Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, The Inspiration Behind ISIS - Part I

Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, The Inspiration Behind ISIS - Part I

by Abhijnan Rej - Thursday, August 11, 2016 04:03 PM IST
Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, The Inspiration Behind ISIS - Part I Abu Musab al-Suri (R) with Osama bin Laden (U.S. Attorney’s Office/Wikimedia Commons)
  • We take a look into the life and work of jihadist theorist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and why he should be considered the architect of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This is Part I of a two-part essay that dives into the life and work of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri - by way of examination of both his own writings and secondary literature about him - and makes a case for his primacy in the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


In 1994 a young man of Syrian origin, who had then recently acquired Spanish citizenship, moved with his wife to Neasden, a dreary suburb of London. Neasden is home to immigrants of many nationalities (it has the largest Hindu temple outside of India), so it was not too strange for this young, cash-strapped family to have decided to relocate there from Madrid. The man’s wife – a Spanish-born Moreno – explained to her family that they were relocating to London as her husband had found a job there as an editor for a small newspaper. The young family’s daily life was not that different from other immigrants – it was not unheard of in Neasden to be broke and in debt, with a doting wife doing her best to support her bright, ambitious husband through careful house-holding and not infrequent penny-pinching. The life of the Setmariams could have been out of a Maupassant or a Zola story; except it was not.

Fast-forward to 31 October 2005, when Pakistani security forces stormed an Islamist front in Quetta in Balochistan, and arrested the man from Neasden as he waited for iftar with a colleague. That colleague was killed in the operation. The man – Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and 47 years old – carried a bounty of five million dollars as announced by the US government. In all likelihood, Pakistan transferred the custody of al-Suri to the US Central Intelligence Agency which, in turn, rendered him to Syria where he remains in prison till date.

Al-Suri impressed almost everyone who met him. Peter Bergen, the first western journalist to have interviewed Osama bin Laden (a meeting facilitated by al-Suri himself) described al-Suri as “intelligent, intense, and well informed and very very serious.” Bergen went on say that he came to “admire his intellect.” The Norwegian counterterrorism expert Brynjar Lia – whose definitive book on al-Suri remains standard reading for counter-Islamist-terrorism analysts – described al-Suri as an autodidact intellectual in the classic mould:

An avid reader, with an encyclopaedic memory, he impressed acquaintances with his knowledge of literature, classical music, history, politics, and the sciences […]

Another journalist had described al-Suri as “possess(ing) of a romantic streak and surprised friends by doting on his Spanish-born spouse.” Physically, wrote an AP reporter, he resembled “an Irish pub patron”.

For counterterrorism experts, al-Suri was notorious: he had been suspected of involvement in a number of terrorist attacks in Europe, including the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings, though these charges were never established mostly because he was not tried for the bombings, in the first place. Whether or not he had a hand in those bombings, what had rattled the Americans and their European counterparts was his role as al-Qaeda’s leading strategist, and the extent to which his guidance had influenced that group in general, and Osama bin Laden, in particular. One gauge of his influence is the consistent reference in many academic and popular writings of him as ‘architect’. Cruickshank and Hage Ali, for example, write:

“[...] no other individual has done more to conceptualize al-Qaeda’s new strategy after 9/11.”

Lawrence Wright, meanwhile, identifies theorists like al-Suri as tutors to a “third generation of mujahideens” – as Al-Suri himself calls them – who, after having fought in Iraq – will “add their expertise to the new cells springing up in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many European nations.” Jason Burke writes:

If al-Awlaki was the propagandist who did most to shape today’s threat against the West, and al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi are currently the most influential commanders, then al-Suri is the strategist of greatest relevance.

As Burke indicates, al-Suri’s reach – and the efficacy of his strategy – far exceeds al-Qaeda, and could be seen as laying the foundations of the strategy that has been adopted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Suri’s book, The Global Islamic Resistance Call – key parts of which are excerpted in Lia’s book, and is available on the SITE intelligence website – shows an eerie similarity with the strategic and tactical thinking of ISIS, going beyond al-Suri’s original concept of ‘individual-terrorism jihad’. Indeed, a close reading of al-Suri as an ISIS strategist has been absent in the discourse around the group – perhaps for the simple reason that in the mental framing of many analysts, al-Suri’s name conjures al-Qaeda more than any other group. (A notable exception is a short article in the Atlantic published late June this year.)


