Jihadist of Mass Destruction

By Paul Cruickshank and Mohanad Hage Ali
Sunday, June 11, 2006

'Dirty bombs for a dirty nation."

The slogan appeared on a jihadist Web site in December 2004, its author lamenting that the planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, did not also carry weapons of mass destruction. He pressed for a WMD attack against the United States, and proposed that deadly new dirty-bomb catchphrase to rally his followers.

No al-Qaeda figure, not even Osama bin Laden, has dedicated more effort to thinking through how to destroy the United States than the author of that Web posting, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the veteran Syrian jihadi whom Pakistani police arrested last fall. He is arguably al-Qaeda's most influential strategist since 9/11, and has been at the center of al-Qaeda's efforts to develop WMD capabilities since the late 1990s.

Setmariam's little-noticed capture, along with the much more heralded killing last week of Iraq insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, represents one of the most significant U.S. victories against terrorism in the past few years. But this is a rapidly changing war in which the arrest or death of any one leader may not matter. The new al-Qaeda promoted by Setmariam and Zarqawi is an al-Qaeda that lives on the Internet and in the swelling ranks of jihadists worldwide.

Indeed, Setmariam's exhortations and ideas, posted over the years on jihadist Web sites, offer a public dossier on al-Qaeda's strategies for global jihad and its internal debates on WMD. Our examination of thousands of pages of Setmariam's writings and videos of his speeches reveals just how influential the 47-year-old Syrian has been in redirecting al-Qaeda toward a more decentralized and hard-line jihad -- one that will be that much harder to defeat because it is now so diffuse.

Setmariam's vision centered on a few key ideas: Al-Qaeda needed to remake itself to become looser, meaner and more resilient. And to defeat the United States, jihad should be waged globally and with many more recruits.

This vision has become reality. After the London bombings of July 2005, which were undertaken by a local, autonomous cell and resembled attacks in Casablanca, Istanbul and Madrid, Setmariam gloated on a jihadist Web site: "I swear to God that I have in me a joy stronger than the joy of the farmer who sees the harvest of his fruits after a long planting."

Setmariam developed his strategy at the al-Ghuraba camp in Afghanistan from 1998 to 2001, where he instructed the best and brightest of al-Qaeda -- those who could recruit and plan operations.

His Afghanistan lectures were filmed and distributed across the Muslim world and in Europe; his videotapes turned up in Naples in 2000, when police raided the homes of members of a militant Islamist group. His lectures were later incorporated into a 1,600-page publication, "The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance," which was disseminated widely on the Internet beginning in December 2004.

We obtained more than 20 hours of video of Setmariam's lectures, in which he addresses his students, clad in white Islamic garb, with the obligatory Kalashnikov propped against a wall. Even then, Setmariam was urging future operatives toward the new structure and strategy al-Qaeda would adopt after 9/11.

Setmariam argued that "individual terrorism" should replace the group's hierarchically orchestrated attacks. He believed al-Qaeda should move away from centrally coordinated actions led by teams from Afghanistan -- the model for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and later the 9/11 attacks -- and should instead rely on local groups launching spontaneous attacks. He offered a harsh critique of al-Qaeda's rigid hierarchy, even drawing a diagram to show how easy it was to round up a cell and then trace its members back to a leader.

Setmariam's courses also offered tips on how to encourage more Muslims to become jihadis. "This should be done," he said, by "highlighting Jewish-Crusader oppression of Muslims" and emphasizing the "degeneracy of the Western world." He claimed his teaching was informed by years of living in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, where he blended in because of his fluent Spanish and French and his red hair and fair complexion. "I am one of the few jihadis who understand the Western culture and mentality," he said later.

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