Laptop Jihadi

Adam Shatz

  • Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri by Brynjar Lia
    Hurst, 510 pp, £27.50, November 2007, ISBN 978 1 85065 856 6

Abu Musab al-Suri never received an advance for his magnum opus, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, written in safe houses after the fall of the Taliban and published in December 2004 by a clandestine press. But a few weeks before his book appeared, the Bush administration bestowed an honour on him more valuable than anything the jihadi market had to offer: the announcement of a $5 million reward for his capture.

Abu Musab al-Suri is the nom de guerre of the Syrian jihadi Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, al-Qaida’s most formidable and far-sighted military strategist. Al-Suri played a key role in the 1990s in establishing al-Qaida’s presence in Europe and forging its links to radical jihadis in North Africa and the Middle East, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, South and East Asia. He was a spokesman for the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé, a press attaché for Osama bin Laden in London and an adviser to Mullah Omar in Kabul, and he appears under a variety of aliases in books by foreign correspondents he escorted to meet the man in Tora Bora. Until he was captured in Quetta by Pakistani intelligence agents in October 2005 and handed over to the CIA, he went wherever the jihad travelled. Indeed, it was al-Suri who first argued that in order to survive, al-Qaida had to become a kind of travelling army based on mobile, nomadic, flexible cells operating independently of one another, unified by little more than a common ideology – and by the sense of shared grievances that the West’s ‘war on terror’ was likely to foster among Muslims. The concept of ‘leaderless jihad’, now much in vogue among so-called terrorism experts, is to a great extent al-Suri’s invention.

Considering his belief in leaderless jihad, it’s remarkable that al-Suri continued to have the ear of some of al-Qaida’s highest-ranking leaders. He wasn’t one to show deference towards his superiors, let alone express himself tactfully: he’s usually described as gruff and sarcastic, and that’s certainly true of his writing. According to one Islamist interviewed by al-Suri’s biographer, Brynjar Lia, ‘his sharp tongue spared nobody,’ not even bin Laden, whose hunger for fame he mocked (‘our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans and applause’). He was also provocatively at ease with ‘infidel’ sources, more likely to cite Mao than Muhammad: in Afghanistan he was known for giving lectures on Robert Taber’s 1965 study of guerrilla movements, The War of the Flea, once a favourite of the IRA. Al-Suri, Lia writes, was ‘a dissident, a critic and an intellectual in an ideological current in which one would expect to find obedience rather than dissent, conformity rather than self-criticism, doctrinaire ideologues rather than introspective individuals’. But his story suggests that it is our expectations about that ‘current’ which need to be adjusted.

If al-Suri remained in the good graces of al-Qaida, it’s probably because his devotion to the cause was never in doubt, and because like all political movements al-Qaida needed an in-house critic. In his books on Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria and Pakistan, and in his last published work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, al-Suri rigorously anatomised the jihadi movement’s failures – stodgy, hierarchical forms of political organisation, carelessness about security and indifference to long-term strategy – and tried to explain how the movement could learn from them. The jihadi movement, he argues in The Call, needs a new fighting strategy based on ‘unconnected cells’, operating out of safe houses and ‘camps of nomadic mujahedin’. In order to resist penetration by intelligence services, the movement should be decentralised, almost anarchist. It would be the sum of its actions, from ‘individual operations’ like the murder of tourists and ‘democratic dissidents’ in Muslim countries to ‘deterrence’ operations in Europe like the 2004 bombings in Madrid, which led to the defeat of Aznar and to the withdrawal of Spanish soldiers from Iraq.

The Global Islamic Resistance Call was intended as a 1600-page memo to al-Suri’s jihadi colleagues but, as Lia points out, it has become ‘the most significant written source in the strategic studies literature on al-Qaida’ – and a point of reference for potential jihadis who hadn’t heard of al-Suri until America’s bounty turned this ‘formerly relatively obscure writer’ into a star. Within months of his arrest, al-Suri’s writings were being discussed in web-postings, the true measure of jihadi fame. Since then, he has been read at West Point, profiled by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker, heralded by Newsweek as the ‘Francis Fukuyama of al-Qaida’ and by CNN as ‘the most dangerous terrorist you’ve never heard of’. The ‘architect of global jihad’ seems to have been discovered by the umma and the Great Satan at roughly the same time.

