A short history of terrorism

Terrorism is not as we would be tempted to believe, a phenomenon specific to the contemporary era.

The term “Terrorism” was first used during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, when the Jacobins, who ruled the revolutionary state, employed violence as a State policy. Mass executions by guillotine were used to compel obedience to the state and intimidate regime enemies. 100 000 people were so executed in 1793 and 1794.

The acceptance of our days term, broadly used to define savage attacks by marginal activists and political groups, implying assassinations or mass murder restricts pretty much its definition.

State terrorism, as for the French Reign of Terror, Hitler and Stalin’s mass murders, are not referred to as terrorism anymore.

But that particular kind of terrorism, in the way we use the word in our days, is also a very old phenomenon.

Sicarii Zealots

Some of the most ancient terrorists where the 1st-century AD Sicarii Zealots which assassinated Jewish collaborators with the Roman rule in the province of Judea.

Roman soldiers fighting Sicarii Zealots

Roman soldiers fighting Sicarii Zealots

SIcarii employed such methods as:

  • Kidnapping / Hostage Trading
  • Blackmail / Life Threats
  • Poison
  • Recruiting Gentiles and Criminals
  • Harming Women and Children
  • “The Sicarii committed mass murders in broad daylight in the heart of Jerusalem. The holy days were their special seasons when they could mingle with the crowd carrying short daggers concealed under their clothing with which they stabbed their enemies. Thus, when they fell, the murderers joined in cries of indignation, and through this plausible behavior were never discovered … The panic created was more alarming than the calamity itself.” Flavius Josephus, Trans. William Whiston, The Complete Works Of Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications 1981)

    According to Josephus, their most successful assassination was of the high priest Jonathan.

    Seen as freedom fighters in modern Zionism, they were led by prominent characters as Simeon bar Giora (alternatively known as Simeon bar Giora or Simon ben Giora or Shimon bar Giora) who died 70 AD as a leader of revolutionary forces during the First Jewish-Roman War.

    Simon the Zealot, Helsinki Cathedral

    Simon the Zealot, Helsinki Cathedral

    The Ḥashshāshīn

    A thousand years later, in the Middle East emerged the Hashshashin (a.k.a. the Assassins), an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims. Led by Hassan-i Sabbah they opposed to the Fatimid Caliphate.

    The Nizari are Ismaili Muslims who form the second largest branch of Shia Islam.


    The calligraphic representation of the names of the first two Nizar Ismaili Imams in Arabic, “Ali ibn Abu Talib” at right and “Husayn ibn Ali” at left in Hagia Sophia.

    From quite early on in his reign, the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir Billah had publicly nominated his son Nizar as his heir.

    Following the death of al-Mustansir, in early 1095, Nizar fled to Alexandria where he received the people’s support and where he was accepted as the next Fatimid Caliph-Imam. Late 1095 al-Afdal defeated Nizar’s Alexandrian army and took Nizar as a prisoner to Cairo where he had him executed.

    After Nizar’s execution, the Nizari Ismailis and the Mustaali Ismailis split in a bitterly irreconcilable manner. The schism finally broke the Fatimid Empire. Those pledging allegiance to Nizar’s son Hadi where mostly located in the regions of Iran and Syria.

    Imam Hadi being very young at the time was smuggled out of Alexandria and taken to the Nizari stronghold of Alamut Fort in the Elburz Mountains of Northern Iran south of the Caspian Sea and under the regency of Dai Hasan bin Sabbah.

    The followers of the young Imam Hadi who joined the military were trained as the Fidai.

    Under Hasan bin Sabah in Iran and Rasdid al Sinan in Syria, the Nizari Fidai targeted the most powerful enemy leaders faced by these new Nizari Ismaili communities.

    The Fidai were feared as the Assassins but in fact the Fidai did not assassinate for payment. Although they were trained in the art of spying and combat, they also practiced their Islamic mysticism.

    14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by an assassin.

    The Fidai were trained to be some of the most feared assassins in the then known world. Sinan ordered assassinations ranging from politicians to generals such as the great Kurdish general and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Saladin. A sleeping Saladin had a note delivered to him by a Fidai planted in his trusted entourage. The note from Sinan was pinned to his pillow by a dagger and informed Saladin that he had been spared this once; and therefore to give up his anti-Nizari militancy. A shaken Saladin quickly made a truce with Sinan.

