their adolescent fantasies. Reportedly, the maidens would whisper into each aspirant's ear,
We are only waiting for thy death, for this place is destined for thee. This is but one of the pavilions of Paradise, and we are the houris and the children of Paradise. If thou were dead, thou would be forever with us. But thou art only dreaming, and will soon awake.
After a day of this illusion, the youths would be drugged to unconsciousness again and returned to the fortress, where they were permitted to slowly awake.
When asked by Hasan, and later by the chiefs who replaced him, where they had been, they would reply, “In Paradise, through the favor of Your Highness.” Then, encouraged by their leader, they would describe their experience in great detail to others. The envy of those who absorbed these testosterone-fueled tales of beautiful and willing young women, and endless supplies of fruit and wine, must have been spectacular.
“We have the assurance of the Prophet,” Hasan and his later deputies would promise the youths, “that he who defends his lord shall inherit Paradise forever, and if you show yourself to be obedient to my orders, that happy lot is yours.” The most gullible could hardly wait.
How convincing was this subterfuge? Convincing enough that some followers committed suicide in the belief that they would be instantly transported to Paradise and all its rumored delights, a practice Hasan suppressed by explaining that only those who died in obedience to his orders would receive the key to Paradise. These were the young men who, posing as Christian monks, slaughtered Conrad of Montferrat and endured horrific tortures in silence following their capture. They were the men who launched themselves from high towers at their leader's command as a demonstration of their unflinching obedience. And they were the first to be known as the hashshashin or assassins, instruments of revenge and political expediency throughout the Middle East.
A few historians have questioned the likelihood that twelfth-century men could be so gullible and trusting, suggesting the tale is an allegory or at best apocryphal. In response, others note that these were impressionable youths and point to the accounts of Henry, Count of Champagne, and Marco Polo as evidence that Hasan's deception actually worked. From today's perspective, recent events imply not only that Hasan's techniques were successful, but also that they continue to be effective on a regular, almost daily, basis. On the streets of Baghdad, Beirut and Tel Aviv young men and, increasingly, young women carry out terrorist activities by sacrificing themselves as human bombs, many in the belief that they will be transported instantly to Paradise. Knowing this, we can hardly doubt the authenticity of those tales of Hasan and his fanatical followers. Muslim youths of a millennium ago rarely encountered any nubile females outside their own family. An afternoon with a barely clad girl willing to engage him in carnal delights would have the usual impact on a pubescent boy, heightened even more by his narcotic-induced state of mind.
Hasan's manipulation of his young followers spawned more than an efficient killing machine. It also spawned other fables that may or may not be rooted in reality.
As described in the ancient work Art of Imposture by AbdelRahman of Damascus, Hasan strengthened his power over the trusting disciples by digging a deep, narrow pit in the floor of his chambers. Within the pit he positioned a young man, known to others in the fortress, so that only the youth's head appeared above the level of the floor. Then, after filling in the space surrounding the young man's body, Hasan had a two-piece circular dish with a hole in the middle set on the floor around the man's neck as though the head were resting on a plate. To add to the subterfuge, fresh blood was poured on the plate, completing the realistic impression of a severed head.
Recruits, perhaps drugged with hashish, were brought into the room and, in their presence, the “head” explained that he had followed the Master's instructions, earning himself a place in Paradise. While his awed compatriots listened, the much-alive young man described all the pleasures he was enjoying there—endless fruit and wine, luxurious surroundings, and beautiful and willing young virgins.
“You have seen the head of a man who died while carrying out my commands,” Hasan told the undoubtedly wide-eyed onlookers. “He is a man you all know. I willed him to speak with his own tongue of the pleasures that his soul is enjoying even now. Go and fulfill my orders.” It was pretty persuasive stuff, made even more plausible when, after the recruits departed, Hasan chopped off the talking head—no doubt to its owner's surprise—and displayed it on the parapet of the fortress for everyone to see. Their former colleague, Hasan's followers believed, was indeed enjoying the pleasures of Paradise, even as they remained on earth. How soon could they join him?