Lia, a Norwegian scholar of Islamist movements, is more circumspect about al-Suri’s importance than his title suggests. In calling his subject an ‘architect’, he means that al-Suri ‘has brilliant ideas, but his job is done when the designs, sketches and maps have been handed over’. Long before al-Qaida evolved from a militia of Arab volunteers in the Afghan jihad into an international, increasingly amorphous and fragmentary movement, al-Suri was theorising this transformation, and laying the groundwork for its activities in Europe. But it’s likely that the American army had more of a hand in this than al-Suri’s ‘designs’: by invading Afghanistan, destroying al-Qaida’s camps and killing (by al-Suri’s reckoning) 80 per cent of its cadres, the US forced radical jihadis to adopt his methods. And though al-Suri has been described as the brains behind several al-Qaida attacks, notably the Madrid bombings, Lia says that there is ‘no hard evidence’ for this. Al-Suri likened the ‘talent for terrorism’ to the ‘talent for poetry’, but it’s not clear he had either. ‘He is a lover of books more than bombs,’ Lia reports an American intelligence agent as saying, ‘and his organisational skills leave a lot to be desired.’

He was born in 1958, the same year as bin Laden, to a pious, middle-class family in Aleppo that traced its ancestors back to Hasan, son of the fourth caliph, and to Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. He studied engineering at the University of Aleppo, but dropped out in 1980 to join the Combatant Vanguard, a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal organisation that opposed the secular nationalist Baath Party and espoused the creation of a state based on Sharia. Syria’s Muslim Brothers had long sought to pursue change peacefully, by calling for an end to the ban on political parties other than the Baath, by denouncing corruption, by organising charitable works. They had been chastened by the movement’s experience in Egypt, where the influential theorist Sayyid Qutb had been hanged for allegedly attempting to assassinate Nasser and thousands of Brothers jailed and tortured. But the Muslim Brotherhood, along with the Combatant Vanguard, turned to violence in the mid-1970s when President Hafez al-Assad committed what in their eyes were two unpardonable offences: he passed a constitution that no longer required that the president be Muslim, and he intervened in the Lebanese civil war on the side of the Christians. The security forces, politicians and prominent members of the ruling Alawite minority, a Shia sect, were no longer safe in the streets, and by the end of the decade the country was on the verge of civil war. The regime responded with pitiless force, and in the summer of 1980 al-Suri fled to Amman. He received extensive training in guerrilla warfare and intelligence work from the governments of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq; these states faced Islamist oppositions of their own, but by encouraging men like al-Suri they could punish Damascus, which had opposed Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and supported Iran in its war with Iraq. In Baghdad, al-Suri trained with Sheikh Abu Usama al-Misri, an Egyptian protégé of Qutb who had fought in Palestine and at Suez. Al-Suri showed such promise that he was made a member of the Syrian Muslim Brothers’ higher military command. The Brothers were preparing for a final confrontation with Assad, and al-Suri was poised for a triumphal homecoming as the second-in-command of the ‘Aleppo Offensive’.

Instead, he remained in Baghdad while the Syrian army crushed the Islamic insurgency in February 1982, and Jordan, Egypt and Iraq abandoned the fighters they had trained. In the northern Syrian city of Hama, where the worst fighting took place, more than ten thousand were killed, and the city was reduced to rubble. In al-Suri’s bitter appraisal, the Muslim Brothers had shown their true colours. They had left the Combatant Vanguard to do most of the fighting, seeking instead to build alliances with the regime’s ‘apostate’ secular opponents and, worse, trying to achieve a compromise with the Baath. The Iraqi Muslim Brothers’ accommodating posture towards Saddam Hussein was no less disappointing. He left Baghdad for Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis, who financed the Muslim Brothers throughout the region, did not appreciate his low opinion of them, and he fled once more, this time to France, where he spent a few years before settling in Spain.

Madrid, where al-Suri made a living selling second-hand furniture at a flea market, proved a comfortable base. With his red hair, green eyes and pale complexion, al-Suri passed easily for a European and soon enough he was one: in 1987 he married Elena Moreno Cruz, a left-wing student of philology who converted to Islam and helped him become a Spanish citizen. They moved to Granada and began to raise a family. Al-Suri opened a giftshop but found his true vocation as a jihadi author. Writing under the name Omar Abdel Hakim, the first of his several noms de guerre, he began his 900-page work on the defeat of the Syrian Islamists. The Syrian Experience was a scathing critique of the Muslim Brothers, with their ‘school of ecclesiastical infallibility’, their cowardice in the face of the Baath’s repression and their vain pursuit of recognition from an ‘apostate’ regime which deserved to be overthrown by force of arms. The book was also a farewell to home, written just as al-Suri was becoming excited by a movement that had no fear of violent confrontation, and that seemed to be winning: the mujahedin in their struggle against the Soviet invasion. As al-Suri later put it, he ‘left the Syrian cause’ and ‘turned to the Afghan cause instead’.

In July 1987, electrified by a speech given by an Arab Afghan – one of the thousands of Arab volunteers with the Afghan mujahedin – at a local Islamic centre, al-Suri went to Peshawar to meet Sheikh Abdallah Azzam, the charismatic Palestinian jihadi who headed the Service Bureau, the Arab-Afghan organisation that became al-Qaida a year later. Standing beside Azzam was his old mentor in Baghdad, Sheikh Abu Usama al-Misri. Al-Suri moved to the Afghan village of Khowst and gave classes on explosives, urban warfare and special operations at a camp set up by Pakistani intelligence. His wife settled in Miranshah, a town on the Pakistani side of the border. When the Soviet army bombarded Khowst, she could see the fires lighting the sky, but in al-Suri’s recollection ‘this was a beautiful period; an excellent honeymoon in Afghanistan.’

He stayed more than four years. While finishing his book on Syria and developing his theory of guerrilla warfare by autonomous cells, he grew close to some of the leading figures in al-Qaida, notably Azzam, who was assassinated in 1989, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the cool and ruthless leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who would later become bin Laden’s number two. His relations with bin Laden were more troubled: although a member of al-Qaida’s inner council, al-Suri couldn’t shake off his suspicion that bin Laden and his fellow Saudis in the Afghan resistance were ‘Muslim Brothers in disguise’, and that they might be tempted by their government’s standing offer to repent and return home. Unlike bin Laden, al-Suri wasn’t interested in being a ‘spiritual leader’ (he didn’t believe in leaders of any kind). His own blunt speech and coarse manners stood in stark contrast to the ascetic, ceremoniously humble persona cultivated by bin Laden; as did his penchant for profanity, his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and his lack of interest in the religion he believed he was defending.

The struggle against the Soviets gave the Arab Afghans a sense of shared purpose, but it concealed deeper divisions which victory soon threw into relief. The self-appointed representatives of the umma were not of one mind about the movement’s future. Azzam and his comrades believed in ‘resisting aggression and occupation by non-Muslim forces’ (in Palestine, for example, or the Muslim republics in the former Soviet Union, later Bosnia and Kashmir), while Zawahiri and his fellow Egyptians advocated a two-front war against ‘apostate’ Muslim governments (the near enemy) and their Western backers (the far enemy). Bin Laden vacillated between the two camps but sided with the Egyptians after American troops arrived in Saudi Arabia at the king’s invitation, and the United States attacked Iraq. Al-Suri embraced the Islamic Jihad position without hesitation: as a survivor of an Islamist movement that had also suffered repression and torture by a secular Muslim government, he shared the Egyptians’ hatred of the near enemy and their instinctive distrust of moderation. In his view, ‘the political equation was simple: “new world order versus the armed jihadi current”.’ On the side of the crusader enemy he included the official Sunni leadership, Shiites, and Islamists like the Brothers, who sought to win power through elections.

