In November last year, Paris suffered its biggest terrorist attack in modern history when 130 people died in a series of shootings and bombings across the city. The mastermind of the attack, a Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was suspected to have travelled to Syria in the past. All of his accomplices were nationals of the European Union. The following month, an American couple of Pakistani origin, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in a shooting in the Californian city of San Bernardino. No direct ties to any extremist group were found – beyond evidence of self-radicalisation.
A nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was attacked by an American of Afghan descent in June this year, the biggest mass-shooting in US history. The attacker, Omar Mateen, was troubled though not having shown in any overt signs of being radicalised. He pledged allegiance to Islamic State head – and self-proclaimed caliph – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi only during a call to an emergency line during the shooting.
Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, Dhaka, Nice. What connects them, beyond the fact that all of the attackers had – in one way or another – operated under the IS banner? Are they, as the media is fond of saying, “lone wolves,” whose actions are being cleverly coopted by the IS? Or are they proverbial pawns in IS’ grand strategy? What is IS’ grand strategy? The answers to these questions may lie in the writings of one man, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri – a Syrian national with Spanish citizenship who was once described by a journalist as resembling an “Irish pub patron”. Al-Suri is now in a prison in Syria, having been rendered there by the CIA after he was captured in Quetta, Pakistan, in 2005. His ideas, on the other hand, are very much at play.
Indeed, tracing through al-Suri’s writings from around the time he was an Al-Qaeda affiliate, we find a remarkable link between his strategic theory – to which Al-Qaeda never quite warmed up – and the relatively-later phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that morphed into the IS we know today.
The intellectual jihadist
Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar – known through a combination of kunya and nom de guerre as “Abu Mus’ab al-Suri” (father of Mus’ab, the Syrian) – was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1958. He began his career as an Islamist militant in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – deeply influenced by the writings of Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. In the 1980s, al-Suri moved to Europe and settled in Spain, eventually obtaining Spanish citizenship through marriage to a Spanish converted to Islam. Like many Islamist militants of that time, al-Suri participated in the Afghan jihad, and established a link with Osama bin Laden.
In fact, bin Laden’s first interview to a western television channel – conducted by Peter Bergen of CNN in 1997 – was facilitated by al-Suri. Bergen came out of this experience deeply impressed by al-Suri, admitting that he came to “admire his intellect.” Al-Suri was something of an autodidact intellectual, intimately familiar with western classical music. His affection for his Spanish wife – contrast this with the dour nature of most Islamists – was something that struck his acquaintances. Al-Suri was not your average Islamist.
While al-Suri was an Al-Qaeda man, his strategic weltanschauung was to diverge with that of Al-Qaeda’s in significant ways. He was to also become increasingly contemptuous of bin Laden – something he shared with the ‘grandfather’ of the IS, the Jordanian Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi. By all accounts, al-Suri had a tremendous influence on al-Zarqawi. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Suri produced his opus – a 1,600-page book called Global Islamic Resistance Call. This remarkable book outlined his vision for ‘Al-Qaeda 2.0′ based on historical lessons learnt, as well as on a close reading of western geopolitics and military strategy. IS was to own up to this Al-Qaeda strategist’s work, as seen by an (unattributed) summa of the same in the first issue of the group’s flagship journal Dabiq.
The grand strategy of global jihad
The first such lesson was the tenuous nature of traditional centralised ‘secret-hierarchical’ terrorist outfits. Al-Suri had brought up this point in a lecture at an Al-Qaeda training camp. As he put it, in such organisations, if one member is caught, then all others are too, since – by definition of such outfits – each member can be linked to every other member. The need, according to al-Suri, was a “system, not organisation”. A key component of this putative ‘resistance system’ would be individuals who would commit to nothing “other than to believe in the ideas, be absolutely certain in his intention, join the call, and educate himself and those around him”, while at the same time pledging allegiance to the system – the tactic of, in al-Suri’s terminology – “individual-terrorism jihad.”
The link between the system and the individual, according to al-Suri, would consist of a common aim, a common name, and a common doctrinal jihadi programme. This is precisely what the relationship of the San Bernardino attackers or the Orlando attacker was to IS. It turns out that social media, in effect, facilitated the practical implementation of al-Suri’s theory.
But al-Suri recognised that the focus of the ‘resistance call’ would be the consolidation of physical territory, the second lesson. He considers the greatest loss from the 11 September, 2001 attacks to be not the destruction of the extant Al-Qaeda but the expulsion of the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, which meant that the group didn’t have a consolidated physical shelter. This territory – “Al-Qaeda” (the base) – would also, according to al-Suri, be the front for a head-on military confrontation with the adversary. Al-Suri ruled out most of West Asia, Central Asia and Africa, as suitable for the establishment of the base that would be the focal point of a putative Islamic State. He singled out – and it is important to remember that he was writing before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – the ‘Levant and Iraq’ as possessing suitable features for an “open-front jihad”. Al-Suri also calculated that, sooner than later, the US and its allies would invade Syria, which would give the vanguards of the physical base there tremendous advantage in an asymmetric conflict.
The final lesson that al-Suri drew was the need to structure the ‘resistance call’ in a de-centralised way that would mesh individual-terrorism jihad with the strategic goal of open-front/territorial jihad. He proposes an organisation with three concentric circles. The innermost circle (centred around an emir or a putative caliph) would be the leadership circle. This is necessarily organisationally-centralised and physically located in the same place (in case of IS, Raqqa in Syria). This circle lies inside a circle of “de-centralised units,” comprising jihadis who are directly trained and then spread across the world. Finally, there is the outer circle – the Daw’ah circle, in al-Suri’s jargon – which would be made up of individuals like the San Bernardino couple, or the Nice attacker. While individuals and units in the inner two circles are allowed to communicate with each other and within themselves, such is not the case for communication with the outer circle – where individuals and units operate autonomously and yet, in sync with the larger ‘organisational priorities’.
Blinded by apparently nihilistic violence, it can often be tempting to dismiss IS as a group without any overarching strategic vision. Part of this denial is psychological: To accept that the group may indeed have a grand strategy, may feel like giving IS too much credit. And yet, the fact of the matter is that the writings of post-9/11 jihadi theorists reveal a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the means and ends of global jihad – IS (as ‘Al-Qaeda 2.0’) indeed has a strategy for its present and future.
Just ask al-Suri.