Old School Osama

What we found while looking for bin Laden


The U.S. has been looking for Osama bin Laden for about a year now, and while we still haven't found him, and aren't even sure if he's still alive, the search may have turned up someone even more valuable. That's because the longer our encounter with bin Laden has lasted, the more he has been teaching us about his most significant predecessor in terror, the legendary Hasan Sabbah. There are many conclusions to be drawn from their common careers, but the most noteworthy is this: Hasan turns out to be history's own refutation of bin Laden and his war.

Who is Hasan? He's actually better known by a different name: The Old Man of the Mountain. That's what Marco Polo called him in the most famous account of the so-called Assassins of northern Persia. While Polo created a confused and sensational rendering of stories that had been circulating among Europeans since the Crusades, his story centered on a real figure: a remarkable 11th century Isma'ili leader at war against Sunni Islam over the issue of succession to the Prophet.

Hasan was a charismatic man who wielded extraordinary power over his followers. Because they were willing to kill—and indeed to die—at their leader's command, their enemies, Christian and Muslim, lived in terror. But nearly everyone found the behavior of the Assassins incomprehensible; the effort to explain them led to some of the most bizarre and exotic folklore that has ever been attached to murder.

Bin Laden's career has been helping to reveal the truth about Hasan and his followers. In turn, Hasan's career and its surprising legacy are helping reveal the inevitable futility of bin Laden's war.

Though separated by a millennium and by very different approaches to Islam, both bin Laden the Wahabi and Hasan the Isma'ili followed remarkably similar paths of terror. Bin Laden is famous for the purity of his asceticism; Hasan's moral purity was such that he had both his sons executed for their moral failings, one for supposedly tasting wine. Bin Laden's pronouncements are notable for their poetic use of language in the service of murderous ends; Hasan's embrace of poetry was such that, according to legend, he held captive his childhood friend Omar Khayyam for the love of his four-lined rubaiyat—Khayyam's praise of worldly pleasures notwithstanding.

Bin Laden has stood at the head of a secretive international network; Hasan's organization is credited by conspiracists as the model for every secret society from the Knights Templar to the CIA. Bin Laden has confounded his contemporary enemies with murderous followers ready to embrace martyrdom on his schedule. Hasan had only to nod, it is said, and his followers would willingly leap from great heights to their certain deaths, merely to strike fear into the hearts of their foes. After the collapse of the Taliban, bin Laden was thought to have taken refuge in a nearly inaccessible mountain redoubt. Hasan's strongholds among northern Iran's mountains remained nearly inaccessible to archaeologists into the 20th century.

Bin Laden may or may not be alive. As for Hasan, legend has made his death a poetic mystery. After hearing nothing from their leader for three days, Hasan's aides entered the room where he had spent decades. They found only a great black bird that flew out through the open door. Hasan was never seen again.

Their careers resemble each other, as, apparently, do their tastes and characters. Perhaps they even constitute a type, one constructed of particular proportions of purity, poetry, and murder. But the most interesting echo involves their relationship with their followers, and the willingness of these followers to die on their leaders' orders. In Hasan's case, this once-mysterious power led to the development of one of history's most enduring myths. It's a striking story, and though it is a millennium old, it may lead to bin Laden's future.

According to Marco Polo and others, Hasan gained mortal control over his men through drugs, especially hashish. Political murder was their specialty, and they committed it publicly, often when their victim was at a mosque or was otherwise the center of attention. Such murders often occurred after weeks or months of meticulous planning, subterfuge, and patient waiting. Having killed daringly, they identified themselves and their cause before everyone present, and waited to be killed in turn. Only drugs, it seemed, could account for such behavior.

The more exotic versions of the Hasan myth combine the use of drugs with an amazing garden of delights, built by Hasan and filled by him with fruit and fragrance, flowing literally with milk and honey, and populated with attentive, dark-eyed houris. To demonstrate his power, Hasan would supposedly drug initiates and then place the sleeping men in this garden. They would awake to think themselves in Paradise. When, days later, they were again asleep, he removed them, promising that they would return to Paradise only through honorable death in his service.

Of course, we know very well today why Hasan's men faced death as they did. The rise of Islamic martyrology in modern times has helped reveal the sources of Hasan's power. But it is only with bin Laden's acts that Westerners have again begun to regard the phenomenon in terms of its supposed "daring," and to appreciate such self-destruction in terms of transcendence. But that is only the beginning of this story.