As Afghanistan splintered into warlord fiefdoms, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri fled to Sudan and al-Suri returned to Spain and to selling second-hand furniture. Shuttling back and forth between Spain, Sudan and cities throughout Europe, he helped establish the Soldiers of Allah, an al-Qaida cell in Madrid, and would eventually establish contacts for al-Qaida in more than a dozen countries. Bosnia had by then replaced Afghanistan in the imagination of most jihadis, and al-Suri claims to have trained the commander of the Arab Afghans in Bosnia, Anwar Shaban. But the struggle of which he was most enamoured was the jihad against Algeria’s military government, which must have reminded him of his own youthful battle against Assad. In Afghanistan, he had been deeply impressed by an Algerian Arab Afghan, Qari Said; he had told Said that if he were needed, ‘I will go to Algeria, like I went to Afghanistan.’ In 1992, a war between Algeria’s security forces and armed Islamists broke out after the military put a stop to elections the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. Al-Suri’s friend Said became a leader of the GIA, the most brutal faction among Algeria’s insurgents. The GIA repudiated democracy as un-Islamic and viewed armed struggle as penitence for the Front’s original sin of participating in elections. Al-Suri began visiting the GIA’s office in London in the hope of making his way to Algiers and keeping his promise to Said.

The GIA, however, thought al-Suri would be more useful in London, so in 1995 he moved there with his family and settled in Neasden. He became a staff writer for the GIA newsletter, al-Ansar, and travelled throughout Europe promoting the cause. The GIA was taking the war to France. It hijacked an Airbus in Algiers on Christmas Eve 1994 with the intention of flying it into the Eiffel Tower (the plane was stormed by gendarmes while refuelling in Marseille), and planted bombs in the Paris Metro the following year. Al-Suri praised these operations as efforts to punish France for supporting the military regime and to ‘expose the hidden hand of the West’. What neither al-Suri nor Qutadah knew at the time was that Algeria’s Sécurité Militaire had agents inside the GIA, and that they were probably encouraging the attacks on French soil in order to expose the barbarous face of the Islamist opposition and thereby persuade France that defending the military was in its national interest. Eventually, however, the GIA went too far even for al-Suri, when it began to execute many of its own leaders and to kill wavering supporters in order to ‘purify’ Algeria. Al-Suri resigned from the party and began looking for other work.

He didn’t have to look for long. London, as he later wrote, was ‘the centre for communications between Islamist groups and groups opposed to the governments of their own countries’, and there was no lack of opportunity for a ‘media jihadi’ like al-Suri. Still reeling from the Rushdie affair, the British government looked the other way, and showed particular indulgence towards jihadis who shared a common enemy with the Foreign Office, notably the Libyan jihadis conspiring against Gaddafi. British hospitality led al-Suri to assume, not unreasonably, that he and other jihadis had a tacit agreement with John Major that they ‘would never target Britain as long as the security forces left us alone’, and he abided by the ‘truce’. He spoke regularly to al-Zawahiri from a telephone box in the London suburbs, and came to serve as a liaison between British journalists and the jihadi movement. He was remarkably industrious – and successful – in his efforts to attract British attention. Introducing himself as ‘Oscar’, he approached Gwynne Roberts, a Channel 4 journalist, with the idea of making a documentary about bin Laden, with whom he was now on better terms, and led him to the caves; when Roberts asked him what would happen if he were found carrying a tracking device, al-Suri made it plain he ‘would not return alive’. Using the alias ‘Omar Hakim’, he also accompanied Peter Arnett and Peter Bergen of CNN to the caves. Bergen was sufficiently struck by his intensity and intelligence to talk about him in his book on al-Qaida, Holy War Inc; only later did he become aware of al-Suri’s identity. Even Arab journalists who knew him in London were caught off guard by his closeness to bin Laden. In his Secret History of al-Qaida, Abdel Bari Atwan of al-Quds al-Arabi recalls entering bin Laden’s dimly lit cave and being ‘absolutely astonished to recognise . . . a Syrian writer I knew quite well from London, Omar Abdel Hakim, also known as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar and whose nom de guerre is “Abu Musab al-Suri”’.

