Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, The Inspiration Behind ISIS - Part II 

Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, The Inspiration Behind ISIS - Part II Image Credit: Day Donaldson/Flickr
  • We dive into al-Suri’s playbook of ideology and strategy and how ISIS plays by the same rules, as evidenced by their acts of mass shooting and bombings.

This is Part II 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).

Read Part I here.

Part II

“System Not Organization”

The first, and perhaps most important, element of al-Suri’s thinking is that of jihad through Nizam la Tanzim – “System Not Organization.” In his book, al-Suri described his vision of al-Qaeda:

Al-Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be [...] It is a call, a reference, a methodology.

The etymology of the word ‘al-Qaeda’ helps us understand this statement to some extent. Al-Qaeda-al-sulbah “can also mean a precept, rule, principle, maxim, model, or pattern,” other than the commonly-used meaning of “the base” (interpreted in a physical-geographical sense). To understand the strategic import of the statement is to – like al-Suri himself – appreciate that regional-secret-hierarchical tanzims did not fare well post the end of the Cold War and till right after the fall of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. Al-Suri writes:

Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, programs for fighting terrorism were able to disband those organizations security-wise, militarily defeat them, isolate them from their masses [of followers], damage their reputation, dry out their financial resources, make their elements homeless, and put them in a constant state of fear, starvation, and lack of funds and people. 

Not all of this was due to western agencies alone. One other factor was the changing geopolitics of the world following the end of the Cold War. As al-Suri explains, when the world was bipolar, one organisation that was proscribed under one pole could find shelter with another. A case in point is the Afghan jihad of the 1980s which was supported by the United States. But local governments were also to be blamed for the fall of the secret-hierarchical tanzims.

For example, Al-Suri blames Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt for putting “an end to all the jihadi organizations in Egypt, one after the other.” Why – according to al-Suri – was this the case? In a lecture in 2000 at the Al Ghuraba training camp in Afghanistan for new al-Qaeda recruits, al-Suri drew the following diagram depicting the structure of these failed tanzims (modified by this author from a sketch in Cruickshank and Hage Ali).

Figure 1: A Schematic Description of a Hierarchical Centralised Structure 
Figure 1: A Schematic Description of a Hierarchical Centralised Structure 

In this structure – as depicted in figure 1 – if any one individual (nodes) is arrested or otherwise compromised, the whole network – which is hierarchical, top-down, and centralised – would be compromised. As al-Suri noted: “In case you are caught, they are all caught.” But beyond this tradecraft consideration laid al-Suri’s deep distrust of centralisation of command – which had manifested in his not-infrequent run-ins with bin Laden. The goal of resistance through individual terrorism is not a struggle of the elite, al-Suri wrote. He explained:

The Call is to convoy the idea in succinct and detailed ways in order to enable the youth, who are determined to fight a jihad, to enter this call and form their own Units independently.

What al-Suri is referring to is not the same as what the press calls “lone wolves,” or “leaderless jihad.” Indeed, according to al-Suri, what connects these decentralised units responding to “the Call” to the larger System is an ideological link comprising of (1) a common aim, (2) common name, (3) common doctrinal jihadi program, and (4) a comprehensive educational program. Al-Suri requires his individual terrorists to commit to nothing “other than to believe in the idea, be absolutely certain in his intention, join the Call, and educate himself and those with him according to the Call’s program […].” Tures – in a debunking of the lore of lone-wolf terrorism – writes:

These “lone wolves,” are therefore anything but “lone.” Though the media, government, and even terrorists like ISIS themselves use the term, these new terror recruits are still connected to the group, even if such people do not have face-to-face contact or fly to the Middle East or some domestic compound for training.

Indeed, consider what happened in San Bernardino on 2 December 2015 where a married couple – self-radicalised (or “self-educated,” as al-Suri would have put it) killed 14 people. These were not “lone wolves”; rather, they were following a path al-Suri laid out for them. In other words, ISIS’s claim – that the couple were soldiers of the Caliphate – is literally true if the organisation has taken a leaf out of al-Suri’s individual terrorism strategy. But for the de-centralised form of individual terrorism to be truly successful, al-Suri recognised the need for mass mobilisation. One way to mobilise Muslims, al-Suri suggested at the Al Ghuraba lecture, was to harangue on the “degeneracy of the Western world” with “its sins, gays and lesbians.” [emphasis added] The attack on an Orlando gay nightclub in June this year – the worst mass-shooting in American history – seems to be right out of al-Suri’s Machiavellian playbook. The shooter, Omar Mateen, had pledged bay’at to ISIS.

