The Assassins, meaning the medieval esoteric Islamic order, were certainly not the first people to come up with the idea of murdering one’s political opponents–Julius Caesar and a bunch of Roman senators can verify that. But the reason why the murder of a political leader is known as an “assassination” today is because these guys were very, very good at it. It didn’t matter how powerful or famous or presumably well-protected somebody was–if the Assassins targeted him, either for death or a stern warning (which became a pretty useful tool once their reputation for killing was well-established), then they rarely failed to get to him. Consider that the order’s first well-known victim was Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), the very powerful vizier of the Seljuq Empire, whom they managed to kill in broad daylight as he was being carried on a litter, surrounded by servants and bodyguards. Many of the Assassins’ operations were carried out in such circumstances (in daylight, in public), which added to their mystique. Later, even the mighty Saladin was “convinced” to go easy on the Assassins when one of their number left scones and a poisoned dagger on his bed one night, along with a note explaining that the next time the Assassins returned, they wouldn’t bring baked goods. This was in 1176, about 16 years before the Assassins killed the then-King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat.
Perhaps a little background is in order here. The Assassins were a Shiʿa order of the Ismaʿili school, which formed in the late 11th century (Nizam al-Mulk’s murder was their big coming out party). An Ismaʿili dynasty had taken power in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria in the 10th century and established its own caliphate, the Fatimid Caliphate. Sometime in the 1080s these Ismaʿilis splintered, a common occurrence for Shiʿa groups throughout history, over a conflict within the Fatimid court. The founder of the order, Hassan-i Sabbah, got on the wrong side of the Caliph al-Mustansir’s (d. 1094) powerful military commander, the Armenian general Badr al-Jamali (d. 1094), and so he left Cairo and headed off to the east to find a place to establish his own order (he eventually settled on a castle in Alamut, in northern Iran). Part of the conflict may have been over Hassan’s open support for al-Mustansir’s eldest son, Nizar (d. 1097), because when Nizar was passed over in the succession by his brother, al-Mustaʿli (d. 1101), and eventually killed, Hassan’s movement took up his cause (in addition to “Assassins,” they’re also known as Nizari Ismaʿilis for this reason).
Hassan had relatively few followers, but they were intensely loyal and willing to take on assignments of great danger. This is possibly because they were constantly dosed with hashish, hence the name hashishiyun, which may have been the root of the word asasiyun, and hence of “Assassin.” But the hash legend seems to have been concocted by writers with anti-Assassin leanings who were trying to discredit the order, and there’s good reason to believe that the word asasiyun actually has nothing to do with hashishiyun. Because the order was so small, and dispersed among a number of castles dotted across Iran and west into Syria, their military training emphasized defensive tactics and opportunistic, targeted strikes at specific enemies–i.e., assassinations.
Of course, there are two sides to any assassination, the assassins and the assassinated, so we should talk a little here about the doomed Conrad of Montferrat.
Conrad showed up in the Crusader-held city of Tyre in the aftermath of Saladin’s victory over the main Jerusalem army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Tyre was in real danger of falling to Saladin’s advancing army when Conrad arrived, organized its defense, and shepherded it through two subsequent sieges. Conrad had no legal claim on Tyre, but after he led the charge that broke Saladin’s second siege, who was going to tell the city’s savior that he had to go? Nobody, that’s who. Conrad then refused to turn Tyre over to Guy of Lusignan (d. 1194), the titular King of Jerusalem (though he’d obviously lost Jerusalem by this point), after Guy (who was taken captive at Hattin) had been released by Saladin. Conrad’s contention, and he had a point, was the Guy never should have been King of Jerusalem in the first place. He inherited the title by marriage to King Baldwin IV’s (d. 1185) sister, Sybilla, but Baldwin’s wish was that he be succeeded by his child nephew (Sybilla’s son from a previous marriage), Baldwin V, and then (if Baldwin V died young, which he did in 1186) by a king chosen by the great monarchs of Europe (the kings of England and France and the Holy Roman Emperor). Baldwin IV laid out this succession plan specifically to keep Guy off the throne, and as Guy amply proved that he was an Idiot (read up on Hattin), you can see why Baldwin felt the way he did.
Sybilla died in 1190, while both Conrad and Guy were (uncooperatively, one assumes) besieging Acre, and in theory Guy’s claim to the throne died with her. But of course Guy wasn’t going to meekly abandon his title, and anyway there wasn’t another contender for the crown. Yet. Sybilla had a sister, Isabella, who was happily married to a man, Humphrey IV of Toron (d. 1198), who had no interest in being king. He’d been offered the crown in Guy’s stead when Baldwin V died, and promptly offered his allegiance to Guy. But Isabella was the only member of the royal family left after Sybilla died, so a group of Crusader nobles got her happy marriage annulled, against her wishes mind you, so that she could marry Conrad instead, in November 1190. Conrad was now, legally, king. But Guy was still there, and still claiming to be king himself, and now those European monarchs were heading to the Holy Land on what we now call the Third Crusade. And they promised to just add to the confusion. Guy, by virtue of his lands back in France, was a vassal of Richard the Lionheart of England (I know that doesn’t make sense, but roll with it), while Conrad, by virtue of his lands in Montferrat, France, was a vassal of Philip IV of France. Miraculously, a compromise was reached whereby Guy would remain king, for now, with Conrad as his heir.
The nobles of Jerusalem put an end to that arrangement in April 1192, when they elected Conrad king. This wasn’t a complete surprise–Guy was, at the risk of repeating myself, a dolt, and after Hattin everybody knew it–but it was a little surprising insofar as it went entirely against the wishes of Richard, who was the most powerful man in the Holy Land at this point. Richard bought the crown of Cyprus from the Knights Templar as a consolation prize for Guy. Now enter the Assassins. On April 28, while returning home, Conrad was attacked and killed by two men (one of whom was himself killed in the process) who turned out to be Assassins. He’d been king for all of four days.
The lingering question, lingering to this very day in fact, is why the Assassins attacked Conrad. The most likely answer, certainly the one that got the most credence at the time, is that they were hired by Richard. Supposedly, the Assassin who survived the attack confessed as much, though this was undoubtedly under torture so it’s unreliable at best. Later, when Richard was arrested by Leopold V of Austria while on his way home after the crusade, one of Leopold’s charges was that Richard had been responsible for Conrad’s murder. But Richard was able to produce a letter from the Assassins’ leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, that cleared him of this charge–the only problem was that Sinan was most likely dead by the time the letter was written. There are other suspects–Isabella’s first husband, Humphrey, or maybe Saladin, though Saladin had pretty good relations with Conrad–but the smart money is still on Richard. He’s further incriminated by the fact that Isabella was quickly married off to his nephew, Henry II of Champagne, who then became Henry I of Jerusalem (though he never took the title of king).
Incidentally, Conrad’s brother, Boniface (d. 1207), was the leader of the Fourth Crusade, and founded the Kingdom of Thessalonica in Greece when he was blocked from becoming the new Emperor in Constantinople.