Britain has lowered its state of alert from “critical” to “severe,” which is where it was before bombs almost started going off in London and Glasgow a few days ago. The cops say they’ve rounded up all the unusual suspects, seven physicians and a woman medical technician who come from India, Jordan and Iraq. “There is no intelligence to suggest that an attack is expected imminently,” said a statement from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, but the threat remains “serious and real.”
If the examples of other busted plots in Britain—and one horribly effective one on London’s buses and underground trains on July 7, 2005—are any indication, the question of just how serious, how real, how extensive, how precisely connected to other networks these alleged conspirators may have been will linger for years, until their trials are over, and possibly long afterward. Yet in a literal sense the “intellectual authors” of the earlier plots and very probably of this one, already are well known. And it’s important to emphasize the word “intellectual,” even if the bombs, this time around, were ineffectual. There’s new thinking at work among some of Al Qaeda’s brains, and their ideas are spreading fast even if the men themselves are captured or eliminated.
Indeed, the most important jihadi strategist today, known as Abu Musab al-Suri, reportedly was captured in Pakistan almost two years ago. He seems to have disappeared immediately into the secret embrace of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or the foreign services with which it cooperates. Certainly he hasn’t been heard from publicly since September 2005. But what this extroverted thinker and writer—this so-called “Francis Fukuyama of Al Qaeda”—has spilled to interrogators while in detention is very likely insignificant compared to the doctrines he published previously on the Web. His chef d’oeuvre, “The Call for an International Islamic Resistance,” is 1,604 pages long, and is gaining an ever wider audience not only among would-be terrorists, but among those who would try to stop them.
A leading authority on al-Suri’s thinking is Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia, whose book about him, “Architect of Global Jihad,” will be published by Columbia University Press in October. In e-mail exchanges and phone calls this week, Lia talked about just where the so-called “doctors’ cell” in Britain fits into al-Suri’s scheme of things, and, indeed, where al-Suri fits into Al Qaeda’s.
Born Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar in 1958 in Syria, and educated there as a mechanical engineer, al-Suri has established terrorist connections literally all over the map: Syria, Jordan, Spain (where he married and became a citizen), Afghanistan (where he trained fighters and worked his way up in the councils of Osama bin Laden as, not least, a media adviser), France, Algeria and in Great Britain when “Londonistan” was the great refuge for Muslim dissidents from around the world. Fair skinned with red hair, and speaking Spanish, English and French in addition to Arabic, he moved easily among Europeans.
By 1998 he was back in Afghanistan and, according to Lia, al-Suri worked closely with the Taliban. After they were defeated in 2001 he fled to Iran. Briefly arrested there, he subsequently went to northern Iraq and was for a time associated with the late, infamous Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. In September 2005, al-Suri denied allegations by Western security officials that he played an important role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid, and the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, but he applauded all of them, he said. One of his great goals is to see the United States attacked using explosives laced with radioactive materials: “A dirty bomb for a dirty nation,” as he put it.
But al-Suri’s important breakthroughs have less to do with specific plots than with his wider approach to what U.S. officials have called “fourth-generation warfare,” where no clear battle lines, or, for that matter, borders, are respected. He disdains old, hierarchical jihadi organizations, espousing instead complete decentralization of a global war where “groups of guys,” as American analysts like to call them—groups much like the doctors arrested in Britain and Australia this week—will operate almost independently.
Al-Suri’s ideal would be to isolate the self-created cells completely from one another before and during their attacks in the West, although in practice this has rarely been the case. A study by John W. Books at the University of North Texas, who is looking into links among terrorist networks in Britain, shows that contacts among several groups that operated in the U.K. from 2004 to early 2007 were much more extensive than initially reported when arrests were made or bombs went off. So, too, were the visits of their ringleaders to secret training camps in Pakistan. “There seems to be a strong urge by these people to reach back to the leaderships of Al Qaeda,” Books told me over the phone. “It seems like this [terrorism] is not something you can just do on your own. There’s this need to be touched on the shoulder and told, ‘Yes, you are a member of the larger global jihad'.”
According to Brynjar Lia, al-Suri offers “a comprehensive war-fighting theory” in which “individual terrorism” is just one element. The idea is to carry out terror attacks in the West while at the same time fighting somewhat more conventional guerrilla wars like, say, the one in Iraq. The attacks on the home front make it harder to sustain support for faraway combat on Muslim lands. When “spontaneously organized and self-radicalized cells” in the West can’t get the job done alone, al-Suri allows for “cell builders” to work with them. The facilitators might supply some start-up money and training, but they’re supposed to “vanish from the scene completely before any jihadi operations commence,” says Lia. They don’t want to leave any telltale footprints that could compromise the rest of the network.
We don’t know at this stage if the doctors allegedly plotting to bring so much terror to London and Glasgow ever actually read al-Suri’s work, as such, much less whether they got advice from a cell builder who has since disappeared. The computer hard drives and other data carted out of their apartments over the last few days eventually will tell us more about that. But what we know so far of the conspiracy fits neatly into the “system” that al-Suri outlined in such detail, says Lia.
The targets: a crowded, well-known bar in the heart of London and an airport in Glasgow “would be among the types of targets al-Suri recommended,” says Lia. The terror strategist advocates “causing mass civilian casualties when attacking inside ‘crusader countries'.”
The separation of functions: “As far as we know, the ‘doctors’ cell’ was not involved in jihadi propaganda or jihadi media activities, which fits well with al-Suri’s strict separation between operative cells on the one hand and media and propaganda on the other,” says Lia.
The training: Although medical doctors have to have a background in chemistry, that doesn’t necessarily qualify them as do-it-yourself bomb builders cobbling together makeshift components. Conceivably they thought they were smarter than they were, like a rocket scientist trying to fix the pipes under the kitchen sink and flooding the house. But to al-Suri, in any case, amateurishness is not a problem. What matters most, according to Lia, is the quantity, not the quality of small terrorist cells willing to attack as often and as effectively as they can manage.
The emphasis on means other than “martyrdom operations”: “The London attacks were not suicide attacks and were not meant to be suicide attacks,” notes Lia. Al-Suri is not a big believer in killing yourself for the sake of otherworldly rewards. Indeed, his focus on the doctrines of war rather than dogmas of faith makes him seem secular by comparison with many other jihadis. His teachings are a little like the American Gen. George Patton’s in World War II, who famously told his troops that “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
A doctrine like that can appeal to people who see guerrilla warfare—or terrorism—as a means to specific political ends, but are not necessarily empty-eyed religious fanatics normally associated with stereotyped images of suicide bombers. Sometimes, according to Lia, al-Suri “comes close to ridiculing the martyrdom obsession” of many would-be jihadis. Blowing yourself up in the name of Allah, al-Suri suggests, might be fine for those on their way to Paradise, but, in itself, doesn’t do much for the cause. “What is important is the impact in terms of confusing, paralyzing and terrorizing the enemy,” explains Lia, and the extent to which all this fits into a larger strategy.
So where, then, does al-Suri think all this will end, if there is any end at all? Maybe he’ll tell us some day, if he’s ever seen alive again. Critical evaluation of past battles has always been his strong suit, and it’s conceivable he’ll see the error of his ways and his analysis. Other jihadis have changed their minds about holy war before him—especially after long years of jail and interrogation. But in the meantime al-Suri’s ideas endure, and the terror he worked so hard to foster continues.