Tag Archives: Nooradeen az-Zangi

Syria’s Many Moderate Rebels

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 30, 2015

A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.

Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015

Rebels from the Southern Front in northwest Deraa, March 2015

In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:

Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.

This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.

Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shi’a jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? It isn’t true, as I recently made clear in a paper for The Henry Jackson Society. Continue reading

Islam’s First Terrorists

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 24, 20151. The Assassins (book)

Book Review: The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967) by Bernard Lewis

This review can be read in six parts: one, two, three, fourfive, and six.

Abstract

The fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated during a civil war that his supporters, Shi’atu Ali (Followers of Ali), lost to the Umayyads, who thereafter moved the capital to Damascus. The Shi’a maintained that the Caliphate should have been kept in the Prophet’s family; over time this faction evolved into a sect unto themselves, which largely functioned as an official opposition, maintaining its claim to the Caliphate, but doing little about it. Several ghulat (extremist) Shi’a movements emerged that did challenge the Caliphate. One of them was the Ismailis. Calling themselves the Fatimids, the Ismailis managed to set up a rival Caliphate in Cairo from the mid-tenth century until the early twelfth century that covered most of North Africa and western Syria. A radical splinter of the Ismailis, the Nizaris, broke with the Fatimids in the late eleventh century and for the next century-and-a-half waged a campaign of terror against the Sunni order from bases in Persia and then Syria. In the late thirteenth century the Nizaris were overwhelmed by the Mongols in Persia and by the Egyptian Mameluke dynasty which halted the Mongol invasion in Syria. The Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris became known as the Assassins, and attained legendary status in the West after they murdered several Crusader officials in the Levant. Attention has often turned back to the Assassins in the West when terrorist groups from the Middle East are in the news, but in the contemporary case of the Islamic State (ISIS) the lessons the Nizaris can provide are limited. Continue reading

Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 6

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 22, 2015

This is the final part of a six-part series. Read parts one, two, three, four, and five, or read the whole essay.

Masyaf fortress, the headquarters of the Nizari Ismailis (The Assassins) in Syria

Masyaf fortress, the headquarters of the Nizari Ismailis (The Assassins) in Syria

Conclusion

The Nizari Ismailis did not invent assassination, of course; only lent it their name. The Ismailis were “part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginnings of Islam … of popular and emotional cults in sharp contrast with the learned and legal religion of the established order.” Still, the Nizaris did rely on the Holy Law. The ideal of Islamic governance might be authoritarian, but it is not arbitrary; if a ruler crosses the shari’a it becomes a duty to resist. This element became gradually more marginal as the religion formed into a State and Empire, but it was there and many other sects had called on it in their opposition to the prevailing regimes. The Nizaris were the first to call up this tradition of righteous rebellion and combine it with an effective opposition organization.

In their use of conspiracy, assassination, and even the ceremonial nature of the murders and the weapon-cult, the Assassins were hardly unique. But they might well be the first terrorists: those who, at an overwhelming disadvantage in conventional terms, used unconventional means in a planned, long-term campaign of targeted violence as a political weapon with the intention of overturning the established order. Continue reading

Islam’s First Terrorists, Part 3

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 19, 2015

This is the third of a six-part series. Read parts one and two.

Masyaf fortress, eastern Hama, the headquarters of the Assassins (1141-1270)

Masyaf fortress, eastern Hama, the headquarters of the Assassins (1141-1270)

The death of Hassan-i Sabbah and The Resurrection

Rashid ad-Din Sinan

Rashid ad-Din Sinan

Hassan-i Sabbah, the Nizaris’ first and most successful leader, died in May 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah was a fanatic who sternly imposed the Holy Law—even executing one of his own sons for drinking wine and another son (mistakenly) for an unauthorized assassination. An extreme ascetic and recluse, Hassan-i Sabbah left his house twice in the thirty-five years after taking Alamut. Hassan-i Sabbah’s great skill was in weaponizing the discontents of the dispossessed and refining the doctrine of al-dawa jadida (the new preaching).

Hassan-i Sabbah never claimed to be the Imam, merely the only one who knew what the Imam wanted. Hassan-i Sabbah confirmed the Ismaili doctrine as essentially authoritarian, where the believer must follow an Imam, the only source of truth, who has been appointed by god (unlike the Sunni view where the believer can choose an Imam).

The Nizaris’ history divides into essentially four parts after this: Continue reading