None of the reported techniques used by Hasan and those who replaced him is surprising to contemporary experts. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, outlines three primary characteristics of secret societies that are as effective today as they were in Hasan's time. They are the following:
1. A charismatic leader who becomes an object of worship when the general principles that originally sustained the group lose their power.
2. A process such as coercive persuasion or thought reform.
3. Economic, sexual and other forms of exploitation of group members by the leader and ruling coterie.
The Assassins were not overly selective in choosing their victims. During the Crusades, they supported whichever side suited their purposes while maintaining a vendetta against Sunnis. On at least one occasion they combined forces with the Knights Templar, hated enemies of Saladin and his Islamic defenders of Jerusalem. And by charging fees from others in a murder-for-hire operation, the Assassins built a substantial income over the years.
When their reign of terror against selected targets rose to a crest, a mere rumor that an individual had somehow offended Hasan or had been selected for death was sufficient for the man to flee for his life. Few managed to escape.
1 Atabeg was a title of nobility commonly used in Mesopotamia from the twelfth century. The term indicated a governor of a nation, below an emperor or king in rank but above a khan, as well as a military advisor to a young and inexperienced prince.
Added to the certainty of death was the uncertainty of its time and place. The sultan's own prime minister, Nizam-alMulk, was cut to pieces by an Assassin posing as a dervish while Nizam was being carried in a litter to his harem, his mind likely diverted with expectations of carnal delights even as the dagger was plunged into his chest. The Atabeg1 of Hims warned that he had been selected for murder by the Assassins, kept a contingent of armed guards always at his side. As the atabeg entered a mosque for prayers, the guards relaxed their vigil, for who would dare offend Allah by committing murder at such a time? In an eye blink, the atabeg was surrounded by Assassins who cut him to ribbons. And when a Christian, the Marquis Corrado di Montefeltro, was named for death, he was attacked by two Assassins posing as monks even as the marquis was being entertained by the Bishop of Tyre at a banquet. They managed only to wound the marquis before one of the Assassins was killed. The other managed to escape and hide in the chapel, where he knew the marquis would arrive to give thanks for his deliverance from certain death. He did, and as the marquis knelt in prayer, the surviving Assassin emerged from behind the altar and finished the job before dying in bliss at the hands of guards.
When it served their advantage, the Assassins chose intimidation over outright murder. After the Assassins dispatched the son of Nizam-al-Mulk with their daggers, the father declared he would lead an army unlike any in history, march on Alamut, and destroy it and all of its inhabitants. One evening, arriving within sight of the fortress and making camp in the foothills of the Alborz, Nizam-al-Mulk went to sleep confident that he would rise the next day to lead his warriors against the Assassins, wiping them from the face of the earth. When he awoke in the morning, he found a dagger buried to its hilt in the sand next to his head, the blade piercing a note warning that nothing but massacre awaited him and his army.
None of Nizam-al-Mulk's entourage could explain how the dagger and note had been placed there. No one had been seen approaching his tent. Had it been ghosts or spirits? Whatever it was, Nizam-al-Mulk decided to call off his attack, instructing his forces to avoid the region in the future, and providing Hasan and his followers with a free hand throughout the Muslim world.
As Hasan increased both his power and wealth he expanded his authority, acquiring and strengthening fortifications among the crags of the Alborz, each impregnable to all but the largest, most dedicated armies. And as the years passed, Hasan acquired a description that sounds almost paternal to today's ears. He and each of his descendants who led a group of Assassins, including the Dai-el-Kebir, became known as the Old Man of the Mountain.
The Assassins did not restrict themselves to political or spiritual figures, nor did they lack an appreciation for the power of psychology to achieve their goals, as they proved with their intimidation of the sultan. The Imam Razi, one of the great Muslim intellectuals of his era, was foolish enough to insult the Assassins by declaring they were not qualified theologians, until visited by an envoy of the group who offered the Imam a choice: death by dagger or an annual pension of a thousand gold pieces. The imam's condemnation promptly ceased, causing a colleague to ask why the wise man was no longer criticizing the Assassins. The old man glanced quickly around. “Because,” he whispered, “their arguments are so sharp. And pointed.”
