Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 3

Abu Mus’ab al-Suri

After weeks of rumors, a well-known contributor to jihadi web forums has confirmed the release from a Syrian prison of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (real name Mustafa Abdul-Qadir Mustafa al-Set Mariam), one of the most prominent jihadi ideologues and strategists (, February 2).  The contributor, who uses the name “Assad al-Jihadi 2,” frequently provides insights into the strategies of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in the Levant and Syria and is believed to be well-connected with the leaders of these organizations (see Terrorism Monitor, March 26, 2009). As such, his confirmation of al-Suri’s release can be considered credible.

Born in Aleppo and 54 years old, al-Suri is an experienced jihadist ideologue that fought against the Syrian regime in the early 1980s and arranged interviews with Osama Bin Laden for Western journalists while he was in “Londonistan” in the early 1990s. Al-Suri also ran two training camps in Afghanistan and later theorized global jihadist strategies (see Terrorism Monitor, August 15, 2005; September 1, 2006; February 21, 2007; Terrorism Focus, May 9, 2006). [1]

Al-Suri is one of the leading developers of geopolitical strategies for al-Qaeda and the jihad movement in general. He urged jihadists to strengthen their position in Central Asia and to use Yemen as a launching pad against the neighbouring Gulf States. The current flow of fighters to their home countries in Central Asia from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as well as the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen shows the influence of al-Suri’s ideas. While it is true that jihadists are driven by conditions on the ground, such ideas have nonetheless played a major role in shaping the movement’s ideology.

However, al-Suri’s most important product is the over-1500-page book Da’wat al-Moqawma al-Islamiyah (Global Islamic Resistance Call), in which he discussed the Afghan Jihad and the Islamic movements which it inspired, as well as reviewing military tactics, propaganda, and fundraising methods. Al-Suri’s central theory is what he calls nitham la tanthim (“a system, not an organization.”) He has promoted the idea that jihadist movements should work according to a system; they should target the close enemy (local regimes) or the far one (United States, Israel, India, etc.) in a way that reveals there is agreement over the general aims of the Salafi-jihadist movements without the need for organizational orders. This theory applies to the so-called “individual jihad.”

Al-Suri’s strategic insights into “the jihad in Syria” are not limited to the confrontation with the Syrian regime, but also presented a sort of a guide to “the failure of the jihadist experience in Syria,” referring to the confrontation between the Syrian regime and Muslims Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He attributed this “failure” to a lack of strategy and planning, unified ideology, jihadist theory and weaknesses in informational and media groundwork.

Since March 2011, Syria has witnessed demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and an end to the rule of the Ba’ath Party on a daily basis. While the protesters insist on the peaceful nature of their political movement, the Syrian regime justifies its violent reaction by claiming they are confronting “Takfiri-Salafi armed groups.” All indicators show that no “Takfiri-Salafi armed groups” are involved in leading the democratic protests in Syria.

However, the violence that the regime is using against protestors might inadvertently lead to radicalization and the emergence of new jihadists as well as provoking existing Syrian jihadists. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 played a major role in generating local jihadist networks in Syria (see Terrorism Monitor, March 26, 2009).  As recently as January 24, jihadist forums posted a video announcing the establishment of a new jihadi group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (The Front for the Protection of the Syrian People) created to fight against the Syrian regime and defend the Syrian people. The video was produced by the group’s media company al-Manara al-Baida (White Beacon).

In this context, al-Suri’s release by the Syrian regime raises questions as to the purposes behind such a decision and the implications of this action if al-Suri was released healthy and able to assume jihadist activities. By this action, the Syrian regime is conveying a powerful message to the United States at a time when the Obama Administration is insisting on the departure of Bashar al-Assad. The message essentially reads; there will be no more counter-terrorism cooperation. Al-Suri’s rendition to Syria and Syrian action to prevent jihadists from using Syria to cross into Iraq were manifestations of this cooperation. The Syrian regime assumes that if al-Suri launches any operations inside Syria it would able to contain them after conveying their message to the United States.

Nonetheless, the Syrian regime may be underestimating al-Suri’s abilities as a jihadist and his potential to pose a threat to the regime in the context of the on-going political turmoil.  In the 1970s, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat turned a blind eye to jihadists’ activities in Egypt to balance the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. A few years later, the same jihadists assassinated al-Sadat. Syria’s experience with contemporary jihadists is quite similar with the regime turning a blind eye to the volunteers travelling through Syria to Iraq to fight against American troops there. Despite the “mutual interests” shared by jihadists and the Syrian regime in fighting American troops in Iraq, the enmity between the parties is genuine, and jihadists could not be used by the Syrian regime to further its own interests.         

With his experience and ideological charisma, al-Suri could serve as an inspiration for Syrian jihadists, especially in promoting the concept of “individual jihad,” which could form part of a backlash to the American reliance on drones to target al-Qaeda leaders and operatives. While al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadists groups are facing difficulties from drone attacks and the political impact of the Arab Spring, al-Suri could significantly boost “lone wolf” operations by potential suicide bombers and his ideological influence will be obvious if a new jihadist battlefield is opened in Syria. It is also worth noting that al-Suri, with his strong popularity on the internet (most jihadi web forums celebrated his release), could play a major role in advancing and rejuvenating online jihadist strategies.

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.

1. For a well-written account of al-Suri, see: Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. New York, 2008.