The Hashashin, also spelled Hashashiyyin or Hashshashin, were a radical sect within the Nizari Ismaili branch of Shi'i Islam. They formed during the 11th century and lasted until the 13th century. The group came to be known as something of an assassin's cult, a reputation they earned by their habit of covertly gaining access to high-profile political targets before murdering them in broad daylight. As a result, some believe that the word "assassin" originated from the name of this sect, a connection that's not difficult to make in light of their legendary brutality. The order was headquartered in Alamut, located in the Alborz Mountains of Persian Iran, and from this strategic center, they spread their operations out over various regions in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
Toward the end of the 11th century, Ismaili leader Hassan al-Sabah formed his assassin's group, primarily as a counter-movement to al-Musta'li, the new caliph of the Egyptian Fatimid Empire. The empire had undergone a political coup, through which the ailing Caliph's younger son, al-Musta'li, was appointed the new ruler. The rightful heir apparent, al-Musta'li's older brother Nizār, was subsequently killed in an attempt to wrest back control of the empire. Hassan had been a supporter of Nizār, and this episode is the reason why the Hashashin have also been called the Nizari.
In one of their first major developments, the group captured Alamut. The city was located on the peak of Alah Amut, which some believe means "Eagle's Nest." Alamut served as an ideal hill fortress for Hassan and his followers, offering a barracks, training center and hideout all in one.
For the next two centuries, the Hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public, so as to instill more terror in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison.
Due to being immensely outnumbered in enemy territory, the sect tended to specialize in covert operations. Sleeper agents would often assimilate themselves in the towns and regions of their targets and, over time, stealthily insert themselves into strategic positions. They didn’t always assassinate their targets, however, preferring at times to try threatening an enemy into submission. This could sometimes be accomplished with a dagger and a threatening note placed on an enemy's pillow. The assassin group was indeed feared enough that these threats were often taken seriously, as in the case when Saladin, the Muslim Sultan of Egypt and Syria, made an alliance with them to avoid more assassination attempts.
The history of the Hashashin is muddled with colorful legends that some experts regard as mere myth. For example, in Marco Polo's account of the sect, he described recruits being given hashish, or cannabis, as a controlling agent. When the young men awoke from the drug, they'd find themselves surrounded by beautiful women in a luscious garden. Polo said these men were given whatever they desired and, within this drug-induced paradise, the leaders could command anything of the men. This account led many to believe the Islamic sect used cannabis, but the authenticity of this claim has been questioned by scholars. Nevertheless, some still speculate whether the word hashish originated from the name of the group.
By the 13th century, the group was fighting for its survival. At one point, it even reached out to Christian crusaders, offering to convert to Christianity in exchange for an alliance that would help ensure their safety, but the deal ultimately failed. Weakened in 1257 by a Mongol attack that destroyed their fortress at Alamut, the group was wiped out by Mamluk Sultan Baibars about a decade later.