The horrendous actions of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo when they viciously murdered Royal Fusiliers Drummer, Lee Rigby, have caused a huge amount of public outrage over the crime and appropriate expression of sympathy to members of our Armed Services.
I remember Woolwich Barracks quite well. I attended my first interviews to join the Army there in 1975. My father was a Corporal in the Royal Fusiliers at the end of WWII.
Like many others, I found it both disturbing and confusing that both the attackers waited for police to arrive on the scene, photographed what they had done and posed for cameras and videos with members of the public who were at the scene. I also found it strange that as supposed ‘terrorists’ they attacked no other people than Drummer Rigby and actually allowed people to attend to him where he lay dead, or dying, in the street.
The actions of the attackers reminded me of something I had read about many years ago, something about assassins, where the expression first came from and I realised that the actions of these two murderers seemed to be consistent with a type of Islamic doctrine that dates back to the 11th Century.
At this time, a popular devotee of Islam, called Hassan i Sabbah, used his fame and wealth to found an order called the Assassins. It is said that he did this for his own political and personal gain, and to create a means to maintain that position through the use of fear and violence.
Sabbah, who died in 1124, fought with other Muslims and invading Crusaders from Europe. He set up a fortress at Alamut, now in north-western Iran and then employed his highly trained agents to intimidate local populations. The members of Sabbah’s agency of Assassins had a hierarchy which ranged from the high-ranking ‘Propagandists’ through the middle ranking ‘Rafiqs’ or ‘Companions’, down to the ‘Lasiqs’ who were trained as killers and who were later called the ‘Fida’i’ , the self-sacrificing agents.
There was mystery at the time as to how Sabbah was able to persuade the Fida’i to sacrifice their own lives for his causes and to obey his will without question. It was said that Sabbah used to drug his followers with hashish and then show them a garden paradise filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants that awaited them. He would then claim that only he had the means to enable them to return to the known world and that, should they be killed while doing his will that their destiny would be to return to the garden paradise. It was believed that Sabbah was possessed of magical powers that enabled him to do this, a belief that caused his follows to obey his will without question.
Another trick used to convince his trainees was to bury a member of the Fida’i up to his neck in the ground at the foot of the leader’s throne. The exposed head of the man would then be covered with blood. Pupil Fida’i would be invited to speak to the head of the ‘dead’ assassin and Sabbah would then use his special powers to enable the head to talk back to the assembled listeners. The talking head would then tell the assembled Fida’i about the paradise that awaited them after death if they gave their all to the cause.
After the pupils had departed, Sabbah would have the poor actor killed, he would be beheaded, and then his head would be placed on a stake in order that the pupils might be reminded that they had indeed been allowed an audience with a Fida’i who was now in paradise.
Using the Fida’i, Sabbah began to order killings of rival politicians and military leaders. These Assassins, as they became known, were taught to only kill their target and not to attack ordinary citizens to whom they tended not to be hostile. They were trained in the art of combat and in the study of religion, all believing that they were on a ‘jihad’ and were religious warriors.
To reach their targets, the Fida’i had to be both cunning and resourceful. They were generally young as many attacks required them to demonstrate physical strength and stamina. Many were recruited from enemy countries where their familiarity with the language and customs would enable them to infiltrate more easily.
Murders of religious and political adversaries were usually conducted in full view of the public, so as to instill terror in their foes. Civilians were never targeted, the argument being that it would cause strife and discord and lead to the ruination of the reputation that the Fida’i had created for itself.
Assassinations were mostly carried out using a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison. Sometimes, the target would not be killed, the desired objective being achieved by leaving a note, together with a dagger, in a place such as a personal bedroom, where the ‘victim’ would know what could have happened should the assassin have desired it.
Almost all Fida’i attacks were suicide missions, particularly if the target were to die in a public place. But in no circumstances were the attackers allowed to commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors.
At their peak, many assassination type murders of the day were attributed to the Fida’i. Other factions, including the Crusaders, used such methods, but the fact that the Fida’i operated in public and often in broad daylight, brought them a special reputation.
The Assassins were finally killed off by the Mongol Empire, when their home at Alamut was destroyed in the 13th Century. But the ideas Sabbah created, the methodology behind such murders and the idea of a paradise that awaited those that participated still exists into modern times.
I would never be minded to suggest that this serves in any way to explain the horrendous actions of these two murderers at Woolwich. But the coincidence, as to the way the Fida’i were taught and the way that these two men acted, I find inescapable.