Bin Laden’s interviews yielded extraordinary publicity and helped, in al-Suri’s words, to further the ‘internationalisation of the movement’. But al-Suri’s work was also attracting unwelcome attention: in 1995-96, al-Hayat, a pro-Saudi London daily, ran a series of articles accusing him of being a GIA strategist and, worse, identified him by his real name. Noman Benotman, a Libyan Islamist in London and one of Lia’s best sources, told him that al-Suri’s taste for aliases and his obsession with security led some of his peers to sneer that ‘he was acting as if he was James Bond.’ But he had good reason to keep a low profile: once al-Hayat broke his cover, he began to receive regular visits from British intelligence. He felt betrayed: ‘When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he tore up the unwritten understanding and stabbed the mujahedin in the back by changing the laws and harassing us.’ Britain had lost its ‘democratic virginity’ to ‘the American cowboy’. Later that year he returned to Afghanistan: his hegira, he called it, invoking the Prophet’s emigration to Medina in 622 in flight from his persecutors in Mecca. His wife and four children, including a son named Osama, settled, as before, just across the border in Pakistan.

In austere, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, al-Suri found what he described as ‘the best example of an Islamic state on earth today’. He became Mullah Omar’s media adviser and edited the Taliban’s newspaper, al-Shariah. All the movements active in London had camps in Afghanistan, and al-Suri lectured at many of them, but, estranged again from bin Laden, he mainly kept to himself. He still suspected that bin Laden might cut a deal with the Saudis, and he was irritated by his choice of targets. Bin Laden seemed unable or unwilling to strike at his own government, in unflattering contrast to the Egyptians in Islamic Jihad. Why attack Western and Israeli targets in ‘peripheral’ zones and not in the Arab Peninsula and the Levant? ‘If you hit the Americans here, or the French, the Englishmen or the Jews here, you hurt them two hundred times more than if you strike them in the Philippines,’ he explained. Worse, bin Laden was undertaking these operations without proper security precautions, much less asking for the permission of his host, the Taliban. He warned bin Laden that the presence of fixed camps made it easy for the Americans to hit back. And so they did, after the twin bombings of US Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, with cruise missile strikes against six suspected training camps on 21 August 1998.

The effect of these strikes, however, was to unify the jihadis at a time when they appeared to be careening towards a split. Al-Suri’s argument about the need for ‘mobile’ camps that couldn’t be detected from the air was vindicated, and bin Laden, humbled by this demonstration of American military superiority, pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar. The US response to the September 11 attacks forced the movement to spread horizontally, just as al-Suri had proposed; it evolved into a brand, a franchise without a single owner. A growing number of young, disaffected Muslims – some of them second and third-generation Europeans – were willing to open branches, thanks in large part to Bush’s wars, which, along with his unconditional defence of Israel during the second intifada, fed the perception that the ‘war on terror’ was a war on Islam. ‘The matter has become easier,’ al-Suri wrote, now that ‘America has come to us with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and experts.’ The far enemy was nearer than ever.

