Tuesday, 6 November 2007


The brains behind the bombs
Nov 1st 2007
The Economist

Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist
Abu Mus'ab al-Suri

By Brynjar Lia

Columbia University Press; 256 pages; $28.95. Hurst; £27.50

IF THE internet is jihad's open university, used for
spreading ideological and military knowledge, then one of
its most formidable professors is Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir
Setmariam Nasar, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu
Musab al-Suri. The Syrian-born militant was arrested in
Pakistan in October 2005 and is now believed to be detained
by the United States in an unknown location. Yet his
lectures remain available as audio files in cyberspace.

Ginger-haired and married to a Spaniard, Mr al-Suri went by
several aliases, including El EspaƱol and El Rubio (the
blond one). He was little known outside Islamist circles
until the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 when Spanish
investigators named him as a possible ideological
influence, if not the actual mastermind. Eight months later
America placed a $5m bounty on his head and Mr al-Suri
sensed the net closing around him. So he took precautions:
hacking into commercial websites in America, he placed on
the internet many of the books, lectures and letters that
he had been circulating privately.

“I wish by God that America will regret bitterly that she
provoked me and others to combat her with pen and sword,”
he declared. His pen turned out to have been prolific,
including brutally frank assessments of the violent
uprisings in Syria in the 1980s and Algeria in the 1990s,
and a host of training manuals. His life's work is a
1,600-page opus, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call”,
which started to take form in the early 1990s. In it, Mr
al-Suri argues that jihadis should avoid creating
hierarchical structures, which are vulnerable to attack by
local or American security forces, and move instead to a
decentralised system of individuals or small local cells
linked only by ideology.

To judge from the succession of actual and foiled plots in
Europe, international jihadism has indeed evolved this way.
It is unclear, however, whether this was done deliberately
under the influence of Mr al-Suri's exhortations, or out of
necessity after al-Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan and
the arrest or death of several leading figures. At the very
least, Mr al-Suri demonstrates considerable prescience.

This biography by Brynjar Lia, a Norwegian expert on the
subject, is a welcome addition to a crowded field of books
on Islamist extremism. Mr al-Suri comes across as a lone
wolf, neither a hard-bitten fighter like Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, nor a
religious ideologue, like the jailed Palestinian-Jordanian
cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. He casts himself as a
military strategist who, unlike other jihadists, embraces
secular knowledge and draws on the experience of other
guerrilla movements.

His life is emblematic of a breed of itinerant jihadist. He
started out fighting the “near enemy”, in his case Syria's
Baathist regime (he got support from Egypt and then Iraq).
After that proved a failure, he joined the fight to
liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. He then
drifted in the dispersed international jihadi milieu until
he arrived in “Londonistan”.

Gradually, he turned his attention to confronting the “far
enemy”, the United States. He helped to propagate
al-Qaeda's message through a “media bureau” in London,
arranging interviews for Western journalists with Osama bin
Laden. He returned to Afghanistan in 1997 to work as a
media adviser to the Taliban regime, which he regarded as
“the best example of an Islamic state on earth today”.

The most important contribution of Mr Lia's book is the
insight he offers into the personal and ideological
rivalries in the jihadi world (though these may make hard
going for a non-expert). It is plain that Mr al-Suri was
not enamoured by his fellow militants. He disliked the
“erratic actions” being taken by al-Qaeda, which he feared
would undermine the Taliban experiment (he was right). He
once accused Mr bin Laden of acting like a “pharaoh” and he
had little regard for Saudi jihadists in general. Many, in
his view, treated the jihadi training camps as an adventure
playground or as a means of cleansing themselves after
having “spent time with a whore in Bangkok”.

Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist
Abu Mus'ab al-Suri. By Brynjar Lia. Columbia University
Press; 256 pages; $28.95. Hurst; £27.50

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