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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

State Department's Files On The Nizari Assassin Cult

By J.M. Berger

The State Department released four cables in response to an INTELWIRE Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the the 11th century Islamic "Assassin" cult, also known as the Nizaris.

The request was based on the Department's electronic archive of diplomatic communications and not the entire body of State Department materials, including intelligence documents and documents dated prior to 1976.

The State Department released four documents and withheld a fifth in its entirety on the basis of national security concerns. In a previous INTELWIRE FOIA request to the CIA, all documents concerning the Nizari/Assassin cult were withheld as classified on national security grounds.


This October 2005 cable from Riyadh is directed to the White House, the Secretary of State, the National Security Council, two other embassies and an "Islamic Collective" distribution group, with additional routing instructions.

The cable has been redacted almost in its entirety, at the direction of James C. Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The reasons given for the redactions include protecting national security, personal privacy and "foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources."

During the period in question, the Kingdom was in the process of being accepted into the World Trade Organization. More likely to be of significance in terms of this document, a number of discussions were taking place concerning Islamic reform and the protection of Islamic minorities in the Kingdom. The one declassified section of the document released deals with Najran, a center for Ismaili Muslims, a modern sect historically linked to the Assassin cult, but today committed to a non-violent ideology.

The State Department's 2005 report on Human Rights Practices in Saudi Arabia may shed light on the general tenor of the redacted material.
An estimated 700 thousand Sulaimani Ismailis, a subset of Shi'a Islam, live in the country, primarily in Najran. Reportedly, at least 57 Sulaimani Ismailis are still in jail following rioting in Najran in 2000. Allegedly, the government discriminated against them by prohibiting them from having their own religious books, allowing religious leaders to declare them unbelievers, denying them government employment or restricting them to lower-level jobs, and relocating them from the Southwest to other parts of the country or encouraging them to emigrate.

Shi'a Ismailis (Seveners) in Najran reportedly were charged with practicing magic; however, the Shi'a Ismailis maintained that their practice adheres to the Seveners' interpretation of Islam.

On September 17, the NGO Human Rights First Society (HRFS) reported that Ismailis in Najran paid allegiance to the king, but requested that the government provide equal employment opportunities for Ismailis and the release of the Najran prisoners. They also requested that those "exiled" from Najran after riots be allowed to return, and a university and a literary and cultural club be established in Najran to raise the level of education and awareness.

A separate report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom echoed some of these concerns:
In Saudi Arabia, charges of blasphemy continue to be used by the Saudi authorities against Muslim reformers and those members of minority Muslim groups, such as Sufis and Ismailis, who are considered to be non-conforming "deviant sects" by the Saudi government. In a recent case, a Muslim high school chemistry teacher, labeled by the prosecution as an apostate, was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to more than three years in prison and 750 lashes for talking to his students about his views on Christianity, Judaism, and the causes of terrorism. Moreover, Ismailis in the Najran region are regularly charged with practicing "sorcery" and "witchcraft" as a pretext to stifle their private religious practice.


This PDF contains three State Department cables that touch on regional historical concerns related to the Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam. The first one, dated January 1995, deals with tribal history in Oman and mentions the Assassins only in passing.

The second, dated September 2000, primarily concerns the modern Nizari Ismaili community in Pakistan. The Ismailis trace their religious lineage to the Assassin cult, but the modern incarnation is non-violent and bears little resemblance to the Assassins of lore. However, the cable -- which discusses mainstream Pakistanis suspicions toward the Ismaili minority in that country -- discusses the modern Ismaili practice of dissimulation, under a theological concept key to the historical Assassin cult which allows members of the sect to "pass" as Sunni Muslims for reasons of safety.

The third cable, dated August 2005, is a survey of Islam in Madagascar which briefly touches on its modern Nizari Ismaili population.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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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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