The Birth of Terror


Arts & Culture

View of Alamut Castle, Hasan-i Sabbah’s fortress. Photo: Alireza Javaheri (CC by 3.0 (

For we who are living at this moment, the most exact and most acute sensation is one of not knowing where we are treading from day to day. The ground is brittle, lines blur, materials fray, prospects waver. Then we realize more clearly than before that we are living in the “unnamable present.”

—The Ruin of Kasch

In the years between 1933 and 1945 the world made a partially successful attempt at self-destruction. What came after was shapeless, rough, and powerful. In this new millennium, it is shapeless, rough, and ever more powerful. Elusive in every single aspect, the opposite of the world that Hegel had sought to grasp in the grip of concept. Even for scientists it is a shattered world. It has no style of its own but uses every style.

This state of things may even seem exciting. But it excites only sectarians, convinced that they hold the key to what is going on. The others—most—have to adapt. They follow the advertising. Taoist fluidity is the least common virtue. One is continually assailed by the contours of an object that nobody has ever managed to see in its entirety. This is the normal world.

The Age of Anxiety was the title W. H. Auden gave to a long poem for several voices, set in a New York bar toward the end of World War II. Today those voices sound remote, as though they came from another valley. There’s no shortage of anxiety but it no longer prevails. What prevails is a ubiquitous lack of substance, a deadly insubstantiality. It is the age of the insubstantial.


Terror is founded on the idea that only killing guarantees meaning. All else seems feeble, uncertain, inadequate. On that foundation are built the various motivations used to justify the act of terror. And connected also to that foundation, in an obscure way that involves a metaphysical element, is blood sacrifice. As if, from age to age and in widely different places, there were some compelling and irrepressible need to perform killings that might otherwise seem gratuitous and unreasonable. An ominous mirror-like resemblance between the origins and the present today. A hexed mirror.


Islamic terrorism is sacrificial: in its perfect form, the victim is the bomber. Those who are killed in the attack are the beneficial fruit of the killer’s sacrifice. At one time, the fruit of the sacrifice was invisible. The whole ritual machine was conceived to establish contact and interchange between the visible and the invisible. Now, instead, the fruit of the sacrifice has become visible, measurable, photographable. Like missiles, the sacrificial attack is aimed at the sky, but falls to earth. And so there’s a prevalence of attacks by suicide bombers who blow themselves up. Or in any event, the attackers are expected to end up getting killed. Setting off some remotely controlled explosion obfuscates the sacrificial nature of the attack.

The prime enemy of Islamic terrorism is the secular world, preferably in its collective forms: tourism, entertainment, offices, museums, bars, department stores, public transport. The fruit of the sacrifice will not just be many killings, but will have a wider effect. Like every sacrificial practice, Islamic terrorism is founded on meaning. And that meaning is interlinked with other meanings, all converging on the same motive: a hatred of secular society.


In the latest stage of its formation, Islamic terrorism coincides with the spread of online pornography in the nineties. What had always been dreamt of and desired was suddenly there to be seen, easily and always available. At the same time, it tore away the whole structure of their rules relating to sex. If that negation was possible, everything had to be possible. The secular world had invaded their mind with something irresistible, which attracted them and at the same time mocked and undermined them. Without the use of weapons—and, moreover, without assuming or needing the presence of meaning. But they would go further. And beyond sex, there is only death. A death stamped with meaning.


Since the time of Sergey Nechayev we have known that terror can take other paths. It was then called nihilistic terror. Today an alternative version of it can be conceived: secular terror. Understood as a simple procedure, available therefore for all kinds of fundamentalism, which would each give it a specific coloring for their own ends. Or for individuals, who can thus give vent to their own obsessions.

The power that stirs terrorism and makes it so vexing is not the power of religion, or politics, or economics, or the furtherance of some cause. It is the power of chance. Terrorism exposes the hitherto untarnished power that rules everything and lays bare its foundation. At the same time it is an eloquent way of revealing the immense expanse of all that surrounds society and ignores it. Society had to reach the point of feeling self-sufficient and supreme before chance could emerge as its principal antagonist and persecutor.


Secular terror first seeks to escape from its sacrificial compulsion. To cross to pure murder. The result of the operation has to seem totally fortuitous and scattered in anonymous corners. It will then seem clear that chance is the ultimate sponsor of these acts. What is more frightening: the significant killing or the casual killing? Answer: the casual killing. Because chance is more widespread than significance. In front of significant killing, what is insignificant can feel protected by its own insignificance. But in front of the casual killing, what is insignificant finds itself particularly vulnerable, precisely because of its own insignificance. In the end, terror no longer needs a collective instigator. Instigator and perpetrator can be one and the same person. He can be a solitary individual, no less than a state or a sect, obeying one self-imposed commandment: to kill.

Significant terrorism is not the ultimate but the penultimate form of terrorism. The ultimate is casual terrorism, the form of terrorism that most corresponds to the god of the moment.


