Bashar al-Assad appears to have let one of the world's most prominent jihadist ideologues out of jail. He's playing with fire.
- By Aaron Y. ZelinAaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University. He maintains the website Jihadology.net and blogs at al-Wasat.
An old face appears poised to play a new role in the jihadist movement. On Feb. 2, plugged-in online jihadists confirmed that one of the jihad’s most original and respected theoreticians, Abu Musab al-Suri, had been released from a Syrian prison.
While not a household name like Osama bin Laden, Suri enjoys a burgeoning influence on the global jihadist movement, and particularly those based in the West. The veteran Syrian jihadist, whose real name is Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasar, is best known for his 1,600-page treatise Dawat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (Call of Global Islamic Resistance), which articulates a strategy of decentralized jihad, rather than one that depends on clandestine organizations. If there is an architect of the jihadists’ post-9/11 line of attack, it’s Suri.
Suri’s ideas have been popularized in jihadist circles over the past few years. They have been taken up by prominent figures like the head of al Qaeda’s media department, Adam Gadahn, and Yemeni-American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaqi, as well as being featured by Samir Khan in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine.
Rumors about Suri’s status had been flying around online since Dec. 23, when Sooryoon.net, a Syrian opposition newspaper, published a story saying Suri and his assistant Abu Khalid had been released. It is surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would release a man who is not only a confirmed enemy of his regime, but that of his father Hafez as well. By releasing a major jihadist figure, Assad is playing a dangerous game with the West, which is already debating whether to intervene in the bloody uprising in Syria.
Suri is a divisive figure, quick to pick a fight even with his fellow jihadists. In his biography of Suri, Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia describes him as "a dissident, a critic, and an intellectual in an ideological current in which one would expect to find obedience rather than dissent."
If Suri has indeed been released, al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will not welcome him back into the fold with open arms. Suri, who quit al Qaeda in 1992, has feuded with the jihadist organization over their differing strategies regarding global jihad. Suri criticized the 9/11 attacks because he believed that Afghanistan, which was being used as a base by the Taliban, was crucial to the global Islamic resistance. "The outcome [of the 9/11 attacks] as a I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current," Suri noted. "The jihadis entered the tribulations of the current maelstrom which swallowed most of its cadres over the subsequent three years."
Suri’s involvement in the jihadist world traverses the Middle East, South Asia, and its bases among Muslim communities living in the West. In 1980, at the age of 21, he dropped out of the University of Aleppo to join up with the militant offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was calling for a jihad against the Syrian regime. As Hafez al-Assad’s security force cracked down on the group, Suri fled to Jordan and remained there until 1983.
Suri later moved to Spain, married a Spanish woman, and obtained Spanish citizenship. In the late 1980s, toward the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, he made his way to Peshawar and became a military instructor for one of Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam’s training camps. That is where he first came into contact with bin Laden. In his work the Call of Global Islamic Resistance, Suri recounted that he worked as a military instructor as well as provided lectures on politics, strategy, and guerilla warfare at al Qaeda’s training camps until 1991.
After shuttling back and forth between Madrid and Afghanistan for several years, Suri moved to London in the mid-1990s. It is believed he moved because he was under pressure from Spanish security, which suspected that he was connected to terrorist attacks by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in France in 1995. In Britain, Suri became deeply involved with the "Londonistan" jihadi underground. He helped produce and wrote articles for the GIA’s magazine al-Ansar, but quit the magazine in 1996 as a result of the organization’s over-the-top and sadistic tactics.
Suri returned to Afghanistan a year later, and maintained a loose affiliation with the Taliban. He is also known for having facilitated Peter Bergen’s famous CNN interview with Bin Laden in 1997.
In 2000, Suri opened his own training camp — called al-Ghuraba ("The Strangers") Camp, located in Kargha, near Kabul. It was not affiliated with al Qaeda’s camps, and Suri did not have a large following. He stayed there until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, when he fled along with many other jihadists. He wrote his 1,600-page treatise in Pakistan before his arrest.
It is hard to determine Suri’s intentions or capabilities now that he has reportedly been released. After being imprisoned for the past six or seven years, his psychological state remains a mystery. And even if he wanted to, it is not clear whether Suri could muster a large base of supporters in Syria. He has not lived freely in the country since the early 1980s — his following may be larger online than in the real world.
But Suri does have a number of advantages working in his favor if he wants to once again play a role in the jihadist world. The fact that so many of the old guard — such as bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, and Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman — are dead or captured would bolster his status instantly, especially since his ideas have become more accessible and popular through translations of his work.
Additionally, his lore will grow in light of an alleged vision he had this past August, which was relayed by online jihadist Jundi Dawlat al-Islam ("Soldier of the Islamic State"), a member of the important Shamukh al-Islam Arabic Forum. "I have been informed that the Shaykh [Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important role in Bilad al-Sham (Syria), we ask Allah that it becomes true," the jihadist wrote. Suri’s release will be seen as a vindication of that vision by his supporters, and no doubt boost his influence.
Just because he’s reportedly out of Syrian prison doesn’t mean Suri is out of danger. The Spanish government may try to extract him from Syria due to his believed involvement in 2004 Madrid train bombings. Suri may also seek refuge in Yemen, which he has written is the best location for jihad and establishing an Islamic state other than the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
The past 5 years has seen a rise, especially in the West, of Suri’s leaderless jihad strategy. But while attacks such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting have proven traumatic, solo attacks, by and large, have had a low success rate. Upon his release, Suri may well reevaluate this strategy and offer new thoughts on how to implement it. Whatever the case, his release will only re-energize his followers and provide new motivation for individuals to join the global jihad.