Setmariam Nasar: Background on al-Qaeda’s Arrested Strategist

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 12

Since November, reports from Pakistan of the possible arrest of a leading al-Qaeda ideologue have been engaging the interest of media analysts on the war on terrorism. In mid-March, Pakistan security authorities again hinted that they were seeking confirmation that the man arrested last October 31 during a police raid in the southern city of Quetta was a leading Syrian linked to al-Qaeda, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri or Umar Abd al-Hakim. Jihadi forums now regularly append the term fakka Allahu asrahu (“may God set him free”) after his name. The arrest is significant since Nasar is linked both to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 people, and to the July 7 attacks in London that left 56 dead. He has had a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the U.S. State Department for training terrorists, including in the use of poisons and chemicals, in which he worked closely with Abu Khabab al-Masri, the poisons and chemical explosives expert killed during a Pakistani air strike in mid-January (see Terrorism Focus, Volume 3, Issue 3).

Nasar is one of al-Qaeda’s top ideologues, ceding place only to Abdullah Azzam and Abd al-Qadir bin Abd al-Aziz. In terms of his practical analyses on political and military policy, he has proved to be the movement’s most significant strategic brain. Nasar had consciously set out to take on this role. In a response written to the statement issued on November 18, 2004 by the U.S. State Department, he denied having collaborated with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, regretting it as “an honor I was not granted to share in since I had difficulties in getting to Iraq, and because of my isolating myself to devote my time to filling one of the Muslims’ most important gaps—the analysis of our past experiences, drawing lessons from them, and examining the nature of the confrontations and battles that await us, since I am one of the few that are left among the mujahideen specializing in this” (

His jihad experience prepared him well for this task, since it covers all the main arenas of conflict. According to the Minbar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad website, after studying mechanical engineering in Aleppo, Nasar joined the Syrian jihadist movement al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (“The Fighting Vanguard”) and deepened his military expertise at the hands of refugee Syrian military officers in Jordan and Egyptian and Iraqi instructors in Baghdad and Cairo. Specializing in explosives engineering and urban guerrilla warfare, Nasar trained recruits in the military camps of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Baghdad. Following the Syrian Brotherhood’s dramatic reverse in the Hama massacre of 1982, Nasar left the movement and moved to Afghanistan with the intention of reconstructing the dismantled jihadist movement in Syria. There he fought against the Russians and joined the fledgling al-Qaeda movement, deepening his doctrinal and historical training. Subsequently Nasar traveled to Spain and from there in 1995 to Britain, where he collaborated in the founding of the Algerian Groupe islamique armé (GIA). The success of the Taliban movement then brought him back to Afghanistan, where he worked both in propaganda and military training. After the U.S. destruction of his Al-Ghurabaa training camp at Kabul and following the fall of the Emirate following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Nasar ostensibly devoted his energies to writing, re-emerging active in the field following a November 2004 warrant by the U.S. State Department and the posting of $5 million reward for his arrest (

The range of his works in the form of treatises, books and audio lectures indicate the caliber of the man and his prodigious energy. Since well before September 2001, Nasar has been authoring works on the organization of the jihadi movements, detailing its ideal doctrinal and political methodology and leadership structures. Reflecting his pedagogical role in Afghanistan, Naser has written wide-ranging works covering treatises on the present world order and the illegitimacy of modern democratic systems. There are a number of tactical works from his pen, focusing on guerrilla warfare and the use of terrorist cell structures, but a large portion of his oeuvre are “jihad culture” works that focus on the history and development of Islamic political systems. As a result of his deep analysis of history, Nasar’s most original contributions are the works concentrating on reasons for failure in the jihadist movement. These include works on “Aspects of the Jihadi Crisis” such as the experience of the jihad movements in Central Asia, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and his influential 18-chapter Mulahazat hawl al-Tajriba al-Jihadiyya fi Suria (“Observations on the Jihadi Experience in Syria”), published in 1987 and circulated in the form of an e-book by the Minbar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad site (

His most ambitious work is the 1,600 page treatise written in December 2004, entitled Da’wat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya al-‘Alamiyya (“The Call of the International Islamic Resistance”), which outlines future strategies for the global jihad movement, prioritizing terrorist attacks and decentralized urban warfare as the only method to guarantee success. Excerpts from the work are continually circulated on the jihadi forums, and the recent attacks on the Abqaiq oil facilities in Saudi Arabia increased the distribution of sections urging attacks on oil installations.

Strategists of the caliber of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar are few and far between, and the loss of such a figure is highly significant, particularly since he saw his role as one of educating the “third generation” of mujahideen. By these are understood later, dispersed jihadi formations, not subject to the systematic training in Afghanistan and who are in danger of losing the lessons learned from the experiences of earlier jihadi arenas. While Nasar’s works continue to populate the web, his own website al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya al-‘Alamiyya, (“The International Islamic Resistance”) hosting his works and statements ( no longer functions properly. Nasar’s last dated statement was a general salvo made on August 20, 2005, following the London bombings, in which he encouraged sleeper cells the world over to launch a general front against western nations, as “a battle against a single entity that is comprised of all the allies” in what is “a global conflict” (from the Tajdeed jihadi forum