For about two centuries, the Assassins specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public and often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison. Assassins were trained in both the art of combat and in the study of religion, believing that they were on a jihad and were religious warriors.
The Assassins were a secret order of Nizari Ismailis, a branch of Shīʿite Islam, that formed in Persia and Syria in the late 11th century (EB). Some claim that the Assassins were controlled by their first Grandmaster, Hassan-i Sabbah, by being drugged with hashish. The name Assassin might be derived from “hashashin.”
Marco Polo tells of how Assassins were recruited. After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants in which they would awaken. Here, they were told by an old man that they were witnessing Paradise and that should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the Nizari cause.
Another story goes that Hassan al-Sabah set up a trick to make it appear as if he had decapitated one of his hashashin and the “dead” hashashin’s head lay at the foot of his throne. It was actually one of his men buried up to his neck covered with blood. He invited his hashashin to speak to it. He said that he used special powers to allow it to communicate. The supposed talking head would tell the hashashin about paradise after death if they give all their full hearts to the cause. After the trick was played, Hassan had the man killed and his head placed on a stake to cement the deception.
I was struck by how little things have changed. Terrorists today
– are reported to use drugs before committing their acts of terror
– are promised paradise, complete with virgins (Or is it grapes? http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/04/opinion/martyrs-virgins-and-grapes.html)
– claim that they are religious warriors on a jihad
The major difference is that Assassins targeted religious, political and military leaders, whereas today’s terrorists attack common people. (There is probably a tactical debate within terrorist organizations about which is more effective in the long run.)
(Source for most information: Wikipedia)