Al Qaeda Goes Viral
Monday, June 30, 2008 at 8:20 am
In 2004, one of the most important documents in the history of Islamist terrorism began to appear on jihadist Internet forums. Serialized in Arabic over 40 installments, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call” caused a sensation within radical Islamic circles. Throughout its 1,600 pages, the book implicitly criticized Osama bin Laden while offering practical advice for aspiring jihadists preparing for a post-bin Laden version of Al Qaeda. As a barometer of its influence, one important jihadist website quickly called it “the book that needs no introduction.”
“The Global Islamic Resistance Call” was an attempt to move Al Qaeda from a small but powerful jihadist group into a banner around which the world’s Muslims would rally. It presented a surprisingly thorough critique not only of Al Qaeda but all previous jihadist efforts. It gave practical instructions for mass murder and urged readers interested in joining Al Qaeda to act independently of the formal organization. And it contended that transforming Al Qaeda from a terrorist network into a global movement of self-starters would make it impervious to U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts.
The book’s author is a Syrian-Spaniard named Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. Present at the creation of contemporary jihad — he had close ties to the legendary Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam, a mentor to bin Laden in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s — al-Suri is one of the most important contrarians and theorist-practitioners in the history of Al Qaeda. If bin Laden’s lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is analogous to V.I. Lenin, al-Suri is the jihadist Leon Trotsky: eager to pick a doctrinal fight and inject a reformist current into Al Qaeda’s operations. To U.S. counterterrorism experts, he represents a fearsome enemy: studious, adaptive and determined to stay a step ahead of the U.S. effort to destroy the jihadist movement.
Now, a new book by a Norwegian terrorism scholar seeks to introduce al-Suri to the readership that the terrorist has sworn to destroy. “Architect of Global Jihad” by Brynjar Lia, of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, both traces al-Suri’s history and — for the first time — translates many of the key sections of “The Global Islamic Resistance Call” into English. In the process, Lia presents Americans with perhaps the closest thing to a blueprint for the next wave of the jihadist movement — one in which terrorists acting in the name of Al Qaeda never have any contact with the organization begun by bin Laden.
al-Suri is as famous to terrorists as he is unknown to the general American public. Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker penned the only substantive American profile of him in 2006, but apparently only had access to portions of “The Call.” al-Suri “is highly intelligent, well read, focused, intense, no sense of humor, [and] speaks Arabic and Spanish and French, very little English” said Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation and author of two influential books about Al Qaeda. In 1997, Bergen became one of the only Western journalists to interview al-Suri. “He seemed like a real intellectual,” Bergen said, “but also a man of action.”
“Abu Musab understood quite early on the power of ideology and its limitations,” Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore’s International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research said in an e-mail. “Without having operational contact, Abu Musab knew that through sustained propaganda groups such as Al Qaeda could influence vulnerable segments of the Muslim community to attack the U.S., their allies and friends. Future threats will stem from a spectrum — Al Qaeda and its associated groups as well as self-radicalized cells, the latter class being the focus of attention by Abu Musab.”
According to “Architect of Global Jihad,” al-Suri, a phyisically unimposing man with a red beard, was born in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 1958. For reasons that remain unclear, he joined a militant anti-government offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, but by 1980 fled Syria for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then across Europe. He became increasingly interested in jihadist theory and wrote prolifically. He arrived in Afghanistan in 1988 — at the tail end of the jihad there — and met bin Laden, becoming part of, in his words, “the first circle around the shaykh,” referring to bin Laden. (Lia is unsure how much credence to give this claim.)
Yet he remained at least peripherally associated with Al Qaeda through the 1990s, as he traveled between London, Peshawar and Afghanistan. In the mid-1990s, al-Suri wrote a series of jihadist articles for the Al Ansar Newsletter, published in London by extremist cleric Abu Qatada. Befitting al-Suri’s contentious nature, the two jihadist theorists had what Lia calls “a love-hate relationship,” with each accusing the other of insufficient radicalism. Afterward, he returned to Afghanistan to lecture on jihadist theory for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Intriguingly, Lia writes, al-Suri “appears to have been quite ambivalent in his views on the Sept. 11 attacks,” fearing that Al Qaeda was unprepared for U.S. retaliation.
By 2002 al-Suri was on the run, like much of Al Qaeda in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Some reports that Lia credits indicate that al-Suri spent at least some of 2002 in Iran, but moved again when the Iranian government put a number of Al Qaeda figures under house arrest in an effort to placate the Bush administration.
This period, al-Suri later wrote in “The Call,” was defined by “tribulations,” as “the current maelstrom [of U.S. counterterrorist activity] swallowed most of [Al Qaeda's] cadres.” Lia writes that al-Suri expected to be killed or captured, describing his life post-Afghanistan as one of “house arrest and limited movement.”
That fear appears to have motivated him to write “The Call.” Suri’s life was dedicated to “mobilise the masses around the banner of jihad,” in Lia’s phrase. Yet he saw Al Qaeda’s dream slipping away. al-Suri openly conceded the organization’s weaknesses: “we can blame nobody but ourselves when 80 percent of our forces were eliminated in the repercussions of Sept. 11th during two years only!”
