Jihadist web forums are reporting that Abu Musab al-Suri has been freed from prison in Syria – a highly significant development, if true. Although rumours of Suri’s release have been circulating for over a week, the announcement of this news by forum users with known links to al-Qaeda now makes it highly likely that he is no longer in custody.
- Suri has not been seen in public since his arrest in the Pakistani city of Quetta in October 2005. It was widely believed that he was subsequently rendered to Syria.
- Suri has a long history within the global jihad movement and al-Qaeda, enjoying a relative degree of seniority within the movement.
- He was also widely respected by jihadists as an intellectual and gifted strategic thinker. Indeed, after 9/11 Suri emerged as the single most important strategic thinker within al-Qaeda writing his seminal work, the 1600-page tome, The Global Islamic Resistance Call (Da’wat al-muqawamah al-islamiyyah al-‘alamiyyah) in late 2004.
- Ayman al-Zawahiri recently asked for Suri’s release in exchange for kidnapped American aid worker, Warren Weistein.
The significance of Suri
- Suri’s book was credited with developing al-Qaeda’s strategy in response to the challenges it faced after the United States and allied forces invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. He recognised that al-Qaeda would no longer be able to train sympathisers in camps as it had prior to 9/11. Suri therefore developed the so-called ‘lone wolf’ strategy (or strategy of ‘leaderless resistance’), and as a result, the group focused less on trying building a centralised structure and instead began inspiring sympathisers to commit random (and often individual) acts of terrorism.
- This proved to be a highly effective strategy despite its lack of sophistication when compared with 9/11, 7/7, or the Madrid bombings. This strategy was perhaps most effectively carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Anwar al-Awlaki who inspired scores of lone wolves (sometimes called ‘self-starters’). For more on the effect and impact of lone wolves see Raff Pantuci’s paper for ICSR here.
Implications of Suri’s release
- At the most basic level, Suri’s release will provide a morale boost to al-Qaeda which has suffered massive setbacks with the killing of influential leaders including Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
- Within Syria however, it is not known what role Suri could play as disorder continues to grow. Domestic opposition groups (and exiled Syrian opposition leaders) will likely view him as a liability to their cause. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also unlikely to provide support for Suri for a number of reasons. It recognises the dangers of embracing al-Qaeda and also shares significant ideological difference with the group (at least in method, if not always in aims). Suri has also written about leading figures within the Syrian Brotherhood in acerbic tones in the past, alienating him from the movement.
- It is will be almost impossible for Suri to reconnect with al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. It is likely that he will seek to reconnect with al-Qaeda by slipping across the border into Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq is operating with renewed zeal since the withdrawal of American troops in December 2011. Should this transpire, his long period of incarceration will further add to his credibility.
Need for caution
- Rumours of Suri’s release have been circulated before without much credence. On this occasion news of his release was announced by the jihadist forum participant, ‘Asad al-Jihad2’ (Lion of Jihad 2). The news has subsequently been carried on reliable web forums including Ansar al-Mujahideen and al-Shmukh.
- ‘Asad al-Jihad2’ is a prolific and well established member of several jihadist forums with known links to al-Qaeda. In 2009, the Global Islamic Media Front – a translation service for the global jihad movement – interviewed him about ‘the future plans of the mujahideen’, suggesting he enjoys an operational role within the movement.
- It is possible this could be misinformation from Bashar al-Assad’s administration with the purpose of either ‘warning’, or ‘punishing’, the West over its support for Syrian demonstrators.
- As disorder grows within Syria it will be increasingly difficult for the United States and its allies to both acquire accurate information about Suri and to take effective measures which prevent him from slipping into Iraq.