One man’s terrorist is another man’s herbalist, Ali Reza Safari said, leaning against a wall of the ancient castle that illustrates his point.
From the daunting fortification that looms over the valley here, a ruler named Hassan Sabah 900 years ago dispatched young men who believed so ardently in his vision of Islam that they gave up their own lives in order to snuff out those of their enemies. Hassan Sabah’s sect first defined the word “assassin.”
But in recent years, scholars have seized on the way Hassan Sabah managed to make fear a weapon in itself. Using stealth, discipline and patience, his small group of fanatics spooked governments into restricting the entry of camel caravans, among other immigration barriers.
“They may well be the world’s first terrorists,” wrote Bernard Lewis, a Middle East scholar and Princeton University professor emeritus.
“I am illiterate,” said Safari, 75, gazing diplomatically at the ground before him. “I haven’t read any books. What I know I heard from my father and grandfather.
“Hassan Sabah was a good man,” he declared. “He helped the poor. He planted herb gardens. And because he was a saint, he could make the medicine himself. He treated everybody.”
When it comes to terrorism, perspective is almost everything in Iran.
The Islamic government that rules this country routinely rates as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism in the State Department annual report. Iran rejects the label and insists the organizations that it supports, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, are resistance groups.
And if that distinction often ends up lost in the bloody debris, in recent years Iran has nonetheless taken conspicuous pains to shed its radical image. It arrested al Qaeda operatives from neighboring Afghanistan who had found refuge here, discontinued attacks on U.S. targets and, earlier this year, erased from street signs the name of the man who assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981.
So heads turned this month when the Army of Martyrs of the International Islamic Movement made its public debut.
The group, which claims to be private, began gathering the signatures of Iranians who would be willing to become suicide bombers. So far, the group says, 15,000 people have completed a one-page form headed “Preliminary Registration for Martyrdom Operations.” The form has space for a phone number and asks applicants to indicate whether they would prefer to explode themselves against U.S. forces in sacred Shiite Muslim cities in Iraq or Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories, or to kill Salman Rushdie, the author who went into hiding for years after a religious edict demanded his death for mocking Islam in his book “The Satanic Verses.”
Mohammad Ali Samadi, the group’s spokesman, said he believed the number of volunteers “could rise to a million, and we have serious concerns about our capacity to support that many people.”
The gravity of this threat is widely questioned here.
Diplomats, Iranian analysts and — when pressed — even Samadi acknowledge that the Army of Martyrs movement exists chiefly for public relations. The group solicited news coverage when U.S. troops were pursuing insurgents in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, the two most sacred cities in Shiite Islam, the official religion of Iran. But as the troops receded, so did what Samadi called the “sensitivity” of the Iranian public.
“By threatening them, we wanted to remind the Americans of the potential we have against them,” Samadi said from behind a desk in Tehran where he was, at times, clearly bored to be giving yet another interview. Three young associates sat in, occasionally suggesting talking points.
“The core of this organization,” Sadami said, “is writers.”
Still, the group’s public emergence was widely noted in Iranian political circles, where it was taken as particularly vivid evidence that religious conservatives were in firm control once again.
“There’s no way this could have happened six months ago,” said Saeed Laylaz, a reform economist and analyst.
Since reformist candidates were disqualified from parliamentary elections last February and hard-liners swept to power, the only question has been how hard of a line they will adopt. The Army of Martyrs is seen as a sign, having thrust itself onto a public stage already featuring a revival of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Revolutionary Guard has long been the primary bastion and incubator of hard-line resolve here. Formed by the Muslim clerics who came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution distrusting the army left behind by the monarchy, it has its own divisions, intelligence branch, prisons and responsibilities ranging from disaster response to, according to diplomats here, supervision of Iran’s shadowy nuclear program.
It is also increasingly visible in politics.
Several dozen former pasdaran, as the Revolutionary Guards are known in the Persian language, were sworn into parliament last month on the slate approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as supreme leader holds ultimate authority in Iran’s theocratic system. Khamenei recently named a retired Revolutionary Guard chief to head state television and radio, one of the most powerful positions in government.
Last month, the Revolutionary Guard took over a new international airport near Tehran only hours after it opened. A public statement had called the hiring of a Turkish firm to operate Imam Khomeini International Airport a threat to “the security of the country as well as its dignity.” The airport has remained shuttered.
“I think the airport thing was very significant,” a foreign diplomat here said. “It had the form of a coup. I think it was the IRGC saying publicly, ‘We can do what we want.’ . . . The question is whether they’re pressing their own agenda or doing Khamenei’s bidding.”
Others are more sanguine. Calling the Revolutionary Guard a “maturing” organization, another diplomat noted the restraint it had shown in Iraq, where it is the lead Iranian agency. But at a June 2 public conference, a brigadier in the guards lauded the effectiveness of “martyrdom operations,” citing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States as tactical operations that produced far-reaching strategic results, according to Iranian media accounts. But any formal link between the Revolutionary Guard and the Army of Martyrs is denied by both the government and Samadi.
Samadi said the Army of Martyrs was formed to protest a visible slackening in revolutionary zeal. A photo of flag-draped U.S. coffins decorates his office wall, beside a portrait of a Palestinian suicide bomber and her infant daughter. A third photo shows Khaled Eslamboli firing an automatic weapon at Sadat’s reviewing stand during a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981. Samadi said the group’s first act was a protest against dropping Eslamboli’s name from street signs.
“We realized this was the initial step toward creating a gap between the revolutionary Iranians and other Muslims in other parts of the world, especially those fighting the Israelis in Palestine,” he said.
Like many Islamic militants, Samadi describes suicide bombings as asymmetrical warfare, a military tactic that levels the battlefield between a technologically superior army and an oppressed population. He lamented that Iran is rarely credited with pioneering the form by sending car and truck bombs against the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in the early 1980s. When a reporter observed that Iran appeared to have forsaken the practice since a truck bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 was traced to Iranian agents, the spokesman smiled.
“The U.S. has not really recognized that we have successfully transferred a good method of resistance to other countries,” he said. “We do not have to mount foreign operations ourselves.”
And yet, he said, Osama bin Laden threatens to give martyrdom operations a bad name. “What’s the point of blowing up a civilian train in Spain, or the U.S. embassies in Africa where a lot of Africans are killed?”
The Army of Martyrs wants nothing to do with Hassan Sabah’s Assassins, either. “The nature of the things they did is quite in line with what Osama bin Laden is carrying out,” Samadi said.
No such talk is heard in Alamut, northwest of Tehran. “If Hassan Sabah was the ruler, it would be excellent,” Safari said. “God bless him.
“Really. God bless him.”