His diagnosis was that Al Qaeda was in the throes of what he called “a Tora Bora-mentality,” after the anticlimactic December 2001 battle in which Al Qaeda’s forces were concentrated in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In his opinion, too much of Al Qaeda — including, presumably, bin Laden himself — preferred the romance of martyrdom in the face of impossible odds rather than successfully igniting the Islamic world to resist the West. Tora Bora’s mystique in jihadist circles as Al Qaeda’s stand against superior U.S. and Afghan tribal forces was counterproductive, al-Suri believed: after all, it ended with Al Qaeda being driven out of Afghanistan. (Yet, Tora Bora is considered a disaster by much of the U.S. counterterrorism community for the opposite reason: bin Laden and his comrades escaped the battle and fled to Pakistan.)
“The Call” is al-Suri’s solution to the “Tora Bora mentality,” and Lia calls it the theorists magnum opus. Heretically, al-Suri all but begs bin Laden not to rebuild Al Qaeda. In al-Suri’s view, Al Qaeda should become an ideology, an ethic and a virtual community. “I was searching for a method which the enemy has no way of aborting,” al-Suri explains in “The Call,” “even when he understands the method and its procedures, and arrests two-thirds of his operators.”
Rather than reestablish a loose network of terrorist cells with the remnants of a command-and-control structure, al-Suri urged aspiring terrorists to simply murder people in the organization’s name. One could become a member of Al Qaeda by “a system of action, not a centralized, secret organization for action.”
In other words, Al Qaeda would go viral. “The method makes it possible for a single individual to act,” al-Suri writes, “whether he wants to operate completely alone, not trusting anyone else to participate, or in a very small unit of a few men and friends who have confidence in one another.” He continues, “[T]his method offers homogeneity, security precautions and possibilities for the group. It also opens up for broad, common operational activity without bonds for each other.”
Much of the rest of the book is an instruction manual for successful jihad — since, after all, what counterterrorism experts call “Self-Starting Jihad” requires practical advice if recruits aren’t going to receive formal training. al-Suri emphasizes attacking so-called “apostate” regimes in the Muslim world that either ally with the United State or are insufficiently Islamic for Al Qaeda’s blend of severe, totalistic politicized religion.
Implicitly, that represents a criticism of bin Laden’s decision to strike at the U.S. directly — other forces within Al Qaeda, including Zawahiri, preferred to concentrate on the apostate regimes — it also follows naturally from the idea that radicalized Muslims need to take matters into their own hand, since the Muslim world naturally hosts more Muslims than the Muslim diaspora communities. In early stages of jihadist activity, he writes, it is necessary to use “primitive weapons… such as revolvers and light and medium machine guns at the most,” and to “limit training” activity to use of such weapons unless fighters intend to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The most important training, though, is mental. “It is necessary to move the training to every house, every quarter and every village of the Muslim countries,” al-Suri writes. “[I]t is not possible to gather the Islamic Nation in training camps, but it is possible to plant training camps across the Islamic Nation, in all her houses and quarters.”
al-Suri himself was, as he predicted, captured in the Pakistani city of Quetta in late 2005. It is believed, but not known, that he is currently held in CIA custody in one of the unacknowledged foreign detention facilities known as “black sites.” But for U.S. counterterrorism experts, the proliferation of al-Suri’s book ensures that his influence lives on despite his capture — much as he intended.
However, the degree to which Al Qaeda — both the organization and the ideology — are following “The Call” is open for debate. Over the last two years, the U.S. intelligence community has noticed what it calls “Al Qaeda Senior Leadership” (AQSL) reconstituting itself in a “safe haven” in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
And while self-starter Al Qaeda franchises have appeared in Spain, Britain, Lebanon and especially Iraq, they appear to have contacts with the senior leadership. Mohammed Siddique Khan, architect of the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, met with unknown individuals in Pakistan before the bombings, and Zawahiri wrote in 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, to ask for money. Though last summer’s thwarted attacks in London and Glasgow appear to have been independently designed and executed, their ineffectiveness may suggest inherent weaknesses in al-Suri’s strategy.
“AQ-SL [Al Qaeda Senior Leadership] still has a heavy hand in command and control of Al Qaeda organizations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and special mission countries (USA, UK, etc),” e-mailed Malcolm Nance, a longtime U.S. military and intelligence counterterrorist now running the International Antiterrorism Center for Excellence, a counterterrorism think tank in Hudson, N.Y. “There are independent open front groups in North and East Africa and there are SSJs [Self Starting Jihadis] globally. [al-Suri] did document this in his book and it appears that he was making more of a comparison to support his contention that Al Qaeda should stick to armed combat and SSJs while foregoing Martyrdom operations. I am pretty sure he would not have been promoted into the AQ-SL had he not been captured in Quetta with thinking like this. Sacrifice is the core value of AQ (it could be said to be: Allah, Sacrifice, Resistance).”
Not all counterterrorist experts are as sanguine.
“The danger of strategists such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri is that they are willing to learn from the failures of past jihadist movements in order to create more effective platforms of resistance,” said Erich Marquardt of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “Unlike many Al Qaeda operatives, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wanted to draw in as many different sects and groups as possible into the jihadist fold in order to create a broad movement with tremendous reach. His more practical and flexible approach to the global jihad is concerning — especially when contrasted with some of the rigid, extremist ideologues of al-Qa’ida who turn away more people than they draw in.”
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