Fear of the Assassins grew not only out of their ruthlessness but also from the unpredictability of their actions, and the near impossibility of preventing an attack once a command was issued. Hasan and his successors originated and perfected the strategy of “sleeper cells,” dedicated killers dispatched to communities hundreds of miles away and instructed to meld into local society until ordered to act. These devotees might wait for years until contacted by an envoy. By this time, they could approach the victim without raising suspicion about their identity or intention. Adding to the difficulty would be the assassin's demeanor—calm, almost pleasurable, not fearing reprisal but actually welcoming it as his entry into Paradise.
The Assassins, under the direction of Hasan and his lieutenants, terrorized the Middle East into the thirteenth century. Hasan's son and loyal followers assumed leadership after the founder's death, and at least three generations of his descendants carried on his work. But not even the Assassins could resist the brutality of the Mongols.
Hasan's grandson provided the first break with the murderous tradition. Upon his elevation to the position of Imam in 1210, Hasan iii did the unthinkable by converting to the Sunni faith, restoring Islamic law and even inviting Sunni teachers to visit Alamut. The apparent conversion had less to do with theology than with practicality and survival: hordes of Mongols, whose legendary ferocity made even the Assassins quake in their boots, were beginning to flow across the steppes into Persia. Faced with a common enemy, both Shiites and Sunnis set aside their differences to launch a mutual defense.
Hasan III's sense of discretion was not, unfortunately for his followers, passed on to his son Muhammad iii, also called Aladdin (Height of the Faith). Muhammad returned the group to Shiite beliefs and exceeded all previous Assassin leaders for cruelty, to the point where most historians consider him mad. He was so intolerable that his followers quickly transferred their allegiance to his son Khurshah, who attempted to negotiate an understanding with the Mongols now heavily infiltrating the mountainous area.
It was too late. In the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan began methodically attacking each mountain stronghold of the Assassins. Using trickery, brutality and the force of overwhelming arms, the Mongols seized each fortress one by one, slaughtering the inhabitants and laying waste to the carefully contrived Paradise on Earth.
The Assassins were too devoted, too fanatic, and too numerous to be totally eliminated, even by the Mongols who swept through the region like a tsunami of slaughter. A few managed to escape to India, where they became known as the Khojas (honorable converts) and resumed their practices on a limited scale. Remnants of the sect reportedly still exist in Iraq, Iran and Syria, but they are little more than splinter groups of militant Shiites.
The Assassins were more than an early prototype of Murder Inc. Their influence extends, in both benign and malignant versions, through the present day. The concentric circular construction of the Abode of Learning, adapted by Hasan, became a prototype for restricted organizations and secret societies. Most notable are the Freemasons, who drew inspiration for their organizational structure from the Knights Templar, reputed allies of the Assassins during the Crusades.
The most extreme and trustworthy followers of Hasan and his successors became known as fidayeen. The name continues to be attached to Islamic fanatics battling enemies of the Prophet, whether infidel Westerners or Muslims following a wrong path. For most of them, including the fanatical young men who flew hijacked American aircraft into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the motivation continues to be the promise of eternity in Paradise, an incentive that seems to work even without the persuasion of Hasan's contrived “previews.”
The tactic of embedding followers into a targeted society as “sleepers,” suicidal fanatics prepared to slaughter as many people as necessary in the name of their cause, is another element inherited from a millennium ago. Both the promise of Paradise and adherents immersing themselves for years in the very culture they have vowed to destroy are familiar to everyone aware of Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda does not entirely duplicate the design first established by the Assassins. Their assumed leader Osama bin Laden is a Sunni, not a Shiite, although extreme elements from both factions stand united against much of the Western world. And while the Assassins recruited young men as suicidal killers on the promise of immediate dispatch to Paradise and the arms of waiting houris, violent Muslim factions recently have succeeded in recruiting young women to carry out similar missions based, apparently, solely on dedication to the group's success. Clearly, however, the link between Hasan's Assassins and bin Laden's Al Qaeda remains unbroken. Were Hasan, the Old Man of the Mountain, to meet with Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, they would see each other as compatriots, brothers under the skin.