- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Many years ago in the mid-1970s, when I was covering Iran for the old Chicago Daily News, I decided to make a strange, arduous and ultimately very revealing trip to try to begin to answer some questions about the new terrorism sweeping the Middle East.
Although the man had been dead for over nine centuries, I had this impulse to sit on the ruins of the ancient castle of the legendary Persian Shi'ite terrorist Hasan Sabah, the "Old Man of the Mountain," and to try to see what he had seen. So it was that I found myself at the place they call Alamut, in the historic Valley of the Assassins in the wild, mountainous regions of northwest Persia, now called Iran. Soon I was gazing out at the entire world of the Middle East that this sinister man had come to rule.
It was neither an easy place to find, nor an easy place to get to, but the stories that it told and what they exemplify in terms of terrorism then and now were extraordinary.

Fanatics on hashish
The inveterate and creative wanderer Marco Polo (1254-1324) had passed by there, and described in his "Travels" how the sinister Hasan Sabah had gotten his fanatical young recruits stoned on hashish, made them believe they were in paradise and then sent them out across the courts and regimes of the Middle East to assassinate one leader after another. Often they were inserted into courts for years, before the chance came to act.
In the most lasting testament to his efficacy, the very word "assassin" comes from "hashashin," or those under the influence of hashish.
A local journalist, our driver and I drove for seven or eight hours from Tehran until we reached a river we could not pass. Then we rode on mules for another two hours, through wildly gorgeous gorges and fields, with vast vistas of sweeping valleys and towering mountains all about us. Finally, we walked a couple of miles to the small village at Alamut, where I asked one of the Persian peasants when Hasan Sabah had actually lived here.

The view from Alamut
"How should I know," he said, shrugging, "I am only 82 years old." After that little lesson in the relativity of the human experience of time, I began to climb the dangerous sides of the ruins of Alamut castle.
In most places, the path was less than a foot wide; yet for some reason, I felt compelled to get to the top. Finally there, I sat back against some moist old rocks in the sunlight and looked out across my "domain." Vast mountains and sweeping valleys seemed to plunge out from the castle.
Strange as it may seem, I felt then that I actually did understand better the powerful ambitions of the man who, history tells us, invented terrorism.
Hasan Sabah lived and reigned in the name of a prolonged terrorist struggle of his Shi'ites against the Sunni Muslims who then ruled most of the Middle East at Alamut for at least 34 years from probably 1071 onward, although the cult continued for decades after him.

200 years of killing
He was already 40 when he created the "cult of the Hashashin" a man full of rage and resentment who had failed at jobs at both the Turkish and the Egyptian courts. Yet he obviously had great talents for casting a spell over young men for the benefit of visitors, they would jump off cliffs to their deaths when he ordered them to.
Indeed, it was not until 1272 that the fourth Mamluk sultan Baybars, victor over the Mongols at the battle of Ayn Jalut near Nazareth, forced the remaining devotees of Hasan Sabah from their fortresses in Syria, and the deadly cult died out.
It was the Crusaders who went to the Middle East in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries who brought back so many amazing stories about "the Assassins," and court troubadours sang of their lurid deeds to an astounded Europe.
The European monk-warriors, the Knights Templar, actually even modeled some of their rituals after those of the Assassins, wearing the same colors of white and red, "the hues of innocence and blood."

Terrorism is not new
The Old Man of the Mountain, then, has come down to us as the man who perfected terrorism as a weapon: not the weapon of a state or of a government, but the weapon of a single, driven, obsessed and hate-filled man, using a radical form of Islam to mesmerize his followers and to send them forth to destroy.
Interestingly enough, the famous British female traveler of the early 20th century, Freya Stark, when she visited the region, could not find Alamut on the map terror did not have "addresses" then, either.
So when even informed Americans were last week calling the terrible bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a "new kind of 21st-century warfare" and a "war without a name," I had to vehemently disagree. In fact, this kind of warfare is ancient, catalogued and knowable.

No monopoly of strife
What's more, it is hardly surprising that our world today is increasingly open and amenable to movements like Hasan Sabah's. Nation-states, the major political form of organization for the past two centuries, are disintegrating. Guerrilla wars, terrorists and religio-ethnic militants of every stripe are growing.
Mercenaries indeed, small armies of them are available not only to nations but to individuals and groups.
Martin van Creveld, the visionary Israeli professor and author of the classic book "The Transformation of War," argues that the state's historic monopoly of violence ended with the "Thirty Years War of 1914-1945."
Nuclear weapons have rendered war, as waged by states, nearly obsolete, he wrote, and so conflict has instead taken the form of low-intensity conflict, with fearsome power flowing to warlords in the Third World, private mercenary bands and even commercial companies (the old East India Company reincarnated?). The "existing distinctions between war and crime will break down," he prophesied years ago.

Rage, fear converge
Dr. Don Beck, head of the National Values Center in Texas and one of the most perceptive analysts of how different levels of development clash and conflict in human society, e-mailed me last week after Tuesday. The real problem, he said, is that some people, like the followers of Osama bin Laden, are living in "throwbacks to the feudal age, as the historic rage, fear of modernity and ancient puritanical mind-set all converge into a turbo-charged revolutionary force. Unhappily, this level has access to the technology from a more complex value system, but lacks the guilt and feelings of responsibility that produced them."
And I recalled how the brilliant psychoanalyst, the late Heinz Kohut of the University of Chicago, used to describe the desperate tension that arises when developing peoples are told to "modernize" but, inside themselves, cannot. "When it is not within the capacity of people to change, they want to overthrow those who forced them to move," he once told me.
"Change is experienced as an agent of someone else. Discontinuity arouses tremendous anxiety."

Sadism is mobilized
"So when someone comes like an Ayatollah Khomeini or a Yasser Arafat, with something of a 'new world,' there is a sense of tremendous healing. They do anything for it, so long as the sense of continuity is re-established Then there is a degree of sadism that is mobilized give the foreign agents of change a dose of their medicine. They feel shamed by us, so they need to shame us. And they know that they can have tremendous power over us, because they are at that stage of development where their goals are compatible with dying. Ours are not. We are at a totally different stage of selfhood."
Osama bin Laden's name was not known when Dr. Kohut spoke these words to me many years ago but I am certain he would now put his name at the head of his roster.
The difference in today's situation from those ancient days at Alamut is that today's Islamic movement has 8,000 official "madrasa" schools and 25,000 unregistered ones, every day training at least half a million boys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with no jobs ever available to them, in radical, virulently anti-Western, fundamentalist Islam thus, the movement has deep cultural roots and, in a Middle Eastern area where half the population is under 25, huge numbers to draw from.

Terrorism evolves
Today's situation is vastly different even from the terrorist situation of the 1970s and '80s, when the Palestinian groups dominated the terrorist spectrum most of their hijackings and attacks had clear and recognizable political objectives, while bin Laden's objectives are fluid and infinitely difficult to fathom or address.
Yet, to say we cannot know these movements and this new/old situation is frightfully mistaken. All this history, and analysts who understand these mentalities, are there for the asking.
Knowing and explaining motivation is not forgiving it; it is only teaching us how, finally, to act.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide