Special Reports

Suicide Killers




The London bombings were followed by the sobering discovery about the kind of Islamic terrorist that had done it : homegrown British passport holders, 'sleepers,' immigrant families; and other factors had all figured and have filled many newspaper column inches. What is not questioned is that they are mindlessly ruthless, professionally competent, self-sacrificial. But what is also emerging more clearly than ever before is that they were adherents of a cause which links them to a small, activist and secretive cult within the Moslem faith that claims with total assurance, to speak and act and kill for God. Islam like Christianity and Judaism has many, many sub-groups within the broad spectrum of an overall faith, with little common ground between fanatics and moderates and a wide space between. The O-B-L led group, al Qaeda, is an alliance of militants, in the most violent sense, fuelled by a narrow religious resurgence of the kind that happens from time to time in all religions. They have cells, sleepers, etc; many with the common experience of military training camps in Afghanistan, of action in Chechnya, Bosnia, and now Iraq, or were indoctrinated into jihad through madrassahs in Pakistan, Yemen, or Saudi, or in the 'undergrounds' of Egypt, Syria and others.

Fanatic preachers have often occurred throughout history in all religions and from time to time have motivated violent action through their interpretation of textual slogans from ancient prophets, seers etc; as though age in itself proved veracity. 
Combined in Europe with the social dysfunction of young brown men in a white society- and perceived injustices to co-religionists overseas, all this has proved a heady mix to frustrated young men with a normal complement of 'warrior genes.' The tragedy is that this has been perverted into a concept of mujahideen, the self- sacrificing 'holy warrior'.

The provenance of the London bombers - British born descendants of Pakistani immigrants, demonstrates very clearly that they did not see themselves as serving the cause of the 'Arab nation,' as in Iraq, but as with al Qaeda, the wider universal concept of "the nation of Islam. " 

Commentators in the west have long observed that the quality of governance in the Moslem states falls far short of what is necessary for sustained economic success, let alone democratic progress. The effect has been that poverty and disillusion remains widespread and with the exception of the oil states, they have remained economically backward in a fast moving world, sidelined by emerging powers in Asia and elsewhere. All of this is to the chagrin of their intellectuals and resented by their youth, many of whom are unemployed without hope of any share of prosperity.

The distorted reaction to this by Islamic extremists, is to condemn those self-same governments for being worldly and for adopting the ways of the satanic west, demonstrably because they have a system of laws which is not Sharia law - all the law that any country needs, in their narrow concept.

The hard-core, trained to arms in the Afghan conflict to defend Islam, as they believed, were completely misread at the time by the western powers who facilitated their travel movements, their arming and military training and saw them as a group of dedicated anti-communists fighting as volunteers. This morphed into something quite different after the end of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. The defeated Russians withdrew, but the mainly Arab footsoldiers the mujahideen, of al Qaeda did not. Nationalists, regional war lords etc; took over the Afghan government but were then challenged and defeated in a civil war by a Pakistani inspired religious-based movement, the Taleban, supported in the field by al Qaeda's foreigners. This was the clearest signal that the majority of Moslems see themselves first as members of the faith and only secondly as citizens of a particular nation. Al Qaeda were the Taleban's natural allies, given their fundamentalist attitudes to the priority of their religion and its seventh/ eighth century precepts of "God's Word", above all other aspects of life.

All of this is relatively well known recent history, but something similar, which bears comparison to Al Qaeda, has happened before, some 900 years ago, first in Iran and later in the Holy Land. It too was a secretive Islamic cult, whose lethality terrorised the Moslem world. Its members were totally dedicated to their leader, they were trained and infamous for carrying out suicide missions and as such they perhaps bear comparison to today's murderous cult. They gave their name to a verb and a noun which ever since have been in constant usage throughout the world. They were of course the cult of the Assassins.

It was the crusades that brought them to the attention of the west because this cult was established first in Persia by followers of a charismatic religious leader who based his movement on the impregnable stronghold of Alamut, in remote mountains near the Caspian shore. The sect expanded to Syria and set up their main presence outside Persia there, in mountain strongholds, located often within sight of some of the crusader castles of the Christian military orders of the Temple and the Hospital. They were quite outside the mainstream of conventional Islam and despite the proximity, they scarcely impinged on the crusaders their neighbours, in what is now Lebanon and Syria. Indeed since both had every reason to fear the large numbers of Sunni from the Syrian heartland around Damascus, they collaborated as neighbours, on the principle that, "my enemy's enemy is my friend." 

