The great humanitarian leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, recently released from prison Abu Musab al-Suri (real name: Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasar). Thought to be the planner behind the 2005 London subway bombings and the catastrophic train bombing in Spain the previous year, he was turned over to the CIA in Pakistan in 2005 (there was a $5M price on his head), and later transferred to Syria.
Perhaps they thought Assad could be trusted to hold this guy, a radical Sunni extremist who had been imprisoned in the 1990’s for trying to overthrow Bashar’s father. But Assad let him go, probably to punish the West for its (so far, minimal) support of Syrian rebels and as a warning not to intervene in his murder spree. And given evidence of Iranian involvement in the 9/11 attacks, it’s not far-fetched to think that perhaps the Iranian regime gave Assad a push in this direction as well.
Writing in the Wall St. Journal this weekend, David Samuels describes Nasar’s thinking:
What [Nasar] learned from the Afghan debacle and from al Qaeda’s subsequent defeat in Iraq was that jihadists were all but helpless in battle against modern Western armies. In place of old-fashioned hierarchical terror organizations, which had failed, he called for a global struggle in which shadowy motivators and facilitators would prompt jihadists to train and arm themselves in independent, self-generating terror cells that would target Western civilians. His goal: a relentless campaign of exemplary acts of violence under a single ideological banner, culminating in the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Nasar sharply criticized Bin Laden for maintaining a relatively centralized movement which could be (and was) effectively targeted by Western armies and technology. He wrote a 1600-page book titled “The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance,” which appeared on the Internet, outlining his strategy.
“He is probably the first to spell out a doctrine for a decentralized global jihad,” said Brynjar Lia, a senior counterterrorism researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, who is writing a book on Nasar. “In my humble opinion, he is the best theoretician among the jihadi ideologues and strategists out there. Nobody is as systematic and comprehensive in their analysis as he is. His brutal honesty and self-criticism is unique in jihadi circles.”
There’s no doubt that a guy like Nasar is hugely dangerous. And while he himself was certainly viewed as such by the US — although the decision to send him to Syria seems strange to me — I continue to believe that we are not taking the ideology of radical Islam seriously enough.
Our security apparatus (with notable exceptions, like the NYPD) focuses on card-carrying members of al-Qaeda, while failing to take seriously free-lance jihadists — often presented as ‘crazy’ — who are animated by radical Islamic ideology even if they lack direct connections to terror organizations: vicious murderers like Mohammed Merah, Nidal Hassan (the Fort Hood terrorist), or Naveed Haq, the Seattle Jewish Federation shooter.
Possibly those responsible do understand that democratic West is facing a massive challenge — the greatest since the Nazi and Soviet threats — but they have made a conscious decision to deal with it quietly. Maybe they think that clearly describing the threat as radical Islam in its multitude of incarnations would be counterproductive, because it would stir up too much backlash from the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims.
I don’t know exactly what they think. But it seems likely that the face of terrorism in the near future will be that of the Nasars and those that follow them, activated by means of the anonymous Internet.
The theory that we are primarily fighting al-Qaeda and similar organizations limits us in protecting ourselves from the kind of terrorism that will become all too familiar as centralized terror groups become more and more irrelevant. Today we are trying to preempt terrorism by cutting off its head. But what if there is no head?
Nasar wants to metastasize terrorism. His theory is to build the ideology and the violence will come, from the bottom up. Therefore, the best defense — as the NYPD understands — must also be from the bottom up: it’s necessary to seek out the ideology and those who are prepared to act on it at the lowest levels: mosques, student groups, etc.
What we need to do is exactly what the administration refuses to do: name the enemy, focus on ideology, and profile!