Pop Quiz : Who were the first Islamic Terrorists? A) Al Qaeda B) The Muslim Brotherhood C) Hamas D) Hezbollah E) The PLO or F) The Assassins (Read on to find out the answer!)

Today, the scourge of Islamic terrorism is rampant. We’ve recently witnessed terrorist acts in Kenya, Boston, Benghazi, Pakistan, Russia, London, Iraq and the list goes on. What have we done thus far to solve this problem? Our strategies to date have centered around military action. While we’ve gained some victories through these methods, it’s been more “Whack-a-mole” than anything else. Islamic Terrorism is not going away because these solutions are fundamentally incomplete. The reason for this is that we misunderstand the full nature of the problem. It’s not solely a military problem; it’s also an ideological one.

So, how do we find the right solution? If we look back through the annals of history, we find that this is not the first time Islamic Terrorism has reared its ugly head. A thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of similar movements can give us some ideas about how to defeat today’s menace. This article will be Part 1 of 2.  In this first part, I will briefly discuss the nature of the Assassins and set the stage for part 2, where we can apply these lessons to today’s Islamic Terrorists.

What we are seeing now is similar to what was happening during the time of the Crusades, when the world’s first Islamic terrorists came to be known in the West as the “Assassins,” (answer F, for those of you still reading!) The Assassins were part of a sect of Shi’ite Muslims called the Nizari, who gained local power and renown in parts of modern Iran and Syria. As Shi’ite Muslims, the Assassins struck fear in the hearts of the Sunni Muslim establishment with their public and often spectacular assassinations of Sunni leaders using only a dagger. The Assassins would disguise themselves as loyal followers of their target and patiently work for months to infiltrate the inner circle of the enemy leader. When an opportunity appeared, they would rush upon their victim and stab them to death. Having completed their grisly task, they would remain in place, awaiting certain death at the hands of the bodyguard. But the Sunnis were not their only victims. Christian leaders (including the King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat) and Shi’ite leaders who publicly disagreed with the Assassins often became targets for assassination.

The meaning of the term, assassin, derives from these men. Etymologically, the term, assassin, is a corruption of the Arabic term for hashish. As in, the people who knew these Nizari believed they must have been drugged or were the kind of lowlife riff raff who would do drugs in order to perpetrate such violent crimes. There seemed to be no other way to explain why someone would have such blind devotion and submit to such stunning self-destruction as these men.

However, in reality these young men were not drugged, nor were they low-life riff-raff. Much like many of today’s Islamic Terrorists, they were in some cases wealthy and highly educated –particularly the leadership. Instead of drugs, what drove them was ideology. They never saw it as murder. Rather they thought they were doing a service to God by ridding the world of unrighteous rulers. Their goal was to replace the illegitimate ruler with their Imam as the caliph, or head of all Islam. From there, a “true” version of Islam could be lived and propagated throughout the Islamic Empire instead of the “false” one that was currently being promoted.

Muslims do not have a separation of Church and State. To them, the Muslim state is established and maintained by God. Its head, the caliph, is responsible for upholding Islam and enabling its citizens to be good Muslims. There is no distinction between the secular, political and religious. Thus, any dispute expresses itself in all three dimensions. Islamic tradition gives some support to justifiable revolt. When, in the opinion of the believer, the leadership strays into sinful behavior, the requirement for obedience ends. There are, however, no means of testing the righteousness of commands or peacefully objecting to the sinful order. The only real option is rebellion and the most expeditious form of rebellion is assassination. Thus, the Nizari, while out on a limb, were not completely unjustified in their actions according to their religion.

Part of the attraction of the Assassins was that they offered something for everyone. Assassin leadership provided a place where people could try to “make the world a better place”, to fight for their religious convictions, to gain some dignity and meaning for their drab and bitter lives, and above all, to provide the shortcut to eternal life in the sensual Islamic Paradise.

Usually, men were brought in at a young and impressionable age, isolated from the world and carefully indoctrinated. Members saw themselves as divinely guided, in possession of secret knowledge, and capable of attaining hidden powers. The Assassin leadership expertly channeled the energy of these young men into the goal of overthrowing the established regime. Once indoctrinated, these men would not think twice about giving their life to further the Assassin cause. Death was no longer something to be avoided, but instead something sought after and welcomed.

Ultimately, the Assassins were brought down because the greater population grew tired of living in fear and massacred the Nizari in large numbers. The political and religious leadership spoke openly against them, limiting their popularity. Additionally, the Mongols swept through Iran and into parts of Syria, where they mercilessly destroyed the infrastructure the Assassins relied upon. From the South, the Mamluks rose out of Egypt and wiped out the last of the Crusaders and Assassins on their way to challenge the Mongols. Thus, the limitation of and eventual loss of their logistical base of support, destruction of their infrastructure, and their inability to sell their ideology to a wider group of people limited their expansion and ultimately led to their collapse.

For further reading, please see my thesis at Holy Apostles College and Seminary –Assassins and al-Qaeda: Finding Strategies to Combat Islamic Terrorism by Learning from the Past)

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.