Towards the end of last year a story emerged that suggested that infamous al Qaida ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, aka Abu Musab al- Suri, had been released from the Syrian jail in which it was believed he had been languishing. Picked up in Quetta in October 2005, al-Suri was a longtime jihadist who during his career had served as a trainer in Afghanistan, married a Spanish woman, and worked as a propagandist from Londonistan. He is most well-known, however, as an author and ideologue and particularly for his massive tome, Global Islamic Resistance Call, a text that laid out his idea for al-Qaeda’s structure as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organization). Most recently, his writing had gotten increased traction as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had very publicly taken up his ideas as part of their push in Inspire magazine to try to stir up Lone Wolf terrorism.
While the unconfirmed announcement of his release has not gotten much traction, the story was interesting given the importance al-Suri’s work is often given by researchers (and the fact that he was amongst the individuals whom Zawahiri asked for in exchange for kidnapped American Warren Weistein). Intrigued by the story, I reached out to Dr. Brynjar Lia of FFI in Norway, the world’s foremost expert of al-Suri, having written the excellent biography “Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” to see what he thought of the story and its potential consequences:
I think it is quite likely that al-Suri was transferred to Syria and has been held there, judging by the various reports pointing in that direction over the past few years. However, I am not sure whether Syrian authorities would have much to gain by releasing him. He is no friend of the Syrian regime to say the least, and he consistently denounced the Syrian regime both politically and religiously, labeling them “a Nusayri [another word for the Alawi, Bashar al Assad’s ethnic community] occupation”. The only thing I could think of is that the regime is trying to send a signal to the West, and the U.S. in particular, that if they push the Assad regime too hard, they will lose a partner in “the war on terrorism”, to use an outdated term. Al-Zawahiri mentioned al-Suri as one of several jihadis he wanted to see released in return for a U.S. citizen, reportedly held hostage by al-Qaida in Pakistan. However, in the current climate it is hard to imagine U.S.-Syrian cooperation on swapping al-Suri for the U.S. hostage.
“The impact of al-Suri’s release, if true, will not necessarily be dramatic, although it depends on the circumstances of his release. I don’t really see him in any operational role in the jihadi organisations in the region such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam or others. As for the Syrian opposition in exile, they will probably view him as a liability and they seem to believe that he might have been released as part of the Syrian regime’s orchestrated efforts to portray the opposition as an al-Qaida supported insurgency. Furthermore, al-Suri has few friends among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom he singled out for very harsh criticism in his early writings. He did not have a large crowd of dedicated disciples, but was mostly a theoretician and a writer and was admired for his writings and his seniority as a jihadist.
For my own two cents, it would be strange for the Syrians to take such an action for a man who was so clearly their enemy and unlikely to ever do them any favors – but then again, as the Shia Iranian experience with allowing Sunni al Qaida to stay in their territory has shown, the geopolitics of the war on terrorism are complex. But I also wonder whether it would necessarily be the case that his release would be some sort of a boon to the notion of Lone Wolf jihad as espoused by AQAP. Clearly Inspire magazine saw al-Suri as their ideological godfather and repeatedly held up his image and writing as key in their thinking, but I wonder if al-Suri would equally embrace the notions as they have advanced it.
To start with, it is unclear to me on the basis of his work that al Suri would be that impressed by the religious and ideological knowledge displayed by the army of young people who are taking up arms in response to AQAP’s call. In the early 1990s as he was first advancing his ideas in Peshawar, al Suri spoke of being unimpressed by the lack of “necessary doctrinal, programmatic, ideological and political guidance” amongst his fellow Arab-Afghans. Furthermore, in his magum opus, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he praises “the school of individual jihad and small cells” and a group of lone individuals who took up the cause of jihad, he highlights how while these attacks may be a military, security and agitation success, their political and educational impact is relatively low. It is hard to imagine that he would see greater ideological fervor or wider political success amongst the young people claiming his heritage.
Beyond this, it is unclear that he would necessarily approve of the sort of random targeting that is suggested by Inspire magazine’s ideas of taking down apartment blocs full of people by renting out one on a lower floor and letting the gas run freely or the idea to use a combine harvester to literally mow through crowds. While al-Suri’s writing does recognise the validity of targeting civilians, he does say that this needs to be done in a discriminating fashion. This is reflected in information to have emerged from Abbotabad where it is claimed that bin-Laden was “taken aback” by the Inspire proposal to use a harvester “he complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al-Qaeda does.”
It is unclear whether al-Suri will be able to react in any sort of a public way to the children of the jihad who have claimed his legacy, not least because we have no idea at the moment of whether he has even been released (or if he has what limitations he may be under). But should he have been released and be able to become an active jihadi ideologue once again, it will undoubtedly prove a coup for al-Qaeda’s battered ideology and forces (as Jarret Brachmann has pointed out). What is less clear, however, is what kind of an impact it would have on the AQAP driven push towards indiscriminate, undirected Lone Wolf terrorism. It is uncertain to what degree the group is responsible for the growth in such events, and it is even less certain whether al-Suri would necessarily appreciate the interpretation of his work that they have been advancing.
Lone Wolf terrorism will no doubt continue to emerge whether al-Suri has been released or not. Al Suri’s potential addition to this mix will be to breathe new life into a group whose ideology and leadership has taken a sound beating, offering a leader whose ideas at the time were not paid much attention to, but since his arrest have increasingly become the vogue amongst terrorist tacticians.