The goal of the present paper is to look at al-Suri’s book itself (as a primary source) as well as academic literature on his work, with ISIS’s ideology and modus operandi in mind. To better appreciate the intellectual influence of al-Suri on ISIS, a trace must first be made of actual links between the man and the group.

The story of the evolution of ISIS is beyond the scope of this paper; there is no dearth of literature on the subject. It suffices to say that the present-day ISIS evolved out of the rubble of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and was largely driven by one man: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian criminal-turned-terrorist, was influenced by jihadi ideologue Abdullah Azzam’s sermons enough to travel to Afghanistan for jihad against the Soviets in the early 1980s. By 2005, al-Zarqawi was at his peak, leading his al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers. But by January 2006, he had amalgamated his group with other Islamist outfits to form the Mujahideen Shura Council of Iraq which, after his death in a US air-strike in June 2006, morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq – the direct precursor of ISIS as the world knows the group today.

Al-Suri and al-Zarqawi’s paths first crossed in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule. Both controlled semi-independent camps there — al-Suri in Kabul and al-Zarqawi in Herat. Both disdained bin Laden, and insisted on greater autonomy, something bin Laden resisted. (This fissure would become full-blown much later. By October 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, was directly challenging ISIS and the legitimacy of its self-proclaimed Caliph.) By 2004, the US Central Command in Dubai suspected that al-Suri had joined al-Zarqawi in Iraq, “acting as deputy and mentor”, something al-Suri himself denied. Nevertheless, the links between the two lasted long after the fall of the Taliban: Ameer Azizi, a protégé of al-Suri’s, is suspected to have travelled to Iraq to work with al-Zarqawi. The ideological link between the two was cemented by Jordanian/Palestinian cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Zarqawi’s “foremost spiritual mentor” and who is considered an influence on al-Suri’s own thinking. Al-Maqdisi’s student Turki al-Bin’ali, in turn, is now reputed to be a prominent authority in the Islamic state. Finally, long after al-Suri was incarcerated, the first issue of ISIS’s flagship publication Dabiq indirectly acknowledged al-Suri’s influence on the organisation, by attributing al-Suri’s strategies to al-Zarqawi.

Yet the affinity between the group and the man who influenced it does not end with ideology. As much as one face of al-Suri was that of a theorist, he was capable of great violence himself. Cruickshank and Hage Ali interviewed a former jihadi who knew al-Suri personally. According to this interviewee, al-Suri “personally tracked down and killed individuals” who had deserted his Kabul camp. His exhortation to indiscriminate violence – “Kill wherever and don’t make a distinction between men, women and children” – and anti-Shia stance would all find resonance in later ISIS behaviour. Incidentally, as Burke notes, al-Qaeda had invested significantly in reducing fitna (discord) between Muslims and non-Muslims. ISIS, al-Zarqawi, as well as al-Suri had no problems with the same – a marked departure from al-Qaeda’s stance. This had significant tactical advantages for al-Zarqawi. By opening up the sectarian Shia-Sunni divide, the group had hoped to capitalise on Sunni support. This was also buttressed by growing Shia influence in the post-war Iraq.


Al-Suri’s strategic thought was presented, as noted earlier, in his 1,600-page opus. Analysts who have had access to videotapes of his lectures in jihadist camps in Afghanistan have also discerned a few more themes related to that book’s overall thrust. When it comes to applicability of his thoughts to ISIS’s grand strategy, two key ideas emerge: “Individual-Terrorism Jihad” and “Open-Front Jihad.” Al-Suri’s strategic theory also suggests a way to structure a jihadist organisation that meshes the two into one functional unit. But it is also important to situate al-Suri’s programme within the larger context of Islamist resistance.

