Military history



The First Age of International Terrorism





The Assassins, AD 1090–1256

SO FAR TERRORISTS have been largely absent from this narrative. Partially this is a matter of terminology. Both European settlers in North America and their Indian enemies attacked civilians in order to instill terror, but since neither represented a nonstate group (the Europeans answered to a colonial government, the Indians to their own tribes and confederations), they were not “terrorists,” any more than were the leaders of France as they were slaying en masse to extinguish uprisings in Haiti, Spain, and the Vendée. Terrorism, as defined here, must be carried out by substate groups. Moreover, while all of the guerrilla groups described so far killed some civilians—quite a lot of civilians in many cases—that was not their primary emphasis. They focused most of their attacks on military forces, and they were intent on physically defeating their enemies, not simply on scoring propaganda points. Thus all of these groups fall outside the definition of terrorist (see the Prologue)—a restrictive definition, admittedly, but one that makes sense lest, as too often happens, this term is employed so indiscriminately that it becomes devoid of all meaning.

The relative absence of terrorists up to this point, however, is due less to semantics than to the inescapable fact that prior to the nineteenth century there were very few terrorist groups. There has been, of course, no shortage of assassins throughout history, but few have been organized into groups that pursued political or religious aims primarily through a campaign of terror. Julius Caesar may be said to have been the victim of an act of terrorism, but his killers were hardly professional terrorists and their goal was not to spread terror. They were simply intent on ridding Rome of a ruler they did not like. Other cases of regicide (Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, Nicholas II of Russia) have been a byproduct of a wider revolution, not of terrorism per se. Still other assassinations—Lee Harvey Oswald killing John F. Kennedy or Sirhan Sirhan killing Robert F. Kennedy—were the work of deranged individuals who may have been intent on sending a political message but who were not acting on behalf of any broader movement as far as we know.

The most successful premodern group to systematically employ terror was found, appropriately enough considering that region’s centrality to modern terrorism, in the Middle East. They were popularly known as the Assassins. More properly they were the Nizari Ismailis, a Shiite sect of the eleventh century AD that was persecuted by the rest of the Muslim world. To carve out space to practice and proselytize their religion, their first great leader, Hasan-i Sabbah, took to assassinating his foes.

A “revolutionary of genius,” he established in AD 1090 his stronghold in a fortress known as Alamut in the Elburz Mountains of northern Persia. From this remote location, reachable only by a single narrow track, he dispatched his da’is (missionaries) to win converts to the Ismaili cause. But Hasan-i Sabbah was not satisfied using nonviolent means to extend his sect. He also dispatched fedayeen (self-sacrificers) armed with daggers to slay Muslim notables—clerics, judges, teachers, administrators, soldiers—who opposed his heresies. In their eagerness to attain a spot in paradise, the fedayeen usually made little attempt to escape, thus becoming in effect suicide knifers. The term “assassin” was a corruption of “hashish-eater”—a label that was applied to the fedayeen by their enemies who assumed (erroneously) that only powerful drugs could induce these men to sacrifice their own lives in order to eliminate their enemies. In fact the fedayeen seem to have been motivated by nothing more than religious zeal; taking intoxicants would have made it hard for them to be as patient and clever as they were in carrying out plots that often required considerable dissimulation and playacting.

During the course of Hasan-i Sabbah’s thirty-year reign, his fedayeen claimed only fifty victims, all men of some standing. But, while minuscule by the scale of most “reigns of terror,” whether of the Mongols or of the French Revolution, this was sufficient to terrorize his enemies. From then on, according to an Arab chronicler, “No commander or officer dared to leave his house unprotected; they wore armor under clothes.”

During all the years that Hasan-i Sabbah directed this campaign of terror he never set foot outside his Alamut stronghold, in fact rarely even left his room. He was, like many subsequent terrorist leaders, an intellectual, and he spent countless hours deep in study in his impressive library. He was a particularly devoted student of geometry, astronomy, and arithmetic. A Byzantine envoy who met him came away impressed: “His natural dignity, his distinguished manners, his smile, which is always courteous and pleasant but never familiar or casual, the grace of his attitudes, the striking firmness of his movements, all combine to produce an undeniable superiority.”

But this civilized exterior concealed a deep strain of religious fanaticism. Early on he sent his wife and daughters away so as not to distract him; he spent the rest of his life apart from them. When he caught one of his sons drinking wine, he ordered his execution. Another son he executed for killing a man without permission, only to later discover that the charge was false. Hasan-i Sabbah’s willingness to sacrifice his own children may have cast his humanity into doubt, but it helped to inspire his followers. Making use of such dedication, he succeeded in creating a state within a state—a series of Ismaili bastions scattered around the Persian countryside that the ruling Turkish Seljuks were too weak to wipe out.

Hasan-i Sabbah died, apparently of natural causes, in 1124. His successors were not his equals. The pace of assassinations slackened as the Ismaili movement in Persia lost energy and became consumed by internal quarrels. In time the movement’s western outpost in Syria would become more dynamic. Here, too, the Ismailis managed to establish a network of fortresses defended by suicide knifers. The Syrian Assassins were led initially by Rashid al-Din Sinan, a native of what is today Iraq who became known to the Crusaders as “the Old Man of the Mountain.” Sinan tried unsuccessfully to kill Saladin, the great Muslim hero who would lead an army of holy warriors to recapture Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. He had more success in dispatching Conrad of Montferrat, king of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1192, while in Tyre, Conrad was approached by two young Christian monks he had befriended over the past six months. They spoke his Frankish language perfectly and were obviously men of learning. After a minute of polite conversation, they produced daggers from their robes and “fell upon him like two mangy wolves,” in the words of an Arab chronicle. The wounded king stumbled into a church, where he was finished off by one of the assassins. Before his own death, the killer confessed that he had been sent by Sinan. The cause of this assassination remains obscure. But its impact on European minds was spectacular. A German priest was to write to a French king contemplating a further Crusade that the Assassins “are to be cursed and fled. They sell themselves, are thirsty for human blood, kill the innocent for a price, and care nothing for either life or salvation.”