In its first issue of September 2016, Rumiyah (“Rome”), the ISIS multilingual online magazine that replaced Dābiq, indicated the path of casual terrorism in an article titled “The Kafir’s Blood Is Halal for You, So Shed It.” And it delved into detail, offering a prime list of possible targets: “The businessman riding to work in a taxicab, the young adults (post-pubescent ‘children’) engaged in sports activities in the park, and the old man waiting in line to buy a sandwich. Indeed, even the blood of the kafir street vendor selling flowers to those passing by is halal.” There are no distinctions of class or age, except for the case of the young athlete, who must be post-pubescent.


The figure of the suicide killer is certainly not a recent invention. In Islam, it began with Hasan-i Sabbah, the “Old Man of the Mountain” of whom Marco Polo writes, a figure whose legend grew around that of the Ismailite strategist who for years had hatched conspiracies from the fortress of Alamut. According to contemporary sources he was strict, austere, cruel, and reclusive. According to Marshall Hodgson, the most authoritative historian on the sect: “He is said to have remained continuously within his house, writing and directing operations—as it is always put, during all those years he went only twice out of his house, and twice onto the roof.” Meanwhile, envoys of the Old Man of the Mountain, scattered around the Seljuk kingdom that Hasan-i Sabbah was seeking to destroy, killed powerful men, generally with daggers, before getting themselves killed. They were fida’iyyan, “those who sacrifice themselves” or “assassins,” a word that meant “consumers of hashish,” as Paul Pelliot has definitively proved.

Two centuries later, when the fortress of Alamut was a ruin, destroyed a few years before by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan, and the sect of the Assassins was just a memory, someone told Marco Polo the story of the Old Man of the Mountain. Odoric of Pordenone would repeat it, unvaried, several years later.

According to both, the Old Man of the Mountain “had made, in a valley between two mountains, the most beautiful and the largest garden in the world.” And “in it were noble youths and damsels, the most beautiful in the world, who best knew how to sing and play and dance. And the Old Man had them believe that this was paradise.” But there was one condition: “In this garden no one entered except those he wanted to be an assassin.”

When the Old Man chose to send someone on a mission, he made him fall into a drugged stupor and sent him away from the garden. “And when the Old Man wants to have any person killed, he chooses the one who is strongest, and has him kill the one he wishes. And they do so willingly, so as to return to paradise … And in this way no man survives before the Old Man of the Mountain, if he so wishes it; and I tell you he causes dread among many kings for that fear.”

The Old Man of the Mountain had given his guests the taste of paradise. Centuries later, it would be enough to offer the assurance that paradise is reserved for martyrs of the jihad and is brimming with pleasures, as is written in the Koran. But first it was necessary to discover the pleasure of death.


The Old Man of the Mountain, as he appears in Joinville and other medieval chronicles, was a well-known and legendary presence, like Prester John. It was assumed the reader knew who he was. But it was clearer to Nietzsche than to anyone else. “When the Christian Crusades fought with that invincible order of Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest grades lived in an obedience such as no monastic order has ever attained, they managed to get some inkling of that symbol and that motto carved on wood, which was reserved only for the highest grades, as their secretum: ‘Nothing is true, everything is allowed’ … Well now, this was spiritual freedom, in this way belief in truth itself was cancelled … Has a European, Christian free spirit ever managed to lose itself in this proposition and its labyrinthine consequences?”


“Nothing is true, everything is allowed”: where had Nietzsche read that fateful phrase? In Geschichte der Assassinen, a dense, ambitious, and invaluable work, published just after the Congress of Vienna and unanimously disparaged by later Islamologists. Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall had written: “That nothing is true and everything is allowed remained the foundation of the secret doctrine, which was communicated, however, to very few and hidden under the veil of the strictest religiosity and devotion, all the more since worldly submission and self-sacrifice were sanctioned with a reward of eternal glorification.”


The epigraph to Betty Bouthoul’s Le Vieux de la Montagne, a book from which William S. Burroughs found his obsession for Hasan-i Sabbah, contains a few lines from Nicolas de Staël, who had killed himself three years earlier:

“Murder and suicide, inseparable and so distant at first view …”

“Murder, projected shadow of suicide, which incessantly blur like two clouds that are immaterial and atrociously alive …”

“To kill getting killed … ”


Conspiracy is born with history. So also the phantom of a hidden center that governs events. Suicide attackers are traced back to Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, who is traced back to Hasan-i Sabbah in the fortress of Alamut. There are some forms that don’t die out. They change, they become filled and emptied of meaning according to the circumstances. But one subtle thread always binds them to their origins.

—Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon


Roberto Calasso is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and the author of many books. The Unnamable Present is the ninth part of a work in progress that currently includes The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, La Folie Baudelaire, Ardor, and The Celestial Hunter (forthcoming from FSG). He has also written Literature and the Gods, The Forty-Nine Steps, and The Art of the Publisher, and is the editor of The Zürau Aphorisms, by Franz Kafka.

Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. His translations from the Italian include The Ruin of Kasch, Ardor, and The Art of the Publisher, by Roberto Calasso, and The Prague Cemetery and Numero Zero, by Umberto Eco. He is one of the translators of FSG’s edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.

© 2017 by Adelphi Edizioni S.p.A. Milano. Translation copyright © 2019 by Richard Dixon. Excerpted from The Unnamable Present (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 9, 2019).