The conception of nizam la tanzim and “individual-terrorism jihad” stands out in sharp relief to al-Qaeda. While the network structure of that organisation was known, bin Laden – according to many analysts – was seen as “promoting ‘a worldwide, religiously-inspired, professionally guided Islamist insurgency [emphasis added].” Professional guidance for al-Suri for individuals responding to the ‘Resistance Call’ individually is limited in the sense of “education” being the individual’s initiative. However, al-Suri would advocate the spreading of the requisite “legal, political, military and other sciences and knowledge that the Mujahidun need in order to carry out Resistance operations,” without compromising the decentralised structure of the system. Social media would prove handy for ISIS in implementing this tactic.

3.3. “Open-Front Jihad”

Al-Suri did recognise that the ultimate goal for the Islamic Resistance, as he called this putative global jihadi system, was holding physical territory. His conception of al-Qaeda had three key elements: a physical base (one meaning of Qaeda); a leadership; and a global world-view. The importance of the first cannot be underestimated in al-Suri’s world-view: in fact, the “greatest loss,” from the ensuing US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, “was not the destruction of the terrorist organization but the downfall of the Taliban, which meant that al-Qaeda no longer had a place to train, organize, and recruit.” Al-Suri was categorical on the importance of seizing territory in the ‘Resistance Call,’ which he called the “strategic goal” of the whole enterprise. (His sub-theory of decentralised jihad, in contrast, was a tactical tool.) This is also something he shared with al-Qaeda’s then ‘Number Two’ Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who wrote:

If the successful operations against Islam’s enemies and the severe damage inflicted on them do not serve the ultimate goal of establishing the Muslim nation in the heart of the Islamic world, they will be nothing more than mere nuisance, regardless of their magnitude, that could be absorbed and endured, even if after some time, and with some losses.

Al-Suri imagined that this physical territory that could be controlled by the Islamic resistance system would also serve as a site for “Open-Front Jihad,” where enemies could be drawn in for asymmetric warfare. In fact, he identifies areas in the greater Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa for such activity – preconditions related to geography, population, and political factors. Geography plays a particularly important role in his analysis – the ideal site for Open-Front jihad was to be “spacious in terms of area,” “varied with long borders,” “difficult to siege,” with inhospitable topography, and yet with sufficient resources for human sustenance. But his analysis was not generic in identifying most of the places in this vast area as suitable for Open-Front jihad. In fact, his analysis showed that the vast majority of the 55 states in this area were unsuitable for this kind of activity in not meeting one or more of the preconditions he listed.

He then goes on to identify the “Levant and Iraq,” as an ideal site for Open-Front jihad. “It has all the preconditions for the Open Fronts,” al-Suri writes. His reading of the situation in that area was striking in his analysis – written long before the so-called Arab Spring, the series of protests and uprisings that erupted in the Arab world as 2010 came to an end. He wrote:

The now emerging American occupation has declared its determination to remain on a long-term basis. They also prepare to extend their aggression to Syria in order to control the whole Levant […]

In al-Suri’s strategic theory, such a move by the Americans will draw them into an un-winnable conflict where the ‘defenders’ (the putative Islamic resistance) would have tactical as well as strategic advantage. This seems to also be the guiding principle of ISIS. Victory in this asymmetric conflict would lead to:

[…] victory for the Muslims, that [front] will be the centre of an Islamic Emirate, which should be ruled by God’s sharia. It will be a centre and destination for those around it emigrating to fight jihad in the cause of the country.

The extent of ISIS’s intended-Islamic State was mapped in March 2016 by the Financial Times(FT). That map, along with another one drawn up by the Institute for Study of War in July 2016 show how remarkably close ISIS’s territory-control/territory-of-influence strategy has been to al-Suri’s geographical prescriptions. At the time of writing this paper, the core ISIS control zone has a filamentary structure which would make it exceedingly difficult to attempt to seize it using ground troops. The control zone is embedded in a support zone that is vast, geographically speaking, and stretches from Fallujah to Mosul (in Iraq), from Mosul to Ayn al-Arab (in Syria), and all the way to Dera on the border of Jordan. Most of the territory controlled by ISIS is also of relatively low-altitude, which makes manoeuvres, and obtaining supplies, relatively easy.

3.4 Organising the ‘Resistance Call’

Al-Suri conceptualises how both the tactical, de-centralised structure of individual jihad and the strategic structure of open-front/territorial jihad mesh in terms of concentric circles. The innermost circle (around the centre who is the putative Caliph) is that of the “centralized unit,” tasked with “guidance, counselling, and calling to jihad,” as well as maintaining military balance in Open-Front areas. Essentially, this is the leadership circle.

