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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism


Tuesday, October 12, 2004
 

al Qaeda and the Assassin Cult: Fighting The Eternal War

Historical pattern could link 21st Century al Qaeda to 11th Century Nizari Assassin cult



Insignia of the Muslim Brotherhood"Thus, this struggle is not a temporary phase but an eternal state -- an eternal state, as truth and falsehood cannot co-exist on this earth. ... The eternal struggle for the freedom of man will continue until the religion is purified for God."

-- Sayyed Qutb, "Jihad in the Cause of God"

On September 11, many Americans took their first hard look at the web of extremist groups known as al Qaeda, and publishers scoured their libraries for books that could offer insight into the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism.



Many drew an immediate connection between al Qaeda and the infamous Islamic radical sect of the 11th century, the Nizaris, best known today as the Assassin cult. These early comparisons were often more glib than accurate; many glossed over important gaps that created a seemingly insurmountable gulf of history and theology between the two movements.



But a still-closer examination of the two movements reveals fascinating parallels between al Qaeda and the Assassins, even suggesting a possible path for a historical link between the two. INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger has written a four-part analysis of the topic on behalf of the Rotten.com library. The result is an intriguing hypothetical scenario that could have major implications for the War on Terrorism as it is understood today.



Part I: Secret Agents of Islam



A look at an al Qaeda operation in motion. A lot can be learned from the techniques and organizations that supported al Qaeda's infiltration of the United States in the early 1990s, examining the behavior and movements of operatives and leaders like Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ayman al-Zawahiri.





Part II: Mind Control And Murder Cults



The operational structure of al Qaeda bears remarkable similarities to the secret society model used by the Assassins, according to intelligence gathered over the last few years from prisoner interrogations and thousands of recovered documents. A deep comparison of the two organizations yields important insights into how al Qaeda's structure insulates it from conventional attacks.



Part III: al Qaeda as Ecumenical Outreach



A key objection to comparing al Qaeda to the Assassin cult is theological: al Qaeda is primarily a Sunni Muslim organization; the Assassins were Shi'ites. But the history of each group is entwined with practices designed to obscure the real beliefs of members, including cooperation among normally competing factions.



Part IV: Then and Now; the Missing Link



The preceding chapters look at the parallels between the Assassins of the 11th Century and al Qaeda in the 21st, but they do not suggest a historical narrative linking the two movements. Part IV of this series examines a example of how a concrete historical link could someday be drawn between the Assassins and al Qaeda's modern killers.



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BOOKS

"...smart, granular analysis..."

ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

More on ISIS: The State of Terror

"...a timely warning..."

Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

More on Jihad Joe

ABOUT

INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.

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