During the Crusades, both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East were terrorised by an army of dagger wielding terrorists known as the Assassins. Led by an individual referred to as the Old Man of the Mountain – this cult carried out target assassinations of Saracen and Crusader rulers with deadly effect. Though they met their match in the Knights Templar and were eventually destroyed by invading Mongol armies.
In a new YouTube video series called “History’s Terrorists”, I’m looking at groups and individuals we might once have viewed as heroic but today could be classified as terrorists. The third episode of this series is on the secretive order of the Assassins and I have no doubt that today, we would view them in the same way as Al Qaeda or ISIS. See below to watch the video episode on the Assassins.
This group of highly trained and brainwashed killers were a branch of Shia Islam. That is a minority position within the Muslim religion that originated not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Today, most Shias can be found in Iran and Iraq. But at the time of the Assassins, the Shia Fatimid Empire was centred on Egypt. And the founder of the Assassins, Hassan-i-Sabbah studied there before returning to what is now Iran and establishing a power base at Alamut Castle.
Shia Islam had various splits within it and Hassan was what is called a Naziri who held the rather mystical view that the Koran, the holy book of Islam, had a surface meaning but also a deeper, unseen message. Most Muslims viewed Hassan and his Assassins as heretics to be stamped out. This meant that for the first few decades from the cult’s establishment around 1090 – most victims of its killing activity were Muslim enemies.
When the crusaders arrive at the start of the 12th century and carved Christian kingdoms out of the Middle East they could hardly believe their luck when they realised how Muslims were fighting each other. Their attention fixed on the Assassins who were causing chaos within the Islamic world. All the main Muslim empires – the Fatimids in Egypt, the Abbasid caliphate ruled from Baghdad and the Seljuk Turks – fell victim to Assassin activity. So occasionally, the crusaders would even reach out to the Assassins as potential allies.
The Assassins did eventually begin killing Christian rulers – in one case disguised as monks. But the Knights Templar retaliated against them with such ferocity that they ended up paying tribute to keep the fearsome knights away. In the end, it was the unexpected arrival of vast Mongol armies from the east that proved to the undoing of the Assassins.
Click below to get the full story – a fascinating piece of history!