The tale of the paradisiacal garden actually had adherents among Western academics as recently as the 1930s. The belief that Hasan controlled his men through hashish still has popular currency, even though hashish is surely one of the last drugs one would give an agent on one of Hasan's extended missions. Indeed, since the 19th century it has been a matter of received wisdom that the common Western name for the Isma'ili sect, the Assassins—and thus our own word assassin—derived from hashishin, or "hashish users."

This string of connections is now in bad odor, and such eminent historians as Farhad Daftary, the leading authority on the Isma'ilis, now argue that the very use of the term "Assassins" to describe Isma'ilis is an example of exoticizing Orientalism (though the charge of hashish use originated among the sect's Sunni foes). But "Assassins" may be just what Hasan called his followers, for reasons that have nothing to do with hashish, but which may have something to do with bin Laden.

Amin Maalouf, the journalist, novelist, and writer of history, has suggested that "Assassins" derives from Assassiyun, meaning those who are "faithful to the Assass," the faith's "foundation." The connection is at least as plausible as any of the numerous other derivations that have been offered for "Assassins." As it happens, it is also remarkably close to a concept that Osama bin Laden was to apply to his own organization.

"Al Qaeda" is often translated as "the foundation," too. The two words are not interchangeable; a better translation for al qaeda may be "the base." But given what else these two men seem to have in common, the conceptual link is worth pondering.

Finally, what can Hasan's legacy reveal about bin Laden's future? Hasan Sabbah may have been a puritan ascetic who terrorized his contemporaries in the name of revealed truth. Yet in the end, his career set the stage for the single most dramatic illumination of Islam's modernist potential.

Hasan's stronghold was eventually overrun by Mongol invaders, scattering the Isma'ili populace. The group lived for centuries in relative obscurity. Since the 19th century, however, Isma'ilis under the leadership of the community's hereditary Imam, the spiritual leader who bears the title of the Aga Khan, have emerged as Islam's most assimilationist and modernist community. (The current Aga Khan, 49th in the line, lives on an estate in France; his flamboyant father Aly Khan was once married to Rita Hayworth.) The Isma'ilis of the Indian subcontinent, the United Kingdom, North America, and East Africa are a remarkably prosperous and well-educated group that exhibits complete religious tolerance, supports liberal politics and economics, and is willing to invest heavily in these principles.

Indeed, Hasan's sectarian descendants have underwritten small business ventures throughout the undeveloped world. They recently established a secular University of Central Asia intended to benefit everyone in the region, including their many poor co-religionists there. The source of a long series of enlightened initiatives from agriculture to art exhibits is the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network, supported by investment and tithing; it may be best known in the West for its valued architecture prize.

Is such modernity also the eventual destiny of the puritan Wahabis? It may seem unlikely, but one could argue that such a transition could already be underway. Saudi Arabia's clerics originally rejected telephones and other technology until they were shown that phones could be used to transmit the Koran. The country is by now dependent on such tools of modernity, and subject to their subversions. Beyond technology, Saudi Arabia has established judicial institutions that operate outside such Koranic economic prohibitions as those involving interest and insurance. The kingdom's participation in the outside world has left it no choice; without such institutions, it could not support the economy made possible by its wealth, nor use that wealth to spread its influence. Yet it is nonetheless in a bind: The very wealth it uses to export its fundamentalist beliefs derives from institutions and tools that tend to undermine those beliefs.

Militant Islamism itself may be operating in a similar bind. As Daniel Pipes has argued, this form of Islamism is built anachronistically on such modernist analogues as fascist and communist totalitarianism. Bin Laden's own war against modernity required him to exploit his own satellite-phone using, video-producing modernity. It may be that the war against the modern can be fought only on modernist terms. It thus emerges as a futile battle that one must lose in principle even if one were to win in battle.

Osama bin Laden and the shadow of Hasan Sabbah passed each other recently. As Al Qaeda was being driven into hiding in Afghanistan, the Aga Khan pledged $75 million in tithed Isma'ili wealth for that country's reconstruction. As bin Laden's fighters took cover in the caves of Tora Bora, the Isma'ili leader cited "the right of each individual to the interpretation of his faith without coercion" and "the need to revive or create new competent, stable, transparent and accountable institutions" in a nation cleansed of Al Qaeda. Even as Wahabi believers used modernity to multiply the terror of blood that was invented by Hassan, Hassan's distant sectarian descendents were recognizing the meaning and opportunity of the modern world. Modernity, the Isma'ili Imam appeared to suggest, is a necessary foundation; it is the inevitable Assass.