    This truce serve the Muslim cause against the Christian Crusaders of the Third Crusade which included Richard the Lion Heart of England. Saladin having by now established an extremely friendly relationship with Sinan, the Nizari Fidai themselves joined Saladin’s forces to defeat the Crusaders in the last great battle between the two forces.

    Because of the Fidais’ total lack of fear of personal injury or even death could not be understood by the Crusaders, they created and propagated the fictional black legends of the so-called Assassins.

    These legends were then further popularized in the Western world by Marco Polo, the Venetian storyteller who had, in fact, never investigated Sinan in direct contradiction to his claim. Marco Polo asserted that Sinan fed hashish to his drugged followers, the so-called Hashishins (Assassins), so as to fortify them with the type of courage based in hashish to commit the assassinations of the most intrepid kind.

    This tale of the “Old Man of the Mountain” was assembled by Marco Polo and accepted by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, a 19th-century Austrian orientalist responsible for much of the spread of this legend.

    Today, 750 years after their disappearance, Assassins methods – use of terrorism by suicide and systematic murder for political goals – strikingly resembles the tactics of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

    But Hasan-i Sabbah acts of terror were only targeted against political, military and religious factions which engaged hostile action against the Ismaili community. Moreover, the Order of Assassins not ever directed attacks against the civilian population.

    Assassins echo in the world

    Many killings had important consequences, but perhaps the most significant was the murder of Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem. This brought the Order to the attention of the Western world, sparking both curiosity and fear. In addition, the name of the leader, Hasan appeared in Western languages as the word assassin, as a synonym for murderer.

    imaginary portrait of Conrad de Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, c. 1843, by François-Édouard Picot

    The decline

    Hasan’s death in 1124 did not cause the immediate forfeiture of his group. For a century, the Assassins continued to expand its influence at the expense of the Turks, but in XIII century appeared a new power in the Middle East that they were unable to intimidate: the Mongols. Mongkut Inn launched an action to eliminate the Assassins Order, which he considered a threat to its national security, but his untimely death has canceled plans to dispatch.

    Instead, the Order was faced with another problem, something far closer than the Mongol authority, namely the sultans Mamluks of Egypt. They have reduced the first Assassins of Syria in a state of bondage, and forced them to surrender all forts, while the group of Persia was eventually annihilated by the Mongols.

    View of Alamut besieged. The last Grand Master of the Assassins at Alamut Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah (1255–1256) was executed by Hulagu Khan after a devastating siege

    View of Alamut besieged. The last Grand Master of the Assassins at Alamut Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah (1255–1256) was executed by Hulagu Khan after a devastating siege

    If we define terrorism as its modern acceptation, as systematic and deliberate use of violence and intimidation measures to achieve a political goal, it is clear that the Order of Assassins can be defined as a terrorist movement. But compared to the phenomenon as we know it today, terrorism Assassins manifested in a much smaller scale. The number of victims in the two centuries of activity was no more than 100 people. In contrast, victims of terrorist attacks today are to be counted by thousands. And, as an essential difference, actual terrorist groups targeting innocent civilians almost exclusively – Western attacks in major cities are completely distinct from the precisely targeted killings of the Assassins.

    Narodnaya Volya

    Narodnaya Volya, The People’s Will or The People’s Freedom, was a Russian left-wing terrorist organization in the late 19th century, best known for the successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. It was founded in 1879 and created a centralized and well-disguised organization in a time of diverse movements in Russia.

    Vladimir Lenin’s elder brother, Alexander Ulyanov was a later member of a subsequent incarnation of Narodnaya Volya, and led a cell that plotted to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.

    Narodnaya Volya’s Program was a mix of democratic and socialist reforms. Narodnaya Volya differed from its parent organization, the narodnik Zemlya i volya, in that its members had come to believe that a social revolution would be impossible in the absence of a political revolution; the peasantry could not take possession of the land as long as the government remained autocratic.

    The great irony of the Narodnaya Volya is that their aim was to save Russia from the autocracy, yet their assassination of Alexander II on 13 March [O.S. 1 March] 1881 perpetuated autocratic oppression. Alexander III would take no chances with reform or with liberal ideas. In many ways the Narodnaya Volya convinced the tsar that he must use an iron fist, not an unclenched hand, to save the monarchy.

    The assasination of Alexander II

    The assasination of Alexander II

    sources : historia.ro, wikipedia.org

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