One of al Qaeda’s top people, whose strategy continues to inspire attacks, was in CIA custody. Then he was handed over to Syria and set free.
It has been a while since we heard directly from “the architect of global jihad,” “the mufti of murder,” the apostle of “individualized terror” known by his nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Suri. Indeed, most people outside jihadist circles have never heard of him at all.
But thanks to the shadowy practices of the Bush administration in its global war on terror, this Syrian-born former adviser to Osama bin Laden is now at large- and an inspiration to a whole new generation of killers, including, it would seem, those in Boston and London.
And these attacks do not look as if they are likely to stop any time soon. Over the weekend, a French soldier on anti-terrorist patrol at the La Defense transport hub and shopping center on the outskirts of Paris had his neck slashed by a tall, bearded assailant who has yet to be apprehended.
Al-Suri, a continuing inspiration to terrorist far and wide, had a core strategy which was detailed in a 1,600-page treatise, The Call for an International Islamic Resistance. He encouraged opportunistic and improvised terrorist acts in the West, sapping the public’s morale and undermining the ability of the American, British, French, or other armies to fight on Muslim soil. But it is such a thorough guide to the philosophy and techniques of terror that crazies far outside the realm of Islam have adopted it. Anders Behring Breivik, the Muslim-hating “lone wolf” who murdered 69 people in Norway in July 2011, studied Al-Suri’s lessons closely.
I wrote about Al-Suri in detail in 2007, after an interview with Al-Suri biographer Brynjar Lia, author of Architect of Global Jihad. Yet after the proliferation of “lone wolf” attacks in recent years, and indeed in recent weeks, it all seems much more relevant.
Al-Suri was not a big advocate of suicide bombings. He was unimpressed by huge spectaculars. He wanted to substitute quantity for quality in the terror business. He mistrusted empty-eyed religious fanatics whose suicidal goal was to get to Paradise. “What is important,” said Lia, “is the impact in terms of confusing, paralyzing and terrorizing the enemy.”
In 2005, the Pakistanis captured Al-Suri and reportedly turned him over to the Central Intelligence Agency. How long and where the agency held him is not known to the public, but eventually he was “renditioned” to the tender mercies of the Syrian security forces serving President Bashar al-Assad. Yes, thatBashar al-Assad.
At the time, the CIA was trying to maneuver a delicate relationship with Damascus, which involved the kind of cynical commerce in lives that John Le Carré often writes about. The Syrians were a problem. They were facilitating the flow of radical jihadists into Iraq who were blowing up Americans and their allies by the hundreds. But it was assumed the Syrians didn’t really like al Qaeda; they just wanted to use its minions to stir up trouble for their enemies. At the same time, Washington was looking to enhance its own cooperation with Damascus. Throwing the skin and bones of Al-Suri to Assad’s minions would be one way to do that. What the deal was precisely we may never know, but if Congress wants to investigate a critical mistake in the fight against al Qaeda, the Al-Suri case would be a good starting point.
According to intelligence officers serving in the region at the time, the CIA had a fairly extensive liaison relationship with some of the Syrian services, of which there are many. (Much of their work is to watch each other.) As often happens, storms could break over the diplomatic ties without breaking the clandestine ones. Agreements were reached, information garnered.
But after the Arab Spring revolts at the beginning of 2011 led to a popular uprising in Syria, all bets were off. Assad’s thugs tortured and mutilated little boys and called them terrorists. They insisted their enemy was al Qaeda and similar jihadists, which struck many experienced intelligence officers as ironic considering the games Assad played with them a few years earlier.
The Obama administration, after first hoping that Assad could maneuver himself into the position of a reformer, finally gave up and started calling for him to step down. But Assad continued with the global-war-on-terror mantra that had served his duplicitous ends with the Bush administration. Apparently to fulfill his own prophecy-and signal Washington he would no longer play ball, even in the shadows-in January 2012 Assad let Al-Suri and one of his top aides walk free.
Read more from Christopher Rickey at The Daily Beast.