The circle of “centralized unit” lies inside the circle of “de-centralized units” of fighters that are permitted to operate like a traditional secret organisation – trained directly, and to be “spread across the world.” Essentially, one may call these the garden-variety ISIS jihadists who travel to Syria or Iraq for training and return to their homelands to carry out attacks when called to do so.

This circle, in turn, is embedded within the final “Da’wah” circle “who participates in the Resistance without any organizational links with the Centre [i.e. Centralized Unit].” This circle has been responsible for most of the recent attacks in the US and Europe. The important point here is that authority radiates outwards from the centre – the Emir or the Caliph – and is managed through the institution of bay’at – the binding allegiance to the figurehead.

Figure 2 depicts al-Suri’s organisational-structure theory. The centralised unit is circle 1, the circle of de-centralised units is 2, and the Da’wah circle is 3, in that figure. Note that the entire structure is governed by the institution of bay’at (depicted by arrow B). Note, also, that as one moves from circles 1 to 3, individuals and units become more geographically dispersed (as depicted by arrow G). While individuals and units in circles 1 and 2 are allowed to communicate with each other and to their adjacent circles (depicted through connecting arrows), such is not the case with the outer circle 3.

How does al-Suri’s organisational structure match the typologies of attackers being advanced in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe? Gartenstein-Ross and Barr – in way of debunking the “myth of lone wolf terrorism,” advanced one such typology. In their analysis, there are four kinds of attackers and attacks. In the first kind, attackers are sent by an outfit from abroad to carry out operations. In al-Suri’s jargon, these would be attackers in circle 2. Then there are attackers – in the Gartenstein-Ross and Barr typology – who are in touch with each other virtually, for purposes of coordination. In al-Suri’s structure, these would also be attackers in circle 2 – or between circles 2 and 3. The third category of attackers are ones “who are in contact with a militant group via online communications but do not receive specific instructions about carrying out an attack.” These would be – according to al-Suri – individuals in the Daw’ah circle 3. Finally, in the Gartenstein-Ross and Barr typology, there are true lone wolves who act completely independently of the ‘parent’ network. This, too would be, according to al-Suri’s theory, individuals in circle 3 – only if they pledge allegiance to the Caliph or the Emir (who is al-Baghdadi, in case of ISIS). The similarity between the Gartenstein-Ross and Barr typology and al-Suri’s theory is remarkable.

Figure 2: A Schematic Description of Al-Suri’s Organisational Theory
Figure 2: A Schematic Description of Al-Suri’s Organisational Theory

4. Al-Suri’s ISIS: The Way Forward

If ISIS indeed operates out of al-Suri’s playbook, what is in store for that organisation?

One would expect to see the frequency of individual jihadists attack to continue and keep pace, fuelled by self-radicalisation. Al-Suri, as this paper has explained, placed a premium on this tactic. One would also expect ISIS to continue to hold territory even at significant military costs. After all, as al-Suri explains, the whole point of the enterprise of Islamic Resistance is to control territory and establish an Islamic State. Therefore analysts who expect ISIS to completely morph into a de-centralised structure would be well-advised to rethink their assumptions.

Al-Suri had displayed a great interest in weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). A US government assessment of al-Suri puts him as “an expert in the use of poison.” Individual expertise aside, al-Suri is known to have worked quite closely with al-Qaeda’s leading expert on unconventional weapons Abu Khabab al-Masri. Al-Suri himself is said to have written on biological weapons, and has called for the use of WMDs against the US and allies “to reach a strategic decisive outcome.” ISIS has already used chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq, but the real question is whether it would do so outside its own ‘territory’. It is unlikely if most of the attacks outside Syria and Iraq are carried out by individual jihadists in the Daw’ahcircle. Therefore the most likely ISIS WMD-use threat lies against American and allied troops in any possible ground invasion.

The most important point with the al-Suri-and-ISIS story is polemical. Blinded by indiscriminate violence, it is easy to conclude that ISIS is a nihilistic group driven by eschatological motives. It is rather more difficult to accept instinctively that there may be a concrete strategic theory behind their actions. But to strive to understand is not the same as to extend empathy. This paper has argued that the foundation of ISIS strategy was provided by one man – Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. Indeed, in order to dissect ISIS strategy, more research is needed about ideologues and theorists like al-Suri – without empathy, for sure, but not without curiosity.

The author thanks the two individuals who served as referees for their useful remarks which helped improve the quality of this paper. He also thanks Ms. Nisha Verma, ORF Librarian, for arranging research material at short notices.

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

Also Read: How To Drive ISIS Fighters Out Of Fallujah

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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