The Deadly History of Persia’s Ancient Assassins

AssassinationPhoto: Unknown Painter
The Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

In the year 1090, a charismatic man by the name of Hasan-i Sabbah used his popularity to gather together a small but devout following of Ismaili Muslims. Sabbah single-handedly molded his following – known as the Order of the Assassins, or Hashashin – into a fighting force capable of bringing down the most well-guarded leaders of the day. Zealous and disciplined, this force would strike terror into the hearts of caliphs, viziers and sultans for the next 200 years.

Sabbah’s Order of the Assassins fought for power against Christians and rival branches of Muslims. The Order was outnumbered and scorned by the Sunni majority. But despite this, as Jefferson M. Gray of says, “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.”

AlamutPhoto: Payampak
The Fortress of Alamut: The remains of Hasan-i Sabbah’s stronghold, in present-day Northern Iran

The Order was strictly hierarchical, with only the lowest level, the fida’is (or Fedayeen), serving as assassins. The fida’is were taught everything they needed to know to blend in with the enemy and avoid detection. They learnt foreign languages, culture and philosophy. According to Gray, “The best of the Assassin fida’is combined the self-sacrificial zeal of kamikaze pilots, the close-quarters combat skills of special operations troops, and the ability of deep-cover intelligence agents to work undetected for months or even years.”

The fida’is killed with daggers in public places, where hundreds of witnesses could see for themselves exactly how dedicated they were to their cause. People came to believe that, once marked for extermination by the assassins, no man could live, no matter how many armed men he had around him. The reputation of the assassins spread so much that soon many assassinations were attributed to Sabbah and his fida’is whether they were responsible or not.

SaladinPhoto: El Bibliomata
Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria

Most terrifyingly of all, the assassins were adept at gaining the trust of their targets. Fida’is of The Order infiltrated their enemies as grooms in the stables of the Seljuk vizier, bodyguards to the Turkish emir of Damascus, and Christian Arab monks in the company of Crusade leader Conrad of Montferrat. All of these target leaders died once they let their guard down and allowed the assassins close enough access. In the case of the Turkish emir, it took two years of cold, calculated waiting before he was successfully murdered.

Yet despite their savagery and highly successful intimidation tactics, the assassins did not target civilians. And they did not always kill their enemies. Sometimes, all that was necessary was to leave a knife beside their enemy’s bed while they were sleeping to send a very clear warning. According to Gray, “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.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3