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.
Many of the students Setmariam trained in Afghanistan now recruit jihadis worldwide. His protégé Amer Azizi is wanted by Spanish authorities in connection with the 9/11 plot, the Madrid bombings of March 2004 and the buildup of al-Qaeda's presence in Spain. Before Zarqawi's death, Azizi was thought to be one of his key aides in Iraq.
But clearly it is through the online postings of his writings that Setmariam exerted the greatest impact, both because he cogently expressed jihadist strategies and because the medium spreads his ideas across the world instantly. Setmariam's online writings may well have influenced the manner of recruitment and even targets for the perpetrators of the attacks in London and Madrid.
He "has had a big influence," said Jordanian journalist Fuad Hussein, author of a Zarqawi biography. "I monitor the Islamist Web sites every day, and every day there are new postings of Setmariam's research, writings, chapters of his books and tapes. He has big credibility because [the jihadis] know his history. People read this in Iraq, the Arab world, in Europe and all over the world."
The power of the Internet to foment jihad was reaffirmed earlier this month with the arrests of suspected bombing plotters outside Toronto. The suspects reportedly became radicalized through militant Web sites and received online advice from Younis Tsouli, the Britain-based webmaster for Islamic extremist sites who called himself "Terrorist 007," before he was arrested late last year.
Setmariam's large Internet following has been of particular concern to U.S. authorities because of his repeated exhortations since 9/11 for al-Qaeda to strike the United States with WMD. That was probably why the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward in November 2004 for his capture or killing. In the 2004 book "Arab Afghans," serialized by the London Arabic daily Asharq al Awsat, bin Laden confidant Abu Walid al-Misri states that before 9/11, there was a sharp debate within al-Qaeda regarding how far to go in developing WMD capabilities, with even bin Laden leaning toward a more cautious approach.
But, according to U.S. authorities, Setmariam helped al-Qaeda's WMD chief, Abu Khabab al-Masri, instruct recruits on the use of such weapons at the Derunta training camp in Afghanistan before 9/11. Setmariam and Masri were particularly determined to develop the ability to explode radioactive material over a large area by inserting it into a conventional bomb. In a letter written before 9/11 and discovered in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, Masri instructed al-Qaeda operatives to work with contacts in Pakistan to learn how to use "the charges from a traditional nuclear reactor for military ends."
"I feel sorry that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the planes that attacked New York and Washington on 9/11," Setmariam said in his December 2004 Web posting. He argued that the attacks were not destructive enough to justify the loss of al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan following the U.S. backlash. Bin Laden had not fully thought through how to destroy the United States, which is "a life and death issue for all Muslims," Setmariam wrote.
In Iraq today, Setmariam's hopes for "thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Muslims participating in jihad" are becoming reality. Iraq is evolving into what Setmariam refers to in his 2004 book as "an open front" -- a necessary area to build "individual terrorism" because it offers a "haven" and a rich recruiting environment.
But even with the Iraqi insurgency and an increasingly globalized jihad, Setmariam realized that defeating the United States through conventional means would take "many years and enormous sacrifices," as he wrote in the December 2004 online posting. Therefore, "an attack on the United States with WMD has become necessary . . . by means of decisive strategic operations with weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical or biological weapons."
In his 2004 book, Setmariam said that "Strategic Operations Brigades" should be established and given "very high-level financial capabilities" to acquire an "operational knowledge and potential to use WMD." Then Americans, he argued, could be subjected to a "back-breaking policy of collective massacres."
Despite his capture, Setmariam's strategic advice will remain influential. His final, chilling proposal, made before his arrest and posted online in December 2005 by unknown followers, argues that with Washington and its allies bogged down in Iraq, the time is ripe for al-Qaeda to strike again: "I reiterate my call for mujahideen who are spread in Europe and in our enemies' countries or those able to go there, to move fast to hit countries that have a military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Arab peninsula or to hit their interests in our countries and all over the world."
Paul Cruickshank is a visiting fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security. Mohanad Hage Ali covers terrorism for the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat.