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What is the fate of the architect of Global Jihad?
Life and ideology of Abu Musab al-Suri.
The news spread in recent months about a possible death of Abu Musab al-Suri has rekindled interest and debate about his writings and legacy, regardless of whether he is still alive or actually deceased. Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the most important theorists of the jihadist current and considered the leading theorist of global jihadism. By interviewing numerous Syrian sources from al-Assad's government forces, soldiers and leaders of the Syrian National Rebel Army, members of local jihadist organisations and former jihadists, the author sought to understand the years of Abu Musab's imprisonment and his influence on local and global Islamist and jihadist ideology.
The life of Mustafa bin`Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Suri) up to his arrest is well known and will therefore be quickly set out, deferring to the third paragraph for new and exclusive information on what happened to al-Suri after his arrest.
Abu Musab was born in 1958 and grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and attended four years of university studies at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Aleppo. In 1980, he joined the Combatant Vanguard organisation, a radical offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was at the forefront of the Islamist uprising in Syria against the government of Hafez Assad between 1976 and 1982. During this time he trained in military camps supervised by the organisation and located in Iraq and Jordan, run by former Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi army officers. In particular, Al-Suri trained in the use of explosives, urban guerrilla warfare, special operations and military engineering. Because of this training, he was appointed as an officer of the Military High Command, responsible for military training in the Brotherhood camps in Iraq and Jordan and deputy head of north-western Syria during the Hama uprising against al-Assad in 1982.
Al-Suri left Jordan in 1982 and travelled first to France and then to Spain between 1983 and 1987. In 1987, al-Suri and some of his friends left Spain for Peshawar to join the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. It was here that al-Suri met Abdullah Azzam, who persuaded him to take charge of training courses for young mujaheddin, training in the manufacture of explosives and training in close combat, as well as organising and holding conferences on guerrilla warfare and jihadist ideology. In the years between 1988 and 1991, he met and became involved with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In 1991, Abu Musab returned to Spain and soon afterwards settled in Great Britain. The new European experience will only last until the rise of the Taliban and bin Laden's declaration of war on the United States. In 1997, al-Suri moved to Afghanistan and proclaimed his loyalty to Mullah Omar. During these years, al-Suri was involved in training al-Qaeda fighters and in supporting Qaedist media. After the Taliban defeat in 2001, he moved with the entire Taliban and Qaedist leadership to Pakistan, where he was arrested by US forces in 2004 in the city of Quetta and handed over to the Syrian authorities. Between 2011 and 2014, there were conflicting rumours and articles claiming that Abu Musab al-Suri had been released in a prisoner swap deal, while others claimed that he had been executed by the regime.
The ideology of Abu Musab
Abu Musab al-Suri represents an important ideologue in the context of contemporary global jihadist thought, which is also due to his extensive experience between Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and European countries. During his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abu Musab al-Suri focused heavily on studying and reading, studying among others books and commentaries on Shari'a, the books Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam.
Jihadist organizations and leaders were directly influenced by Abu Musab through direct relations, experiences with him, training, readings, books, videos and lectures.
The different strategies indicated by Abu Musab al-Suri have been over the last two decades, and still today, applied and used by the different jihadist groups.
Al-Suri's originality does not lie in his doctrinal premises, since he recalls many established principles shared by other prominent jihadists, but in the novelty of his strategic studies.
Summarizing al-Suri's thought briefly, we find several important aspects that have or strongly influenced contemporary jihadism.
Abu Musab al-Suri often argued the importance of achieving desirable political results, rather than following doctrinal purity, and that the use of violence should be based on a long-term ideological strategy, as jihadism is a gradual process. Al-Suri argues in his writings that Jihad is obligatory and is also the only solution to the problems of Muslims. Al-Suri does not differentiate between the types of “operational” Jihadism, for him resistance and attacks must be directed primarily against the external 'or distant' enemy, but at the same time he formulated the strategic necessity of expanding the front within Syria, thus referring to it in local terms.
