The Nizari Ismailis did not invent assassination, of course; only lent it their name. The Ismailis were “part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Islam … of popular and emotional cults in sharp contrast with the learned and legal religion of the established order.” Still, the Nizaris did rely on the Holy Law. The ideal of Islamic governance might be authoritarian, but it is not arbitrary; if a ruler crosses the shari’a it becomes a duty to resist. This element became gradually more marginal as the religion formed into a State and Empire, but it was there and many other sects had called on it in their opposition to the prevailing regimes. The Nizaris were the first to call up this tradition of righteous rebellion and combine it with an effective opposition organization.
In their use of conspiracy, assassination, and even the ceremonial nature of the murders and the weapon-cult, the Assassins were hardly unique. But they might well be the first terrorists: those who, at an overwhelming disadvantage in conventional terms, used unconventional means in a planned, long-term campaign of targeted violence as a political weapon with the intention of overturning the established order.
The assassinations almost all targeted Sunni Muslims, not native Jews and Christians, and not Shi’ites. The aim was to frighten, weaken, and ultimately overthrow the Sunni regimes. In the course of this strategic objective, tactical decisions were taken: examples were made of Sunni clerics who were especially vociferous against the Ismailis; leaders and officials of areas that the Ismailis wanted to expand into were removed; revenge was taken on those who attacked the Ismailis; and tactical and long-term strategic purposes combined in the murder of great figures like the two Caliphs, the vizier Nizam al-Mulk, and the two attempts on Saladin. The few attacks on Crusaders seem to follow Rashid ad-Din Sinan’s accord with Saladin—i.e. were likely not sanctioned by Alamut—and the ones that were sanctioned from Alamut came in the time of Hasan’s return to orthodoxy and the alliance with the Caliph.
It is very important to note that the Nizaris’ careful use of terrorism targeted the rulers of brittle, autocratic Islamic governments, based on familial, tribal, and other transient loyalties, which made them vulnerable to destabilization by assassination. The Assassins were focused on the Muslim world in any case, but among the reasons they never wasted time killing Templars or Hospitallers in the Latin States was that these orders of Knights could replace a slain man with another just as good. It was the genius of Hassan-i Sabbah to perceive this weakness in the Islamic monarchies, and to differentiate them from mature, bureaucratic organizations.
The crucial distinction is the two periods of the Ismailis—between the ninth and eleventh centuries, and between the eleventh and mid-thirteenth. The Nizaris, who operated in the latter period, never offered an ideological threat to the Sunni world. The Fatimid theology was a sophisticated, urban intellectualism: the pious could find a Tradition and Qur’anic teaching equal to the Sunnis; there was a philosophical framework to sustain the intellectuals; an emotional and personal faith with the promise of the Truth to the spiritual; and a well-organized opposition movement with a real chance of overthrowing the established order to the discontented. The Nizaris presented a political-military challenge to the established order, and contended for the hearts of the believers, but the magical qualities of the New Preaching never seem to have been a contender for the minds of the Sunnis; there were no significant defections of poets, philosophers, and theologians to the Nizaris as there had been to the Ismailis in earlier times.
Part of the reason the Nizari challenge was intellectually quarantined comes down to the class distinctions between the followers of the Old Preaching and the New Preaching, and the very structure of the Nizaris. The New Preaching’s leaders were educated townsmen—Hassan-i Sabbah was a scribe from Rayy and Sinan was a schoolmaster from a notable family in Basra—but the Nizaris were based in their fortresses, drawing on sympathetic surrounding populations, where the only recruits were rural peasants and mountaineers.
Several dozen of the assassinations are said by various sources to have been orchestrated by third parties, and it is certainly true that the Nizaris, from their earliest, most fervent days, never disdained the help of a cynical or frightened Sunni ruler against another; any help was welcome in their quest to upend the Sunni order. Various military and political officials, including some leaders, saw advantages in tacit understandings with the Assassins, either to ward off the threat of assassination or to use that threat (and sometimes the reality) against other Muslim polities. Infiltration and provocation therefore have a long history in terrorism.
The confusion is furthered by the fact that for the Nizari leaders there were great advantages both in having the blame for the murders placed on others since it could divide enemies and in taking credit for murders the Nizaris didn’t commit. The cases of Caliph al-Mustarshid and Shihab ad-Din ibn al-Ajmi (where Sanjar and Gumushtigin, respectively, were blamed, sowing distrust among the Sunni rulers) or Conrad of Montferrat (where Richard I was blamed, sowing distrust among the Crusaders) are good examples of the former. It is not clear whether the actual executors of assassinations were consciously lying when they confessed—as they did in the case of Conrad and al-Ajmi—that they had been put up to it by a third party, or whether the Nizari leadership lied to its agents to further its strategic goals. On the other hand, the Assassins provided a convenient scapegoat for quite a number of ordinary political murders; the Assassins willingly played along by claiming any murders they were accused of because it helped to further their mystique and therefore the impact of their terrorism—their ability to extract rents, for example.
The Nizaris’ place in history is the culmination of a series of messianic movements in Islam. While the intellectual challenge from the Ismailis had run aground by the time the Nizaris emerged, the Nizaris still managed to marshal the discontents of the Muslim world into an ideology that could sustain their fedayeen and an organization that could threaten the ruling order.
That said, perhaps the most consequential conclusion about the Nizaris is their total failure to overthrow the existing order and their utter defeat. Even at the height of their power, the Nizaris never held a major city and “their castle domains became no more than petty principalities.” The Nizaris’ supporters remain to us now in a few towns in Syria and Iran as peaceful schismatics. But, Lewis concluded, the “messianic hope and revolutionary violence” that impelled the Nizaris had by no means died with them, and new causes of anger, new dreams, new weapons, and new means of attack have and will impel successors.
Interest in the Assassins has revived when radical sects of Middle Eastern origin are capturing headlines through murder. The obvious modern comparison is with ISIS.
ISIS has in common with the Assassins a millenarian and messianic vision, for which men are prepared to die, as an alternative to a stagnant, discredited order, and an effective military organization to challenge that order. ISIS, like the Nizaris, is a minority, extremist sect that has managed nonetheless to capture a base, where it converts the local population and from which it can launch political-military warfare. Like the Assassins, ISIS combines fanatical zeal with strategic planning. And, crucial for Westerners, in the case of both the Assassins and ISIS: it’s not about us; neither minds catching us in the crossfire, but their objectives are local. One might also hope that the Assassins’ annihilation presages ISIS’s fate.
ISIS’s military base, however, is far more substantial than the Nizaris’ ever was, and ISIS, unlike the Nizaris, poses an intellectual challenge, playing with material far more dangerous because it is so close to the mainstream of Islam. The Ismailis had an avowedly new program, claiming esoteric knowledge; the unique knowledge ISIS claims is of the true version of the faith Muslims already hold.
To put it simply, in the great contest between the Assassins and Nooradeen az-Zangi—of whom ISIS’s founder, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, was a tremendous admirer—ISIS claims to be the successor to Nooradeen, not the Assassins, intending to complete his project of uniting the Muslims by holy war, crushing the local heretics, and expelling the foreign infidels. The task is to have ISIS seen as the Assassins were, as a menace to Islam, rather than a vanguard of Sunni interests. Unfortunately, our own current policy is ratifying ISIS’s claim to be the defender of Sunnis against sectarian persecution and worse.