TCS Daily

Remember the Alamaut

By Russell Seitz - June 5, 2003 12:00 AM

You have to hand it to the French - they produce some mighty interesting historians.

How would Fernand Braudel (whose long vu of history earned him the reputation of the mightiest hedgehog of them all) or a shrewd political observer like Raymond Aron construe the failure of the media to take a longer view of the problem of escalating terror?

After all, animus, madness, and ideology, not strategy, has underlain most of the assassination attempts of the last century. Today's terrorists prefer anonymous victims, attacked at random, or en masse, and deploy their weapons accordingly. Attacking heavily defended or relatively invulnerable targets is not a competent terrorist's cup of tea, because it is fraught with the risk of fiasco. Horrifying as the second, successful WTC attack was, the first, despite its victims, made the perpetrators into a laughingstock.

The laughter died abruptly on 9/11, but two years later, some people are beaming with schadenfreude at a spectacle of their own creation - the evaporation from sight of the CBW resources of a nation that a year ago boasted one of the world's largest standing armies. Despite the billion Rupee (or trillion Afghani) reward on his head, Osama bin Laden has proven impossible to locate for over 500 days, yet few in the media are hectoring those in charge of the hunt for him. But listen to them crow over the failure to turn up Saddam's arsenal in 50.

Very few Kurds share their amusement. Underfoot in northern Iraq lies too much of the hardest kind of evidence of Iraq's track record on weapons of mass destruction - the graves of the thousands of victims of Saddam's gas attacks. Over the border in Iran, smiles are equally rare - mustard gas burns take a long time to heal and are never forgotten. In both instances chemical weapons were deployed and used in the correct expectation that no retaliation could or would ensue. Had that deterrent threat existed, it would have been not just irrational, but historically aberrant for Saddam to have used them.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the horrors of gas attacks were elevated to a pitch of revulsion that is hard to exaggerate. One eyewitness to them, though he approved the development of even more destructive war gases - including some Iraq has confessed possessing - never, ever allowed their use, even in the face of certain defeat. This was not a matter of principle, for he is best remembered for the wholesale use of gas as an instrument of mass murder. Adolf Hitler may not have known the fear of God, but he was scared to death of choking clouds of chlorine reappearing on the battlefields of Europe or raining down on his cities from a horde of avenging B-17's.

What are historians to make of those who failed to meet even Hitler's criteria? We've seen some even greater loons aspire to smaller deeds - Aum Shin Ryu Ko's apocalyptic infatuation with sarin comes to mind. But that mad guru's stunt, like the Reverend Jim Jones and his cyanide Kool-Aid party, was in such a high register of hallucination that it belongs outside of history, in the realm of the madness of crowds. The calculated policy of an ecclesiastic polity like Al Qaeda, or a secular despot like Saddam, is another matter.

Some Islamic charismatics have taken a view of history that is very long indeed. Europe had its Hundred Years War, but only Islam can claim to have hosted a Hundred Years Siege. It began in Iran during Saladin's reign and continued until the eve of the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. The site was the mountain stronghold of one Hasan, the founder of the Shiite order that has come to be known as the Assassins. Their citadel on the mountain of Alamaut in northeastern Persia withstood the forces of the caliphs for a century, only to fall without a fight when one of Hasan's demoralized descendents fled as the Mongol forces of Hulugu the Destroyer swept down from central Asia.

Hulugu ordered the fortress of Alamaut razed, a process that took a year, so deep were its foundations. Within them he was amazed to discover sealed storerooms so vast that the provisions they contained could have sustained the defenders for several more generations. A fraction of this food sufficed to sustain the Mongol horde for the two year campaign that led to the fall of Baghdad and the Caliphate. This was not the end of the Assassins, though. The organization that had already decimated the Kurds and Crusaders, and deployed killers in the courts of King Louis Capet of France and Chengis Khan had put down deep roots in Syria, where another Assassin fortress, Al-Khaf, stands to this day.

What began in 1092 with the assassination of the illustrious Seljuq Grand Vizir Nizam-al-Mulk, rolled on for centuries thereafter. A hundred days is not time enough to harrow the deserts of Mesopotamia for the detritus of a despot's arsenal, when the stamina of terror past has been reckoned by the hundred years.

On the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration soberly warned America that the war against terror could take decades, Today, that truth is still less than two years old.

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