Another important aspect of al-Suri's strategic theories is that in conflict zones, jihadists must hand over leadership to local leaders and be at their service and provide their expertise. Indeed, al-Suri emphasized the need for militants to entrench themselves within local communities, winning hearts and minds by providing services, enforcing order and avoiding being perceived as extremists.
Undoubtedly, however, the most important ideological and strategic shift is the one concerning the jihad of open fronts and the change in the structure of the hierarchical formation and strategic planning of jihadist organizations.
Abu Musab al-Suri’s solution to jihadist failures is to change the starting point from “organization” to “individual”. Therefore, every Muslim who is convinced of the jihadist ideology must begin to operate and lay the foundations for action, no matter how small they may be in each country. It is this assertion that gives rise to the theory of “individual jihad”. According to Abu Musab, he is convinced that strongly hierarchical organizations are always doomed to fail. Al-Suri asserted that “one can carry out jihad alone anywhere in the Arab and Muslim world, indeed anywhere in the world, because this is not tied to certain objective conditions. The jihad of open fronts needs certain strategic conditions”. Individual Jihad can also bring together small cells of 3 or 4 people and form “resistance brigades” composed of Jihadists with physical, intellectual, and military training. These cells or brigades must then conduct individual or small group operations, and martyrdom and guerrilla operations are included among the attack options. These groups must follow basic guidelines such as: spreading the culture of individual resistance and transforming it into an organized strategic phenomenon that is not based on the principle of reaction, publishing media products that guide the resistance to the appropriate arenas for “individual” jihadist action, educating resistance fighters towards the most important targets to be targeted in military operations, and educating young people on how to arm and build resistance cells.
The brigades or cells can be of different types: individual or small armed cells with light weapons and limited capabilities, their contribution can support guerrilla warfare; qualitative operational brigades or cells, which are characterized by their high security capabilities and distinct military and material mobility, and are formed mainly by elements that have been trained in security, cell management, guerrilla warfare, communication technologies, and the use and production of explosives: brigades or cells more akin to special operations units, with high military capabilities, trained in conflict and its phases, high financial and security capabilities.
Al-Suri adds that each group, cell, or brigade made up of one or more individuals is a secret and independent unit led by its emir, which exclusively manages its affairs and goes directly to military action, without necessarily having ties with an organization and without any particular hierarchy. The cell forms and chooses its target and then attacks it. Al-Suri emphasized that this method has an advantage in preserving the jihadist human stock, as the 'fall' of one cell does not necessarily lead to the 'fall' of the rest of the cells.
Al-Suri also indicated the timing of this type of insurgency, which is divided into three phases. The first sees small groups operating on a limited scale and risk, undertaking assassinations, small guerrilla operations, ambushes, and bombings to induce the exhaustion of security forces and political and economic failure. The second phase sees insurgency and group operations become more ambitious and risk tolerant. The militants then become more enterprising, with larger operations allowing the conquest of small parts of territory. The third phase is more offensive, the decisive phase of the conflict. The cells conduct regular attacks and military operations, consolidating territorial control and combining military operations with terrorist attacks, even spectacular and violent ones, to reinforce territorial control and intensify the insurgency.
Abu Musab also identifies areas where open military action using the single-cell method is possible: Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and North Africa.
The choice of these areas relates to two aspects: “foreign” presence on its territory and its stationing in military bases and headquarters outside and inside the cities, and geographical favour, since they are areas that have topography that includes mountains, plains, forests and complex terrain, and the availability of population density that allows for recruitment and funding.
In these areas, it is necessary to create an arena of resistance that applies the system of isolated cells that through individual attacks with bombings, assassinations, guerrilla warfare, martyrdom operations, etc., confuse the enemy and dismantle its cohesion through exhaustion. Targets can be both local and global. The map of targets that must be monitored and targeted in individual jihad operations includes both military and economic targets, starting with all forms of Western-American and allied presence, such as oil companies, naval fleets, land and sea convoys, ports, embassies, companies and officials, security offices, bases, barracks, intelligence services, delegations, security forces and military of Arab and Islamic regimes that are allied with the West.
