Abu Musab al-Suri: Theorist of Modern Jihad

I had seen a several references to the recent book Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri by Brynjar Lia, and I thought it sounded interesting. However, I was inspired to order the book by an excellent recent review essay. I strongly suggest you read the review, even rather than reading this post.

Osama bin Laden is the name and face we typically associate with the global Islamist terrorist movement. But bin Laden may be the man of yesterday. Al-Suri may ultimately be seen as the superior theoretician and strategist for the ongoing militant jihad against the USA, its allies, and the “near enemy”, i.e. the existing governments of the Arab Middle East. The reviewer describes al-Suri as “al-Qaida’s most formidable and far-sighted military strategist.”

The review gives an overview of al-Suri’s extraordinary life as a militant, and as the author of numerous books.

What I found most interesting was the parallel between al-Suri’s thought, and some of the current thinking among Western military writers on decentralized and networked warfare.

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.

Al-Suri is apparently an eclectic thinker, not blinkered by his Islamic beliefs, unlike some of his fellow jihadis:

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. …
[Al-Suri writes 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’.

Faced with massive western firepower, the jihad has to disperse and operate in clandestine fashion. This is merely the latest iteration of the response to the “radical lethality” of modern weapons, as described by Stephen Biddle, in his book Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. This process began in World War I, when modern technology brought a massive volume and intensity of firepower to the battlefield, which transformed military technique. Modern conventional warfare requires dispersal, concealment and skillful use of combined arms. It is very, very difficult and expensive to do this well. To try and fail to wage war in this way leads to annihilation. The USA has for some decades been the master of this kind of warfare. Actual and potential enemies of the United States have chosen to steer clear entirely of the “storm of steel” generated by our conventional military. Saddam’s regime is one exception, and it is now gone and he is dead. That is probably the last time anyone will ever get into that particular boxing ring with the USA. The “middle range” of warfare is now foreclosed. Actual and potential enemies of the USA have to reach “up the ladder” to nuclear weapons, to checkmate our conventional power. Or, in the alternative, or in parallel, go down the ladder to terrorism and other methods which are primarily political and psychological in their impact.

Furthermore, the jihad not only fights in dispersed fashion, as it must to survive. As al-Suri would have it, the jihad does not even have leaders. The reviewer compares al-Qaeda to a franchise. In al-Suri’s vision, the jihad has an ideology, and a methodology, and it encourages free-lancing. He is quoted as saying: “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.” Furthermore, it has to be leaderless. To have leaders is to have a system of command and control, which is to open yourself up to attack on that very system. A system of command and control can be attacked, it is a key source of weakness in the face of a powerful and technologically proficient enemy.

… 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.

It is noteworthy that all militaries hope to “push responsibility downward”, to disperse decision-making, to prevent paralysis and encourage initiative. It is difficult to do this. A key element is the inculcation of a common moral ethos and intellectual approach, as well as commonly understood tactics. This way even dispersed components can work by a sort of “implicit” cooperation even if not directly communicating, even amidst the fog of war. The Germans were once good at this kind of thing, for about a century up to 1945. Lord Nelson’s ship captains, his “band of brothers” were for a few years similarly bound by their common experience and indoctrination by Nelson himself, so that they all acted in coordinated fashion when the day of battle came. Whether the global jihad can approximate this type of thing remains an open question.

War is always a hot-house for military innovation. The film proceeds on “fast forward”. Al-Suri’s ideas seem to have been validated in practice. The American intervention to Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq, and global attack on al-Qaeda by the USA and its allies, have all forced the survivors to adopt something like al-Suri’s proposed methods.

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.

Faced with a “leaderless jihad”, the problem for the anti-terrorist is that the hydra becomes impossible to kill, with new heads appearing without notice. But the downside for the jihad is that the very measures that allow it to survive prevent large-scale operations. The military principle of mass cannot be brought into play by the jihadis if they operate as self-starting cells. The jihad is restricted to pinpricks, or at best knife-thrusts, on this model. To the extent they try to operate as a network, to gain mass for larger blows, the jihadis open themselves up to surveillance, detection and destruction, either arrest by police forces, or by being killed outright. Of course, the historical record shows that the persistent application of low grade violence is an effective means to achieve political goals. Whether the jihad can translate its apocalyptic goals into achievable political ends, permitting a negotiated resolution, or any kind of real world resolution, is an open question. Al-Qaeda is not the IRA, which had some tangible goals allowing it to declare victory, to cite to one successful recent terrorist campaign.

The reviewer concludes that al-Suri’s:

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.

This sounds more like a group of homicidal, self-deluded hackers than a disciplined terrorist or guerilla movment. Such a movement could end up a perpetual, intermittently destructive, factor in our global society. A troublesome, painful, but not fatal chronic illness. That is probably the best case scenario, for a long time to come.

Al-Suri was captured after a gun battle in Quetta, Pakistan on 31 October 2005. He is believed to be in US custody.

Read the whole review.

If anyone reads the book before I do, and writes about it, please send me the link.

2 thoughts on “Abu Musab al-Suri: Theorist of Modern Jihad”

  1. Aren’t China and perhaps also North Korea regarded as offering a significant conventional arms threat to American interests, as widely defined. The conflict of China with Taiwan offers the potential for a conventional-power confrontation with the U.S. along with North Korea’s artillery threat to Seoul. I am not sure that the days of potential army-against-army conflict between the US and another power are over.

    I am not saying the U.S. should go to war over Taiwan, but the possibility remains if a number of things go wrong.

  2. If China engages in conflict with the USA it would be insane to go nose to nose with conventional military power. The Chinese leadership are cautious, thoughtful, self-interested, ruthless, unsentimental and long-term thinkers. They will find a way to thwart or neutralize or work around US conventional power, even if they come into some kind of conflict. More likely, they will heed Sun Tzu and try to gain their political ends without warfare.

    As to North Korea, their senior leadership may be insane. But factions within the NK leadership are sane, and self-interested. They are basically a small mafia who have a good life amidst abject squalor. They want to keep the gravy train going, not go out in an Asian Götterdämmerung. A conventional war would be one Hell of a show, but it would certainly lead to defeat for the North and the death of the regime. I suspect long term we will see ongoing provocation from the NKs, as a way to get further bribes and buy-outs from South Korea and others. Perhaps a faction will displace the Kim Family Regime and become a less troublesome client state to China, analogously to Burma. That would be a good outcome, compared to the status quo. Let us hope the current NK regime dies with a whimper not a bang.

    The USA should preserve its conventional capabilities, but I think they are going to become less relevant as potential foes steer clear of them. They will be deterrant forces, like our nukes, and thus rarely used. That would be good, too. Conventional war is very destructive and if it dies out as a way to solve disputes, good. The so-called “low intensity warfare” that is left is intense enough to keep people busy.

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