Al Qaeda is losing – badly, said John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism in a speech Monday, April 30 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But as the Al Qaeda core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause.”
By this diagnosis, Barack Obama’s terrorism expert elegantly avoided getting into the fierce strategic-ideological debate raging inside the Al Qaeda leadership on four continents – Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East – over whether their organization should defer to a central leadership or give free rein to its franchises which also appear to be linked by threads invisible to the Western agencies monitoring them.
Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri is a fierce champion of a centralistic Al Qaeda as the structure best suited to bolstering him as top dog.
But he is widely challenged: The next generation of Al Qaeda commander, scattered over continents and lands, leans toward the “multi-pede” concept advanced by Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian terrorist chief from Aleppo, an enigmatic character whose record has long blank passages.
His young adherents are tugging at the confines placed upon them by the concentration of a command center in Afghanistan and Pakistan as it was during Osama bin Laden’s reign. Any Muslim wishing to see top al Qaeda leaders were forced then to travel or send their emissaries to those places. The young al Qaeda chiefs want command powers devolved to regional and local branches and more freedom for decisions.
A-Suri: Ideological jihad must lead to use of weapons of mass destruction
Before 9/11, Al-Suri (real name Mustafa Setmariam Nasar) worked as facilitator who ushered Western reporters into the presence of bin Laden in Afghanistan. In October, 2005, he published on the Web a book of 1,600 pages entitled “A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance."
This manifesto, blending historical analysis with trenchant commentary, covered what he saw as the two disastrous decades of the jihadist movement’s strategic and operational fiascos. He conceded that the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York gave al Qaeda a short-term public-relations boost, but went on to describe how American cruise missiles made short work of the group's havens in Afghanistan, and Western special forces and intelligence agencies decimated the ranks of its fighters and crippled the global jihadist movement.
The Afghan debacle and al Qaeda’s subsequent defeat in Iraq taught Al-Suri that the mujahedin were all but helpless against modern Western armies.
He concluded that the failed old-fashioned hierarchical structures of the terrorist organizations must make way for what he called for a global struggle: “Shadowy motivators and facilitators would prompt jihadists to train and arm themselves in independent, self-generating terror cells for targeting 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.”
Did Osama bin Laden turn him in?
Shortly after his manifesto was published, Al-Suri was captured by the Pakistanis.
The tale of al Qaeda infighting at that time is shrouded in mystery, as is the jockeying among the various Western, Muslim and Arab undercover agencies fighting a Qaeda for sources, informants and inside agents.
According to one popular theory, Osama bin Laden turned the Syrian ideologue in for fear that Al-Suri’s charisma and attractive strategic doctrine threatened his own standing as leader and ideological mentor.
Bin Laden had been known on numerous occasions to have thrown lieutenants who had exhausted their usefulness to Western intelligence as bait to draw their attention away from what was really going on in the organization.
Pakistani security transferred Al-Suri to the CIA. In late 2006, the Americans renditioned him to Syria, his country of birth. But if they expected the Syrian security authorities to share information gained from interrogating him, they were wrong.
After dropping out of sight for five years, Al-Suri turned up five months ago when, in January, Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered him escorted to the Iraqi border and freed.
The new Al Qaeda is evolving in secret
Western intelligence organizations are still puzzled by this; they can’t figure out why Assad let him go and who was waiting on the other side of the border to pick him up.
According to one theory, Iran procured al Suri from Syria as a prime asset for its terrorist networks and he is now working for them. According to another, he fetched up in Iraq.
Wherever he is working from, the Syrian master jihadist is presumed to have built himself and al Qaeda a new strategic ideological command which is contesting and sapping the strength of the movement’s titular leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in three key arenas, Syria, Iraq and Egyptian Sinai.
(More on this in the next item.)