The strategy of “Open Front Jihad” does not seek to control a territory, as this goal is the long-term strategic objective of the resistance project.
Individual Jihad operations are successful militarily because they shake the enemy entities hard without suffering security repercussions in the event of a reaction.
Abu Musab al-Suri today: Dead or alive?
As written above, information about Abu Musab al-Suri has diminished since his arrest. Between 2011 and 2014, conflicting eyewitness interviews or newspaper articles repeatedly claimed either that Abu Musab was executed in 2011 at the beginning of the revolution, or that he was released in a prisoner exchange and later died.
Interesting and different information comes instead from personal and on-the-spot Syrian sources (jihadists, former jihadists, Syrian rebels, etc.) that I was able to interview, who provide other versions of the story.
In one of the first interviews, Saleh al-Hamawi, who had direct contact with people close to Abu Musab al-Suri, explained to me that: “The arrest took place at the end of 2004, Abu Khaled al-Suri, (Abu Musab’s personal friend) told me personally. Until 2014, Abu Musab was alive and was in the company of Raid215. Until 2018 he was alive, the news of his alleged death is unconfirmed. News about him continued to come from prisoners who were released alive until the beginning of 2018. The newly released prisoners from 2018 know nothing about al-Suri because he was in solitary confinement from that date and was forbidden to mix with other prisoners”. Similar responses from other interviewees: “There are always rumours about the killing of Abu Musab without reliable news. For me, Abu Musab is alive”, a source very close to Hurras al-Din told me. “There is no confirmation of this in jihadist circles”, Muzmjier al-Sham confirmed to me in an interview. I also received similar answers from an intermediary who allowed me to receive feedback directly from his son, Ibn Musab al-Suri, reporting his answers to me: “Abu Khaled al-Suri told me that Asif Shawkat was asking him to retract his positions, and many discussions were taking place with them. In any case, yes, there is an expectation that he is alive and the order to kill him was just a guess”.
Over the years, one of the reasons that has often been raised as a cause that could have led to Abu Musab al-Suri's death was that the regime had tortured him: “No, according to what we received from the news about him, the regime provided all his demands, the food was good, and he had newspapers and television. He was not tortured at all. This testimony was conveyed to me by a detainee who was with me in Sednaya, then he was transferred to the raid215 company, and he was in the cell opposite Abu Musab’s cell, and he was talking to him”, Saleh al-Hamawi further reports. “He is in the Syrian regime’s prisons, and God knows. The sheikh has aged, at the beginning of his arrest he was tortured, but until today, no”, says a Syrian militant who asked to remain anonymous.
