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Historical Hashshashin

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Formation of the Hashshashin

Despite being a minority within a religious minority, the Isma'ilis succeeded in establishing a generational secretive underground movement against the traditional Islamic leadership. They would turn their revolutionary ideals into reality by establishing the Fatimid Empire, spanning across the Mediterranean. The empire aimed to bring scientific and social breakthroughs to all its people, including religious freedom, and, indeed, they ushered in some of the greatest developments in the Islamic Golden Age.

When in 1094, the Empire’s leader took ill and his head advisor staged a coup and installed a new leader. The actual heir, left in exile but soon returned in a rebellion attempt only to be put down and killed by the new leadership. This caused a split amongst the Fatimid Empire. Most sided with the post coup government of the Fatimid Empire, but some sided with true heir. The latter group, calling themselves the Nizaris, moved east and continued their martyred leader’s cause.

The Nizaris gained support of the people in areas surrounding the Fatimid Empire but only had a small underground following within the Fatimid Empire's heart. And this following within the empire’s heart found themselves alone and outnumbered in enemy territory.

Not merely content to survive, but instead determined to build a new utopia, the Nizaris formulated a strategy of gaining control of strategically important Fatimid Empire fortresses within the Fatimid Empire, by covertly converting local inhabitants living within and around these fortresses. The Nizaris established a new type of state within a state which consisted of a number of "island" fortified settlements within the Fatimid Empire itself. Unable to mount a conventional military army, The Nizaris formed the Federation of the Assassins, or Hashshashin, in 1090 when the first stronghold was established using these tactics.

Hashshashin Tactics

Unable to mount a conventional military army, the Nizaris, using the Hashshashin, developed a form of asymmetric warfare transforming the act of political assassination into a system of survival and defense against their foes. The Hashshashin trained highly capable sleeper commandos (trained in languages, science, trade, and so on) who would covertly infiltrate enemy positions and remain undercover. If Nizari civilians were facing threat of danger or Nizari forts faced imminent attack, these sleeper Hashshashin commandos were activated to prevent an attack.

After the reputation of the Hashshashin became well known, they began to take contracts from outsiders. Richard the Lionheart was among those suspected of commissioning the Hashshashin for assassinations. But in most cases the Hashshashin were aimed at retaining the balance of their enemies so that no one enemy could defeat each other, therefore keeping them all occupied and their power in check, going as far as allying with the Crusaders against other Muslims on a number of occasions when it suited their interests.

The Hashshashin were meticulous in killing only the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties and loss of innocent life, although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation, often by slaying their victims in public. Typically, they approached using a disguise, or were already sleeper agents in an entourage. Preferring a small hidden blade or poisoned daggers, they rejected bows and other weapons that may have allowed the attacker to escape and live.

They used their well-known skills for political goals without necessarily killing too; for example, a victim, might one morning find a Hashshashin dagger lying on his pillow upon awakening. This was a plain hint to the targeted individual that he was not safe anywhere, that maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the assassins, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict with the Hashshashin would have to be stopped if the potential victim wanted to live.

It is believed that the ruler Saladin attempted to besiege the main Nizari stronghold in 1176. Seemingly unexplainably, he later lifted the siege and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the Nizari. The Hashshashin’s own claims tell of an account in which a Hashshashin assassin snuck into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp, and left a poisoned cake and a note on Saladin's chest as he slept saying "You are in our grip" and snuck out of the camp unharmed. Another account tells of a letter sent to Saladin's maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire royal line. Whatever the truth of these accounts, Saladin and his uncle clearly heeded their warning, and lifted the siege.

Marco Polo, who visited the main Nizari city on his journey east, wrote that future assassins of the Hashshashin were subjected to an initiation rite in which they were drugged to simulate "dying," and later awakened in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous feast by beautiful virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven and that the Hashshashin’s leader was a representation of the divinity and that all his orders should be followed, even unto death.

Fall of the Hashshashin

The Nizari political dynasty, along with the Hashshashin, were eventually destroyed by the Mongols in 1256, with an apparent lifespan of 150+ years. The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin survived though, and was taken over in 1273. This branch, now an organization of assassins with no political purpose, became solely assassins for hire with a fixed price per assassination. In exchange for their services to the local government, they were allowed to exist without persecution. They are survived by the Shia Imami Isma'ili Muslims in the contemporary world, who are currently led by the Aga Khan IV, their 49th Imam.