In the thirteenth century the Assassins finally confronted enemies who could not be deterred by the threat of assassination. Their Persian strongholds were overrun by the Mongols, who massacred large numbers of Ismailis along with everyone else. The Syrian redoubts fell at roughly the same time to the slave soldiers known as Mamluks, who would establish a dynasty ruling Egypt and Syria. Millions of Ismailis still exist today led by the Aga Khan, but they have not been a political force to be reckoned with since the calamitous events of the thirteenth century. Nor have they undertaken acts of terrorism since then.

Their reign of terror, which lasted two centuries, was enough to establish their reputation as one of the most successful terrorist groups in history. Thanks largely to the dark genius of Hasan-i Sabbah, they developed a highly effective organization, combining a covert hierarchy with a compelling ideology and rigorous methods of indoctrination that inspired his followers to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Those remain the essential ingredients for terrorist success down to the present day. But the Assassins also differed in crucial respects from most of their successors. As Bernard Lewis notes, “Unlike their modern equivalents, [the Assassins] attacked only the great and the powerful, and never harmed ordinary people going about the avocations.”1

THE SEARCH FOR the antecedents of terrorism can also take in the Sicarii, the “dagger-men” who roamed first-century Judaea killing Roman collaborators, as well as Guy Fawkes and the twelve other Catholic conspirators who tried but failed to blow up the British Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.2 The former helped precipitate the doomed Jewish Revolt against Rome, while the latter, if successful, might have wiped out Britain’s entire ruling class in one shattering blow. Their activities show that Muslims have no monopoly on the use of terror. But the trail soon runs cold. Most other nonstate groups that habitually employed violence, such as the Thuggee cult, which waylaid travelers in India, were primarily interested not in scoring political or theological points but in accumulating lucre.3

UNLIKE GUERRILLA WARFARE, the most ancient form of warfare, terrorism is strikingly modern. It has been made possible by the spread of four phenomena: destructive and portable weaponry, the mass media, literacy, and secular ideologies.

Dynamite was to prove the terrorists’ weapon of choice, and it was not invented until 1866. Another popular terrorist weapon—the breach-loading pistol—came into widespread use around the same time. Certainly other weapons could have been, and sometimes were, utilized by terrorists, but barrels of gunpowder were not nearly as effective for blowing up your enemies as sticks of dynamite that were twenty times more powerful.4 Nor were knives as deadly as pistols.

The spread of the mass media during the second half of the nineteenth century gave terrorists the ability to have a disproportionate political impact with a few acts of violence, something that was much harder to achieve in the days when news spread primarily by word of mouth. Mass-circulation newspapers and magazines that were produced by Linotype machines, got their news via the telegraph, featured photographs, and were sold cheaply to the working classes were first established in this period. It is no coincidence that modern terrorism was born at the same time.

A related development—the spread of schools and universities—helped create a growing number of educated people from whom terrorists could draw recruits and whom they could try to influence even in countries such as Russia that remained autocracies. Universities became petri dishes of extremist ideologies all over the world, both reactionary and radical. These included anarchism, nationalism, fascism, socialism, and communism. The spread of all of these seductive ideologies attracted adherents who were willing to use violence to advance their beliefs—including many who never attended a university or hardly even opened a book but were nevertheless influenced by speeches, discussions, articles, or pamphlets promulgating radical doctrines.

It is generally assumed that terrorism seldom “works,” meaning that it seldom achieves its objectives. That is a valid if simplistic conclusion to draw about modern terrorism, whose annals are littered with failed groups, from the Basque ETA to the German Baader-Meinhof Gang. The nineteenth century provides further evidence of terrorist futility in the campaigns of the anarchists who failed to destroy existing states and replace them with idealized communal institutions. But there are also numerous examples of terrorists significantly influencing the course of history—sometimes even in the direction they sought. Relatively successful terrorist groups of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries range from the Ku Klux Klan to the Irish Republican Army and the German and Japanese militarists of the interwar period. Even the Russian revolutionaries, although they did not bring down the Romanov regime with their campaign of assassinations and “expropriations,” undermined it so much that they contributed to its eventual overthrow.

Why, then, did some terrorists succeed where others failed? To answer that question requires an examination of key terrorist campaigns from just before the U.S. Civil War to just after World War I—the first great age of international terrorism.5 Some of the most prominent and influential terrorist groups of the era were the abolitionists and segregationists in the United States, Nihilists and socialists in Russia, anarchists across Europe and North America, and nationalists in Ireland. They did not all achieve their aims, but all changed history for better or worse. Even the anarchists, the most ineffectual of the bunch, would leave their mark by inadvertently giving rise to heightened international police cooperation symbolized by the formation of Interpol. For all of their notoriety, however, their influence was modest by comparison with that of the fanatic—or, depending on your perspective, the idealist—who helped spark the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history. His arrival on the political stage was announced with an act of violence that was shocking by the tamer standards of antebellum America if not those of the twenty-first century, when we have become accustomed to far worse atrocities.

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