Several local sources have confirmed to me that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been negotiating with different actors for the release of Abu Musa al-Suri: “negotiations for his release took place in 2014.They wanted to release him to reduce the impulse of his followers or jihadists to attack the regime but failed. The Syrian regime refused to release him, several attempts were made to exchange him for prisoners and the regime refused. When an agreement was reached, the regime only asked him [Abu Musab] to retract his book on the Syrian Islamic Revolution in the 1980s, but he refused”, Saleh al-Hamawi continues. “Of course, al-Nusra tried to negotiate with him, but it did not work because of his importance and the regime’s inability to accept negotiations about him”, a Syrian source told me, allowing himself to be identified only as Khattab al-Shami. Confirmation of past negotiations conducted for his release, I received from the commander of the Syrian rebel army Al-Farouq Abu Bakr, who has been dealing with the file of prisoners in the Assad regime’s prisons and prisoner exchanges with it since 2013: “Several exchanges have been conducted with the Assad regime, leading to the release of many women, children and young people who were in the Assad regime’s prisons. In 2017, one of the people in charge of the Assad regime contacted me to communicate with us for negotiations and exchanges and offered me the exchange with Abu Musab al-Suri. And this came at the request of one of the Syrian regime officials working in the Assad regime’s General Intelligence Department. At that time, the number of hostages he asked for the exchange with al-Suri was very large, and the idea did not receive much acceptance from us for several reasons, the most important of which was that we wanted to free people linked to the revolution and its activities and not those linked to jihadism, and the priority would be for them, and the other issue was the large number of hostages the regime was asking for in exchange for Abu Musab. Later, Ibn Abu Musab al-Suri also contacted me to assist in the exchange process for his father, but I was not convinced because of the reasons I mentioned earlier and because of the lack of an acceptable proposal from the regime, so the file was closed”. Confirmation that he may still be alive comes again from conversations I had with commander Abu Bakr Al-Farouq: “On 8 March 2022, I contacted the regime’s negotiator again and asked him about the issue, and he assured me once again that one of the regime’s higher-ups had proposed the exchange again. And yesterday he reiterated that they are ready to open the file again. Regime officials are willing to exchange prisoners. But I don’t think there will be an exchange with Abu Musab al-Suri, for several reasons: the first is that Abu Musab is on the terrorist lists, and no one wants to compromise the rebellion and be labelled as those who help or are supporters of jihadists or extremists. Also, our priority is for the detainees who have been arrested for reasons related to the revolution”.
Conclusion: what legacy?
There is no doubt that the theoretical and strategic ideology developed by Abu Musab al-Suri provided the main framework for al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 strategy. His vision was to transform al-Qaeda from a hierarchical, highly vulnerable organization into a decentralized and resilient movement, which is essentially the formula adopted by al-Qaeda after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001 and particularly after al-Zawahiri’s rise to leadership, and which has allowed the organization to survive to this day. Abu Musab al-Suri's ideas were widely disseminated on the Internet (albeit often in summaries of his enormous output) and influenced the strategy of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and its successor HTS, and lone actors or small groups that engaged in Individual Jihad. His critique of the Salafism of Abu Qatada al-Filistini was also effective and widespread. His importance as a theorist and ideologue was confirmed by the answers I received from numerous interviews with Syrian Jihadists: “Yes, he is the greatest theorist of Jihadists and has a vision for the future”. “His thoughts are balanced and moderate, without exaggeration and extremism. He is a rare and distinguished character. Abu Musab al-Suri is one of the best jihad theorists and has a deep understanding of the nature of the international system and international politics”, Abu Yahya al-Shami said instead. “Sheikh Abu Musab’s ideas are a school in themselves and a curriculum that must be taught to groups. My opinion of him is that he is one of the theorists of the jihadist movement of contemporary times, if not the best of them”, says a former Hurras al-Din fighter. “Abu Musab is one of the most important theorists of the jihadist movement. And his ideas are considered a reference for many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, despite his opposition to al-Qaeda in some directions. In Syria, Ahrar al-Sham was the closest intellectually to Abu Musab’s movement”, Muzmjier al-Sham concludes.
What has been written confirms that, dead or alive, Abu Musab al-Suri’s legacy is strong, alive and enduring. Al-Suri was able to overcome his lack of religious education with a strong historical, strategic, and military background. His writings remain significant because of their intergenerational appeal and the novelty present in them. Unlike many other jihadist ideologues, al-Suri was able to influence modern jihadist movements because he was able to justify jihadist operations and was able to understand and advise on how to organize and structure jihadist groups. His refusal to recant his writings, even at the risk of being imprisoned, made him even more important and followed.
There is no doubt that regardless of his fate, his thoughts and writings have influenced the jihadist landscape. It is probable, according to the author, that one of the reasons why jihadist terrorist organizations and groups have so far essentially failed, is precisely because they have not followed through with what Abu Musab preached, i.e. not to become unpopular, elitist and marginal in their operations.
Appeared in Akhbar al-Aan on 06/12/2022 - https://www.akhbaralaan.net/news/columnists/2022/12/06
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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