Argument

Free Radical

Bashar al-Assad appears to have let one of the world's most prominent jihadist ideologues out of jail. He's playing with fire.

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.

After shuttling back and forth between Madrid and Afghanistan for several years, Suri moved to London in the mid-1990s. It is believed he moved because he was under pressure from Spanish security, which suspected that he was connected to terrorist attacks by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in France in 1995. In Britain, Suri became deeply involved with the "Londonistan" jihadi underground. He helped produce and wrote articles for the GIA's magazine al-Ansar, but quit the magazine in 1996 as a result of the organization's over-the-top and sadistic tactics.

Suri returned to Afghanistan a year later, and maintained a loose affiliation with the Taliban. He is also known for having facilitated Peter Bergen's famous CNN interview with Bin Laden in 1997.

In 2000, Suri opened his own training camp -- called al-Ghuraba ("The Strangers") Camp, located in Kargha, near Kabul. It was not affiliated with al Qaeda's camps, and Suri did not have a large following. He stayed there until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, when he fled along with many other jihadists. He wrote his 1,600-page treatise in Pakistan before his arrest.

It is hard to determine Suri's intentions or capabilities now that he has reportedly been released. After being imprisoned for the past six or seven years, his psychological state remains a mystery. And even if he wanted to, it is not clear whether Suri could muster a large base of supporters in Syria. He has not lived freely in the country since the early 1980s -- his following may be larger online than in the real world.

But Suri does have a number of advantages working in his favor if he wants to once again play a role in the jihadist world. The fact that so many of the old guard -- such as bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, and Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman -- are dead or captured would bolster his status instantly, especially since his ideas have become more accessible and popular through translations of his work.

Additionally, his lore will grow in light of an alleged vision he had this past August, which was relayed by online jihadist Jundi Dawlat al-Islam ("Soldier of the Islamic State"), a member of the important Shamukh al-Islam Arabic Forum. "I have been informed that the Shaykh [Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important role in Bilad al-Sham (Syria), we ask Allah that it becomes true," the jihadist wrote. Suri's release will be seen as a vindication of that vision by his supporters, and no doubt boost his influence.

Just because he's reportedly out of Syrian prison doesn't mean Suri is out of danger. The Spanish government may try to extract him from Syria due to his believed involvement in 2004 Madrid train bombings. Suri may also seek refuge in Yemen, which he has written is the best location for jihad and establishing an Islamic state other than the Taliban's Afghanistan.

The past 5 years has seen a rise, especially in the West, of Suri's leaderless jihad strategy. But while attacks such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting have proven traumatic, solo attacks, by and large, have had a low success rate. Upon his release, Suri may well reevaluate this strategy and offer new thoughts on how to implement it. Whatever the case, his release will only re-energize his followers and provide new motivation for individuals to join the global jihad.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Argument

Keystone Kops

Environmentalists picked the wrong battle in opposing the Keystone XL project.

The polarizing debate about whether the United States should issue a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe crude from oil sands near Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, is an almost surreal lesson in issue-framing. The pipeline has become a political football in an election season: Republicans have used it as a cudgel to paint President Barack Obama as a job-killer, while the White House hails it as a rare victory for environmentalists at a time when much of its climate change agenda has stalled.

The political point-scoring has only served to obscure the issues raised by Keystone XL. Oil is likely to be in short supply in the coming years, given the turmoil in the Middle East. Therefore, U.S. environmentalists are unlikely to be able to stop Canada -- which, ironically, has a far more proactive greenhouse gas management policy than the United States -- from finding buyers and transportation for its secure and readily available oil, no matter how much pollution it may create.

Because it crosses international borders, Keystone XL needs a presidential permit from the U.S. State Department to move forward. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially indicated that such approval would be forthcoming, but a political uproar from environmentalists delayed the decision. Congressional Republicans inserted a provision in a tax bill giving the administration a Feb. 21 deadline to make a decision, but on Jan. 18 Obama gave the pipeline a thumbs-down, saying that the deadline made it impossible to adequately assess the pipeline's environmental impact. The saga continued on Jan. 30, as 44 senators signed their names to a new bill that would green-light the pipeline, bypassing the president.

As Keystone XL has been transformed into an election issue, both sides have shifted their line of attack. Republicans have largely abandoned the claim that Canada's oil is important for U.S. energy security, preferring to slam the president for dumping a plan that they say would have created 20,000 American jobs. Primary contender Newt Gingrich has assailed the president for his "utterly irrational" policy, which would "kill American jobs, weaken American energy, [and] make us more vulnerable to the Iranians."

Environmental groups have also switched their messaging. They originally criticized the line for carrying crude from oil sands, which require higher carbon emissions and large-scale water demands to produce than conventional oil. However, after an oil pipeline leak in North Dakota, environmentalists pressed the White House to consider the risk that leaks would pollute the locally important freshwater Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.

Beneath the bombast, both sides should learn important lessons from this clash. The oil industry should learn that one cannot steamroll over clean-water concerns by pithily pointing out that tens of thousands of miles of existing energy pipelines already traverse the Ogallala Aquifer. Engaging the public is going to be critical for other energy producers seeking licenses to operate, as Shell's successful bid to drill in Alaska's Chukchi Sea indicates. The international major has said that it has paid $350 million for two ice-breaking disaster-preparedness ships to respond to any potential accident as part of the $4 billion it has already spent on the process.

But there is also a lesson for Americans who care about the environment: Vital infrastructure is not a good choice for a political litmus test. America's energy future is inextricably linked with its northern neighbor. Canada is the largest crude oil exporter to the United States, supplying 22 percent of imports, and its production is expected to increase by 1 million to 2 million barrels a day over the next decade. That's in sharp contrast with Mexico, the next-largest U.S. supplier at 11 percent, which is facing steep production declines and could become a net oil importer over the next decade, according to a study published last year by the Baker Institute.

As oil supplies from the Middle East look increasingly tenuous, the United States has an obvious national interest in cultivating imports from its neighbors. What's more, it is unlikely -- given sky-high demand for crude -- that secure oil found in these locales will remain unproduced. If Keystone is ultimately denied a permit, chances are the oil will move by train or truck, creating even more greenhouse gases and chances of industrial accidents than a pipeline. A study last August prepared by EnSys Energy and Navigistics Consulting for the departments of Energy and State argues that rail capacity for 500,000 to 1 million barrels per day of crude coming into the United States appears available today and that rail could increase capacity by at least 1.25 million barrels per day by 2030.

So while the United States needs to take its environmental management seriously, environmental supporters also need to choose their battles wisely. A tremendous effort went into blocking the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of weaning the United States off oil. But in fact, all that effort likely won't block the actual oil -- it will just find different ways to reach the U.S. market.

The only way to decrease U.S. reliance on oil is to lobby for policies that help consumers need less of it. That will require more fuel-efficient cars and public transportation, tighter environmental building standards, higher numbers of natural gas- or electric-powered fleets, and even -- perish the thought -- higher taxes on oil use. What does not help is political mudslinging over the Keystone XL pipeline, which only serves to distract from the real issues.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images