Understanding Osama bin Laden through the lenses of the past

For more than four years, America has been searching for Osama bin Laden (OBL), offering tens of millions of dollars in exchange for leads as to his whereabouts. But no one has claimed the reward and probably will never do.

OBL and his organization Al-Qaeda remind me of the Hashishyyin (Assassins) or ‘hashish smokers’ of the Middle Ages and their charismatic leader. The grand master of the latter group was Hasan-e Sabbah, an Iranian who was born around 1048 CE in the city of Rayy (not too far from today’s Tehran). He studied at Nishapur and in the Dar-ul-Hikmat in Cairo. He was a very cultured and gifted man who loved poetry. Legends of dubious origin claim that he was a companion of the young poet Omar Khayyam (1028-87 CE).

In those days, the Isma’ili Shi’ite doctrine, to which Hasan Ibn al-Sabbah belonged, was a dominant power in many parts of Muslim Asia and Egypt. Iran was ruled by a Shi’ite dynasty of the Buwayhids who were strong enough to bully the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. Soon, however, when Sabbah was in his youth, the situation reversed dramatically. The Seljuks, upholders of Sunni orthodoxy, took control of the vast territories to which Shi’ism had once ruled unrivalled. With the changing political landscape, the Sabah family would pack up and move around 1071 to settle in Egypt, the last bastion of Shi’ism, ruled by the Fatimid Isma’ili (Batini) Shi’ites.

There, however, the young Ibn al-Sabbah discovered the painful fact of impotency and vassal statehood of the Fatimid regime. The aged monarch al-Muntasir was nothing more than a Seljuk puppet who dared not to leave the palace without the permission of his Armenian vizier Badr al-Jamali. In Cairo, Ibn al-Sabbah befriended many radical Isma’ili Shi’ites who wanted to reform the Fatimid regime from its vassal status and take revenge on the Seljuks.

With the active cooperation of the Fatimid Prince Nizar, in 1090 a movement took shape with the idea of reviving the Shi’ite glory. Ibn al-Sabbah, in essence, became its chief architect. With the intention of establishing a base, he and some of his trusted comrades returned to Iran and captured the hill fortress of Alamut, near Qazvin in northern Iran. After capturing this center, situated in a practically inaccessible region of the Elbruz Mountains near the Caspian Sea, he set about establishing a highly disciplined politico-religious organization, not hitherto seen in the history of the Near and Middle East. All members underwent intensive training from religious indoctrination to military training. They were ranked according to their loyalty, reliability, knowledge and courage. Assassination of people affiliated with the ruling Seljuk and Abbasid Empire became their primary tactic to sow terror among their foes.

Their first assassination victim was Nizam-ul-Mulk (Order of the Realm), the grand vizier of the Seljuk Empire. [He was responsible for everything good and glorious with the Seljuk history, and conversely, the downfall of the Isma’ili Shi’ite power. He was essentially the pillar of the empire.] On October 14, 1092 he was killed with a stroke of a sword. [His murder was a death-blow to the Seljuk Empire which disintegrated soon.]

Soon after the murder, Ibn al-Sabbah’s comrades went underground. Al-Afdal, the new vizier in Egypt, who had succeeded his father Badr al-Jamali, mercilessly crushed the associates of Prince Nizar. The latter himself was also killed.

Realizing that their goal to reviving a Fatimid empire would take time, Ibn al-Sabbah’s surviving Nizari comrades revised their strategy, and returned to the hill fortress of Alamut. From this center Ibn al-Sabbah commanded a network of strongholds all over Iran and Iraq wherefrom his zealous followers carried out deadly assaults against the Abbasids and the Seljuks. Most of these activities were almost suicidal in the sense that the perpetrators, called the Fidayeen, carried the risk of being apprehended and executed. The ‘suicide’ squads comprised of 1 to 3 people, who disguised themselves mostly as local merchants or ascetics. They liked publicity. As such, their favorite venues were often mosques (especially on Fridays and religious festivities), generally in the afternoons.

Marco Polo and other travelers related (a claim not confirmed by any known Isma’ili source) that before setting out with their suicidal attacks, the sect would take hashish, and hence the name Hashishyyin (which was distorted into ‘assassin’) to induce visions of paradise. I believe the calmness with which the sect carried out their deadly attacks earned them that ill repute.

In the early 12th century, soon after the Crusaders had established their control over Jerusalem, the activities of the Hashishyyin extended to Syria and today’s Lebanon. Syria was then divided into many city states. Ibn al-Sabbah sent a Batini preacher, an enigmatic ‘physician-astrologer’ in Aleppo who managed to win the unwavering trust of its King Ridwan. The latter allowed Ibn al-Sabbah’s adherents to converge on the city, to set up cells and preach their doctrine. After the death of this mysterious envoy in 1103, the sect immediately sent Abu Tahir, an Iranian goldsmith. His influence on Ridwan was overwhelming, which greatly benefited the sect putting it into prominence in public life. It was precisely because of such power-wielding that the sect was hated by most Aleppans.