Syed Qutb: Precursor theorist

Sayyid Qutb on trial in 1966 under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime (Wikimedia Commons)
Sayyid Qutb on trial in 1966 under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime (Wikimedia Commons)

Al-Suri started his career as an Islamist extremist under the umbrella of the Syrian Brotherhood. He would eventually have a falling-out with the Brotherhood, as he blamed it for the brutal crackdown under then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1982. Ideologically – and methodologically – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was extremely close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Ikhwan. In fact, al-Suri himself noted that his trainer “pledged allegiance to Sheikh Hassan al Bannah [...] He accompanied Sayyid Qutb [...].”

Al-Banna and Qutb remain prominent ideological figures for both al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jihadi-salafism (commonly referred to as ‘jihadism’) is a mixture of two strains: the ideology of the Ikhwan, led by al-Banna (whose chief theoretician was Sayyid Qutb), and Wahhabism which promotes a version of Sunni exclusivism. Initially these two strains were separate – the Brotherhood Ikhwan “not implacably hostile” towards Shi’ism – but under the ideological influence of the theoretician Qutb – groups (which would serve as forerunners to al-Qaeda and ISIS) arose in the Arab Middle East that were influence by both. Lia notes:

He studied the writings of Sayyid Qutb and Abdallah Azam, both of whom had significant influence on his subsequent development as a jihadi theorist. [emphasis added]

It is therefore important to situate al-Suri’s thinking within that of Qutb’s – a full-length work in itself. But even a cursory reading shows continuity and congruence between the two men’s thinking.

Sayyid Qutb’s formative years, 1919 to 1952, included a stay in the United States that was to prove extremely significant in his subsequent radicalisation in prison for almost a decade. The latter was for opposing Nasser and his conception of the Egyptian state – it was in 1952, the year Nasser assumed office, that Qutb developed the fundamental concept of jahilyya. This concept is expansive is nature. Qutb himself defined it – in his influential work, Milestones, for which he was ultimately executed by Nasser – as:

Jahilyyah […] is one man’s lordship over another, and in this respect it is against the system of the universe and brings the involuntary aspect of human life into conflict with its voluntary aspects.

Jahilyyah can be understood as being in a state of ignorance about the need to surrender to God (the literal meaning of the word “Islam.”) This included the Western political-social order, as well as the pre-Islamic pagan society of which Qutb found Nasser’s Egypt to be an example. Qutb and his followers saw Islam as a “complete and total system” which had no need for influence from the outside.

Qutb’s call was to create a group which would “separate itself from jahili society,” and resist it from the outside. This would be the central purpose of jihad. But jihad was to be, for Qutb and other Islamists after him, more that the “defence of the ‘homeland of Islam’” in a geographical sense of the term.

The geographical ‘homeland of Islam’ was merely a nerve-centre for the entire faith; the correct interpretation of the phrase ‘defence of the Islamic homeland’ was the “defence of the Islamic beliefs, the Islamic way of life, and the Islamic community.” Ultimately, it was jihad as resistance to obtain “the freedom of man from the servitude to other men” – one of the characteristic features of jahili societies – that was to influence later jihadi-theorists in a marked way, al-Suri included. Such servitude would, by definition, put some individuals above others. These individuals would include lawmakers and other secular authorities, according to Qutb and other theorists. The goal of the Islamist resistance project would be to oppose these individuals as disbelievers. Al-Suri writes:

There is very clear evidence, in the Qur’an and the Sunna, of the faithlessness of those who have given themselves the right to legislate laws in what is forbidden and permissible, and to change the laws, and to confront the sovereignty of God, to become worshipped gods.

Like Qutb before him, al-Suri saw the fall of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924 as a watershed for political Islam – leading to the “catastrophe” of a splintered Islamic state. Reversing this splintering would prove to be a major cause for him and for ISIS.

To be continued...

This piece was first published on Observer Research Foundation and has been republished here with permission.

Also Read:

Suicide Bombings By ISIS: Portent Of A Coming Storm?

Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. A strategic analyst and commentator, he focuses on developments in China, Pakistan, and United States, relevant to India’s national security and foreign policy.

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