The schismatic theology of the Assassins was based like many Islamic divisions, on who was the true caliph, the successor to Mahomet as leader of the faithful, but not to be confused with the earlier division centuries before, between the Sunni and the Shia. They stemmed from the Shi-ite branch so to the majority Sunni they were anyway heretical; and to the Shia themselves, they also were a heresy. They had few friends, fellow Moslems became terrified of them and the cult was their whole life. 

For a century and a half they destabilised the Moslem world of western Asia and the middle east. Their main tactic was to terrorise the leaders of the countries that made up the Moslem world at that time. They were too numerically small to fight armies in pitched battles, so they responded to that logic and found another way to survive. They developed the unanswerable tactic of murdering by stealth the top leaders that proposed to attack them. Kings and Princes and Generals became their targets, having insinuated themselves into the great men's entourages sometimes years before, and remaining under cover as 'sleepers', all skills at which they excelled. This way for more than a century, at the cost of a small number of suicidal killers, they first avoided being attacked and overwhelmed in their homeland, and then moved on to exacting tribute, effectively for NOT assassinating the neighbouring rulers.

What originally was a theological schism about competing caliphates, based on a reading of Islamic history and loyalty to one displaced and murdered caliph, developed in this way into what unmistakeably over time became a grab for temporal power. The Assassins extended their power, wealth and influence without territorial conquest, but by removing political enemies in targeted countries and maintaining a clandestine presence, permanently menacing their successors. Without large armies, without exposing their own leaders to reprisals, without occupying other people's territory, they drained the economic resources of Moslem states and principalities through annual tributes. 

Before al Qaeda surfaced into public consciousness, the long established Moslem Brotherhood and several other associated militant groups had a similar agenda. That is to replace temporal with theological government. Political behaviour in their contention is fully prescribed in the scriptures and imams, not politicians are the interpreters of those. Militancy with identical objectives is the glue that caused people of different origins and nations to bring al Qaeda together and it can be seen not to be the vehicle of O-B-L alone, nor to be the only player in the fundamentalist pack. A leading militant in Egypt was the blind cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman who twice has figured large in modern headlines. In 1981 the military ruler of Egypt, Anwar Sadat was spectacularly assassinated reviewing a military parade. It was as classical a re-run of those 11th century Assassins as can be imagined, organised by his group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Amongst the 2,500 religious zealots, soldiers and others arrested and interrogated, was Abdel-Rahman who was surprisingly acquitted, it is believed as a sop by the new president to the fundamentalists. Twelve years later in New York City the first attempt to blow up the Twin Towers was led by this man and in 1995 with nine others he was convicted . He currently sits in a federal jail, which he will not be leaving any time soon.

Another demonstration of Moslem fundamentalist activity, this time in Syria, took place at the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 and was barely reported in the western media. There the secular military government of Syria crushed a Moslem Brotherhood uprising that had taken over the city, with bombers, tanks and artillery - a Guernica of the middle east, but here up to 20,000 died. Syria has remained firmly secular ever since.

A political murder which was in terms of planning and audacity - and success, entirely on a par with the Assassins, was the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the unquestioned leader of the Northern Alliance in 2001, just two days before 9/11, surrounded by bodyguards in his secure Panshir valley stronghold. Al Qaeda operatives posing successfully as TV interviewers killed him and themselves with their explosives-laden TV camera. The beneficiaries of this, had it not been for the US entering and thereby changing the outcome of the war after 9/11, were to have been the Taleban, fighting against Massoud's Alliance for the mastery of Afghanistan. This was a classic example of a political killing to alter political and military events unrelated to religion, except that Massoud, a Moslem but not a zealot, was a competitor for power.

This should be seen as being in the mainstream of what al Qaeda are all about, just as the Moslem Brotherhood's attempted revolt in Syria and the Egyptian militants killing of Sadat. The replacement of political leadership within Moslem countries with a religious leadership of imams as the Taleban purported to be, just as their Shi-ite rivals in Iran succeeded in this after their revolution deposing the Shah of Iran in 1979.

The Shi'ite ayatollahs of Iran, the political imams of that branch of Islam give some insights into Islamic theocracy and it continues to exist albeit in a less than successful and a corrupt nation, hobbled by scriptural interpretations of policy. Its principal lesson is that the rulers operate on the basis that politics and religion are not seperate but the same, two sides of the same coin. That scripture, codified in Sharia law as interpreted by priestly scholars, deals definitively with all mankind's questions as to behaviour, as to relationships, to trade, to nuclear research, to every conceivable field of human endeavour. Some kind of Sunni caliphate, possibly the objective of al-Qaeda, might be understood in exactly that way. 

Al Qaeda calls for the removal of the infidels - the unfaithful elite - in Moslem countries. They have just kidnapped and murdered the new Egyptian ambassador to Baghdad, whom they described as, "the enemy of God, the ambassador of infidels, jews and crusaders". Their determined campaign in Iraq in alliance with the displaced Baathist Sunni is aimed at the new individuals and institutions seeking to assume power after the elections, because they see that if the US and alliance forces can be pressured to withdraw - the prime objective of their western terror bombings, overthrowing a shaky government in Iraq might be do-able, as it just might be. 

Probably the most serious of all these events were the two fortunately failed assassination attempts in the past year on the life of Pakistan's leader, General Musharraf. Pakistan is known as the military -mullah state, it is a failed democracy and if Musharraf could be removed from the scene, it is not inconceivable that Islamic fanatics in that country could seize power. Nuclear armed Pakistan controlled by fundamentalists is a nightmare scenario not just for neighbouring India, but also for the world. The concept of suicide 'nuclear'bombers is then no longer an illusory threat. 

The real fundamentalist challenge is to existing temporal governments in Moslem countries where success is conceivable if not imminent. They will overthrow Moslem governments anywhere they can, with the object of creating a theocracy, with their elite providing the new rulers. They have seen the political success of the Shia in Iran and seek to replicate that for the far more numerous Sunni, not in any one political nation with western imposed boundaries, but in this concept of the nation of Islam, the revived caliphate. It is certain that their achieving power and governing in Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, or Syria, would be a top-down exercise by their hierarchy. The Taleban in Afghanistan gave a taste of what that might be like.

Western media and some politicians see them as a threat primarily to the west, because they have gratuitously attacked civilian targets in New York, Madrid and London. Although the patriotic and understandable response is that our open societies will remain open, the fact is that the strategists of Al Qaeda know, that isolated terrorist incidents are all they can bring to bear on the west. There is no possibility of anything other than achieving perhaps a terror-weariness in the west, leading to disengagement in the middle east and retrenchment in the western countries. Then the goal of taking power in existing Moslem states would by no means be impossible. These they could submit to sharia law and purge the western influences, confident that the west would still have to buy their oil . 

How to respond? Like the Assassins, they are too few to prevail in any conventional military confrontation, indeed they can only survive by avoiding confrontation with conventional military force. Apart from Afghanistan there never was a territory against which to deploy the massive firepower of the west

So how was the great evil of the Assassins swept from the face of the earth? 

Persia was invaded and conquered by the then new world power, the Mongols. The Persian Assassins sent men to kill a Mongol general and they tried the familiar and long successful tactics of seeking tribute, not to kill other Mongol leaders. They had sadly misjudged their new enemy and the Mongols resolved to destroy them by capturing their impregnable mountain fortress at Alamut. 

It was indeed impregnable to assault, so the Mongol's vast army sat down in front of it for years and starved them into surrender. They knew that this castle contained the leadership of the cult and when they had gathered the people from the surrounding countryside, they added them to the defeated garrison and then annihilated them all. The decapitation of the Assassins leadership might not have any easy parallels with the al Qaeda enemy. But one continues to wonder if 300,000 Alliance troops invading Iraq, a nation uninvolved in 9/11 and in terrorism, had instead been sent to Afghanistan and indeed Pakistan to finish the job of finding and destroying the leaderships that remain at large, whether that would not have made more sense? 

Clive Lindley Publisher - July 2005