Ibn al-Khashab, the Shi’ite Qadi (judge) of Aleppo, became their greatest critic and demanded an end to their meddling in official matters. He also hated them for their sympathy for the Crusaders. [It seems that the sect took the age-old doctrine of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to its heart. Since the Seljuks were their enemies, the Crusaders became their friends. Ridwan was despicably appeasing to the Crusaders at the behest of his Hashishyyin advisors. To Ibn al-Khashab, such support amounted to treason.]

When Ridwan died in 1113, the Aleppans had enough of the Batini sect, and killed nearly 200 members, including Abu Tahir. Other sect members managed to flee and took shelter among the Crusaders or dispersed in countryside.

Drawing lessons from their failure, the sect altered its tactics. Under Ibn al-Sabbah’s new envoy to Syria –” an Iranian propagandist by the name of Bahram – the sect decided to halt all external spectacular actions and become a secret organization. They lived in the greatest secrecy and seclusion, changing dress and appearance so cleverly that no one suspected their identity.

One of the sect members killed Qadi Ibn al-Khashab in the summer of 1125 when he was leaving the great mosque of Aleppo after Zuhr (midday) prayer. It is worth noting that the Qadi not only had saved the city from the Christian Crusaders but also prepared the way for leaders like Salahuddin Ayyubi (R) to emerge later against the invaders.[1] He had been the most intransigent opponents of the sect.

The next year, the sect killed Imam Abu Sa’ad al-Harawi, the splendor of Islam, the qadi of qadis of Baghdad. As one of the leading Imams of the Muslim world, he led the first manifestation of popular outrage against the Crusaders in August of 1099. The Hashishyyin had stabbed him to death in the great mosque of Hamadan and fled immediately, leaving no clue behind.

On 26 November 1126 al-Borsoki, the powerful master of Aleppo and Mosul, was killed by the Hashishyyin. He had gone to the great mosque in Mosul to say his Friday prayers. The assassins, dressed up as ascetics, were waiting in a corner without arousing any suspicion. Suddenly they leapt upon him and struck him in the throat with knife thrusts. His murderers were soon arrested and put to death. A few months later, they killed al-Borsoki’s son, who had succeeded him. The situation turned so bad that the city became insecure and eventually fell to the Crusaders.

The situation in Damascus was no better. The Atabeg Thugtigin was weak, aging and sick. He could not control the Hashishyyin, who had their own armed militia. Even the city administration was in their hands and the vizier their client. The latter was in close contact with the Crusaders.

Hasan-e Sabbah died in Alamut retreat in 1142. Unfortunately, his death did not stop the sect’s criminal activities. They assassinated any notable authority who opposed their doctrine. The terror they inflicted was so overwhelming that no one dared to criticize them publicly, neither Amir, nor vizier, not Sultan, not even Imams.

From Masyaf, Rashid ad-Din as-Sinan, the Syrian grand master of the Hashishyyin, more commonly known as the shaykh al-jabal, ruled virtually independently of the sect’s headquarters at Alamut. His commandos terrorized the entire territory.

The terrorism of the Hashishyyin sect continued until 1256 when the Mongols under Hulagu Khan captured their fortresses in Iran one by another, including their headquarters in Alamut. The Syrian fortresses were gradually subjugated by the Mamluk Sultan Baybars I and put under Mamluk governors. From then on, the sect ceased to exist as a terrorist group and languished as a minor Shi’ite heresy.[2]


The Muslim world is in a dire state of its existence because of a plethora of reasons –” some foreign and some home-grown. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand the broad appeal of OBL who reminds Muslims of the neo-Crusaders who are waging war against Islam. “His most important ally is American foreign policy," says Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s bin Laden unit. [3]

As long as the West continues to prove him right through its illegal interventions in Muslim countries, its criminal blockading of the Muslim world through alliances, its vicious attack on the Prophet of Islam, its threats of attacking Iran and its double-standards in matters of democracy, freedom, equality and human rights, OBL’s appeal would resonate loud and clear. His crowd becomes Spartacus – each clamoring: “I am Spartacus.”

As Richard Rodriguez, one of the best essayists in America, once said, “A historical figure ascends to myth when his life matches some common pride or grievance or sorrow. Then history is subsumed into myth. Spartacus, Joaquin, Che, Gandhi, Osama. America’s search for Osama bin Laden in these mountain passes and crowded bazaars may be necessary militarily and for reasons of vengeance and justice and national pride, but it may also be beside the point. Dead or alive, Osama bin Laden already is mythic. The grievances of millions of people in the Middle East are joined to his name, and his name surely will outlast his death.” [4]

How can an Empire that has no clothes fight someone like OBL when his life is sung and matches some common pride, grievance and sorrow of hundreds of millions of people around the world?


[1]. Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab eyes, pp. 98-105, al-Saqi Books. [Most of the information on Hasan-e Sabbah’s sect in this essay is based on this book, which is gratefully acknowledged here.]

[2]. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, volume 1 (1989).

[3]. Ben Laden Says West is Waging War Against Islam, NY Times, April 24, 2006.

[4]. Villains or Heroes: Essay by Richard Rodriguez, PBS TV, January 14, 2003.