No one knows exactly what al-Suri was up to between his escape from Afghanistan and his arrest in Pakistan four years later. He appears to have hidden mainly in Pakistan, but also to have spent some time in Iran. According to some reports, he travelled to Iraq with Abu al-Zarqawi to set up al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. He has written about the ‘meagre years which we spent as fugitives, fleeing from the Americans and their apostate collaborators, moving between safe houses and hideouts’. But life underground also had its pleasures. In what he called his ‘beautiful mountainous hideout’, he finished his monograph on Algeria, and later went on to write a book on Musharraf’s Pakistan and The Global Islamic Resistance Call. Whether or not he had anything to do with the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Madrid and London, he relished the fact that the jihad had moved from the periphery to the centre, hitting the West where it hurt. The bombers were freelancers, embodying his vision of a more decentralised, nomadic jihad. Reading the excerpts from The Call that Lia has translated, one has the impression that al-Suri might have been secretly pleased that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were losing control of al-Qaida’s direction: ‘Al-Qaida is not an organisation, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be . . . It is a call, a reference, a methodology.’ The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also gave him hope that the umma was overcoming the national divisions imposed by the colonial powers: ‘Bush has put us all on one map . . . and its political name is “the Greater Middle East”. Hence, the enemy has globalised our cause by his attack on us.’ One of the striking things we learn from Lia’s book is how often al-Qaida’s adversaries threw it a lifeline.

Al-Suri’s world-view isn’t original, although it is no less chilling for that: a Qutbian brew of political grievances (Israeli atrocities in Palestine, the US sanctions against Iraq), toxic prejudice (non-Muslims, but especially Jews and crusaders) and sexual anxiety (he recommends killing tourists, ‘ambassadors of depravity, corruption, immorality and decadence’). He writes scornfully of moderate Islamists who talk with ‘the other’ and says there is no point in pursuing dialogue with ‘bacteria, epidemics and locusts’: ‘Only insecticides and medicines to kill bacteria’ were required. (Like the Professor in The Secret Agent, al-Suri’s ‘thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction’.) At the same time, he advises jihadis to avoid attacking ‘places of worship for any religion or faith’, including churches and synagogues, and, if possible, to spare women and children. How he reconciles this with his call for ‘inflicting as many human and material losses as possible on the interests of America and her allies’ – or with his regret that the planes on 11 September weren’t armed with weapons of mass destruction – is not something he explains.

But what’s most eerie about al-Suri’s book is not so much its content as its form. The Call is a military manual written in a strikingly secular – at times even avant-garde – idiom. His aim in writing is no different from what it was when he trained mujahedin at camps in Afghanistan: to produce better, smarter fighters, and to defeat the enemy. Most of his arguments, he emphasises, are not drawn from religious ‘doctrines or the laws about what is forbidden (haram) and permitted (halal)’ in Islam, but from ‘individual judgments based on lessons drawn from experience’: ‘Reality,’ not God, ‘is the greatest witness.’ Though he embroiders his arguments with the occasional quote from the Koran, he clearly prefers to discuss the modern literature of guerrilla warfare. Jihadis who fail to learn from Western sources are ridiculed for their inability to ‘think outside the box’. Just as weirdly familiar is al-Suri’s celebration of nomadic fighters, mobile armies, autonomous cells, individual actions and decentralisation, which recalls not only Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, but the idiom of ‘flexible’ capitalism in the age of Google and call centres. His vision of jihadis training themselves in mobile camps and houses, presumably from their laptops, is not so far removed from our own off-site work world. Guerrilla life has rarely seemed so sterile, so anomic, so unlikely to promote esprit de corps. The constraints of the New World Order make jihad a rather grim, lonely crusade, a form of private combat cut off from the movement’s – mostly imagined – following. Al-Suri seems to acknowledge this when he says that the best kind of training occurs on the battlefield, which ‘has a particular fragrance’. On 31 October 2005, after breaking the Ramadan fast with a group of bearded men, he smelled that fragrance for the last time during a gunfight in Quetta with his former allies in Pakistan intelligence. At least one of al-Suri’s dinner companions was killed but he was unharmed. There had been strict orders from above: the Americans wanted to talk to him. He hasn’t been heard from since, and in spite of the objections of prosecutors like the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who was on to al-Suri long before the Americans had heard of him, the CIA refuses to say where he’s being held.