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The mastermind

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

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Abu Musab al-Suri foresaw and promoted a looser al Qaeda organization of terrorist cells.

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AMMAN, Jordan (CNN) -- Abu Musab al-Suri might be the most dangerous terrorist you've never heard of. According to those who study such things, he is a man more dangerous for his ideas than any particular operation.

And what is worse is that ideas can live on long after operations -- so the fact that al-Suri is now in custody may not make him any less dangerous.

CNN recently obtained a series of videotaped lectures that al-Suri gave at his own training camp in Afghanistan six years ago. In them, he sketches out a vision on a whiteboard of what al Qaeda would become today - when it would need to be a looser, more diverse structure.

"He was thinking about what the post-9/11 strategy would look like for al Qaeda and having cells that would be hard to trace -- and cell leaders; making it flatter, an organization harder to penetrate," says CNN's terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who met al-Suri nine years ago.

The al Qaeda of today looks remarkably like what al-Suri was drawing on that whiteboard - local cells in each country with little or no contact with an overall organization, but fighting for a common cause and under a common banner, in the name of jihad.

It is those kinds of al Qaeda cells inspired if not ordered by Osama bin Laden that spawned such attacks like that in Madrid in 2004 -- the second anniversary now upon us -- or the London bombings last summer.

So how did al-Suri come to play such a prominent role?

Knowing the West

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar was born in Syria in October, 1958. As a young man, he was part of a failed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against that country's dictator, Hafez al-Assad.

After Assad brutally crushed that putative revolt, Setmariam set off for Afghanistan and the jihad against the Soviets, taking the nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Suri, "the Syrian."

He wrote later that he met Osama bin Laden in 1988 and joined al Qaeda soon after.

Instead of staying in Afghanistan, which degenerated into anarchy after the Soviet withdrawal, al-Suri moved to the West -- first to Spain then to north London, where he continued his work on the jihadi fringes.

A photo taken from that era captures a man looking very much at home in the West -- a redhead with blue eyes and blue jeans.

He called himself a journalist and editor, but also worked as a go-between. In 1997, he took Peter Bergen and a CNN crew to meet Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. "He seemed to be a very intelligent guy, a very well-informed guy and a very serious guy," Bergen recalled.

Al-Suri was not a slavish follower of bin Laden; he was to criticize him as a "Pharaoh" for the way he set up and ran al Qaeda.

Indeed, al-Suri was launching his own vision of a successful jihad movement and he decided the best way to put it into practice was by returning to the Taliban's Afghanistan and setting up his own training camp, just outside the capital Kabul.

There, as the videotapes show, he sketched out his vision. You can see him draw a diagram that starts with a single point at the top and branches down from there. That was, he said, the wrong sort of organization, one that could be easily penetrated - one that by implication resembled al Qaeda before September 11.

Instead, he showed his students how to return to their own countries and set up their own cells. Don't make them more than 10 people, he said.

"You shouldn't expand or form too many [cells]," he lectured. "Form a cell with six people that you know, [even if] they don't know each other, in case you are caught they are all caught."

Life after September 11

There is no reason to believe that al-Suri knew about September 11 until after September 11. But much of what he predicted came to pass - al Qaeda lost its foothold in Afghanistan when the Taliban was overthrown by the Northern Alliance and the U.S.-led coalition.

It has been commonplace since then to talk about how al Qaeda transformed itself from an organization into a movement and just how that happened might be due in part to al-Suri and his classes in Afghanistan.

start quoteTo the extent that al-Suri played a pretty important role in creating the ideological movement ... he bears some responsibility for these attacks [in Europe].end quote
-- Peter Bergen, CNN terrorism analyst

One of his alleged proteges has been linked to the planning of the Madrid train bombings. Though al-Suri's name was mentioned early on in both the Madrid and London investigations, no evidence emerged to provide a direct operational link.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, who has been investigating Islamic terrorism in Spain since the 1990s, indicted al-Suri among more than 40 suspected al Qaeda leaders that also included Osama bin Laden.

In an Internet posting, al-Suri denied any connection to the Madrid attacks but praised them.

Al-Suri spent much of his time since September 11 on the run, after the U.S. put a $5 million price on his head. Two years ago, he published what he called his "History of the Jihad," a 1,600-page work, on the Internet where it has appeared on various Web sites.

Portions of his lectures also showed up on the Internet and made the rounds on VHS and video CD.

"To the extent that al-Suri played a pretty important role in creating the ideological movement and the way it should be organized in the post 9/11 era, he bears some responsibility for some of these attacks [in Europe]. Even if it is not an operational responsibility, it is an ideological responsibility," says Bergen.

Al-Suri was finally captured late last year in Pakistan. His whereabouts since have remained shrouded in secrecy, but just this past week, his wanted poster was removed from the State Department's Rewards for Justice Web site.

In an Internet message attributed to him and posted after his capture, he boasted: "I have in me a joy stronger than the joy of the farmer who sees the harvest of his fruits after a long planting and efforts and patience throughout decades of building."

We don't know how many people al-Suri trained at his camp or influenced through his Internet postings, but even with his capture, we may not have heard the last of Abu Musab al-Suri or his ideas.

Special thanks to Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali for their additional reporting and translation help to CNN.

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