An old face appears poised to play a new role in the jihadist movement. On Feb. 2, plugged-in online jihadists confirmed that one of the jihad's most original and respected theoreticians, Abu Musab al-Suri, had been released from a Syrian prison.
While not a household name like Osama bin Laden, Suri enjoys a burgeoning influence on the global jihadist movement, and particularly those based in the West. The veteran Syrian jihadist, whose real name is Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasar, is best known for his 1,600-page treatise Dawat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (Call of Global Islamic Resistance), which articulates a strategy of decentralized jihad, rather than one that depends on clandestine organizations. If there is an architect of the jihadists' post-9/11 line of attack, it's Suri.
Suri's ideas have been popularized in jihadist circles over the past few years. They have been taken up by prominent figures like the head of al Qaeda's media department, Adam Gadahn, and Yemeni-American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaqi, as well as being featured by Samir Khan in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire Magazine.
Rumors about Suri's status had been flying around online since Dec. 23, when Sooryoon.net, a Syrian opposition newspaper, published a story saying Suri and his assistant Abu Khalid had been released. It is surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would release a man who is not only a confirmed enemy of his regime, but that of his father Hafez as well. By releasing a major jihadist figure, Assad is playing a dangerous game with the West, which is already debating whether to intervene in the bloody uprising in Syria.
Suri is a divisive figure, quick to pick a fight even with his fellow jihadists. In his biography of Suri, Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia describes him as "a dissident, a critic, and an intellectual in an ideological current in which one would expect to find obedience rather than dissent."
If Suri has indeed been released, al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will not welcome him back into the fold with open arms. Suri, who quit al Qaeda in 1992, has feuded with the jihadist organization over their differing strategies regarding global jihad. Suri criticized the 9/11 attacks because he believed that Afghanistan, which was being used as a base by the Taliban, was crucial to the global Islamic resistance. "The outcome [of the 9/11 attacks] as a I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current," Suri noted. "The jihadis entered the tribulations of the current maelstrom which swallowed most of its cadres over the subsequent three years."
Suri's involvement in the jihadist world traverses the Middle East, South Asia, and its bases among Muslim communities living in the West. In 1980, at the age of 21, he dropped out of the University of Aleppo to join up with the militant offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was calling for a jihad against the Syrian regime. As Hafez al-Assad's security force cracked down on the group, Suri fled to Jordan and remained there until 1983.
Suri later moved to Spain, married a Spanish woman, and obtained Spanish citizenship. In the late 1980s, toward the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, he made his way to Peshawar and became a military instructor for one of Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam's training camps. That is where he first came into contact with bin Laden. In his work the Call of Global Islamic Resistance, Suri recounted that he worked as a military instructor as well as provided lectures on politics, strategy, and guerilla warfare at al Qaeda's training camps until 1991.