The First Islamist Terrorists

ASSASSINS

Few of us remember the Assassins when we try to understand al Qaeda or Hamas. But asymmetric warfare through terror by a handful of fanatics is not new in the world history; and certainly not new in Islam:

Even the most powerful and carefully guarded rulers of the agethe Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosullived in dread of the chameleonlike Assassin agents. Known as a fida'i (one who risks his life voluntarily, from the Arabic word for "sacrifice"; the plural in Arabic is fidaiyn, or the present-day fedayeen), such an agent might spend months or even years stalking and infiltrating an enemy of his faith before plunging a dagger into the victim's chest, often in a very public place.

Perhaps most terrifying, the Assassins chose not only a close and personal manner of killing but performed it implacably, refusing to flee afterward and appearing to welcome their own swift death. Fanatical and disciplined, Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors were brilliant practitioners of asymmetric warfare. They developed a means of attack that negated most of their enemies' advantages while requiring the Assassins to hazard only a small number of their own fighters. As with any effective form of deterrence, the Assassins' targeted killings of hostile political, military, and religious leaders eventually produced a stable and lasting balance of power between them and their enemies, reducing the level of conflict and loss of life on both sides.

(Painting: An agent of the Order of Assassins - left, in white turban - fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092, the first of many political murders by the sect. The faces in this depiction, which was contained in an illustrated 14th-century manuscript, were later scratched out. From Topkapi Palace Museum, Cami Al Tebari TSMK, Inv. No. H. 1653, folio 360b)