Book Review: Architect of Global Jihad by Brynjar Lia
Architect of Global Jihad by Brynjar Lia
Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri is Brynjar Lia’s definitive biography of the shadowy terror theorist, Islamist intellectual and sometime jihadi, Mustafa bin Abd al Qadir Sitt Maryam.
Sitt Maryam, who went by al-Suri in jihadi circles, was a red haired, fair-skinned Syrian renegade from the Muslim Brotherhood who was trained in military tactics and explosives in Saddam Hussein’s terrorist camps, passing on his skills to fellow “Arab Afghans” during and after the Soviet War. Attracted to secular military theory, guerrilla warfare tactics and strategy rather than theological disputes, hating the West but despising Salafist radicals, Lia’s Abu al-Suri is an isolated and anomalous figure in “the jihadi current” of the 1990’s and post-9/11 era.
“A born critic” with a grim and unsmiling demeanor who entangled himself in acrimonious personal feuds with leading jihadis, including Osama bin Laden, al-Suri failed to win many adherents to his insightful “system not organization” (nizam la tanzim) theory of jihad until his arrest caused his writings, especially his magnum opus The Global Islamic Resistance Call to go viral in the Islamist darknet.
A true intellectual, widely read in western literature and military writings, al-Suri crafted a stategy of jhad that adapted arguments of 4GW, “leaderless resistance” and classical Maoist insurgency to suit Islamist purposes and conditions while rejecting secret, hierarchical, organizations and al-Qaida’s “Tora Bora mentality” as historical failures. Self-radicalization and “sudden jihad syndrome” among alienated Western Muslims was the stuff from which al-Suri hoped to build a massively decentralized, open source, self-sustaining campaign of terrorism.
A hundred and forty some pages of text in Architect of Global Jihad are devoted exclusively to excerpts from al-Suri’s 1,600 page treatise on terrorism operations and strategy. He was a serious and determined opponent of Western civilization’s core values, despite having enjoyed long stretches of reasonably comfortable Western exile in Spain and “Londonistan” to such a degree that al-Suri was in no particular hurry to rejoin the jihad and even acquired the unenviable (and inaccurate) reputation of only being a “pen jihadi”.
Musab al-Suri, who is likely dead at the hands of Baathist jailers, is best described as an Islamist parallel to Vladimir Lenin before the Bolshevik Revolution. The similarities are striking, the irascible temperment, formidible intelligence, the frustrating politics of exiled revolutionary communities, the ideological marginalization both men endured as radicals in a community of already extreme activists and the embrace of terrorism (tactically in Lenin’s case, strategically in al-Suri’s). al-Suri and Lenin, despite wide ideological differences, as revolutionaries represent the psychological type Eric Hoffer termed “true believers” – pitiless, absolutely committed, intellectually rigid on matters of principle but tactically flexible and creative in terms of method.
Such men are dangerous, to themselves as well as to society.
Related posts on or including Abu Musab al-Suri
Lexington Green – Abu Musab al-Suri: Theorist of Modern Jihad and The Networked Jihad: Parasitic on Developed World Technology, Information, Ideas
Charles Cameron –A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto
John Robb – SURI: nizam, la Tanzim (system, not organization) – Global Guerrillas
The Jamestown Foundation –The Jamestown Foundation: Al-Suri’s Adaptation of Fourth … , The Jamestown Foundation: Al-Suri’s Doctrines for Decentralized … and The Jamestown Foundation: Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and the Third …
Jihadica –Abu Mus`ab Suri: Architect of Global Jihad Neglected? and Training for the Lone Jihadi
The Hoover Institution – The Terror Fringe
August 18th, 2011 at 3:57 pm
Excellent review and resources; wish I had time to read them all. I do like the "addendum" concept for book reviews.
August 18th, 2011 at 5:29 pm
Gracias! When I become world emperor, I will start a "Reading Fellowship" to fund guys to sit around and read all day for a year. Then they would have to synthesize it in a short paper:)
I have so much piled up, both research material as well as things like PARAMETERS and PDFs from various tanks, I feel I will never get through it – slightly depressing.
August 18th, 2011 at 6:51 pm
"Gracias! When I become world emperor, I will start a "Reading Fellowship" to fund guys to sit around and read all day for a year. Then they would have to synthesize it in a short paper:)"
August 18th, 2011 at 7:06 pm
I’m still puzzled about the final hundred pages of Musab al-Suri‘s treatise, which I have yet to find translated.
J-P Filiu devotes five of his own pages (186-91) to them in his Apocalypse in Islam, and tells us that in this substantial final portion of his book, al-Suri attempts to explore all those hadith about jihad, "weak" as well as "strong", which have yet to be fulfilled, and concludes that the "country of Shyam" (ie "Greater Syria, including Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan" — Palestine no doubt including what is now termed Israel) will play "the central role … at the end of the world" — and that "al-Qaida’s strategic conception of global jihad must be reoriented to take into account this final clash."
To the extent that al-Suri’s manifesto continues to influence current and future jihadist activists in the direction of a "distributed" / "lone wolf" approach, we should also be alert to the possible influence of this eschatologic-strategic strand in his thinking.
Additional resources / suggested further readings (great idea, as Scott says), mainly because I’m a niggling completist at heart:
August 18th, 2011 at 9:44 pm
Thanks for the links. Al Suri is an inspiring figure — once you discount out that he is a homicidal fanatic and murderer. He was using limited means and using his noggin and reading widely and being an almost cynical realist and trying to leverage very minimal assets to bring about massive strategic change. And his proposed solution is not necessarily, or at least not theoretically, unworkable. Of course, we have to shoot or imprison everyone involved with trying to put his theories into practice. But that is always true of enemies, whether they have some admirable qualities or not. I agree with Charles that Lacey’s omission of the religious element in Al Suri’s writing will give us a truncated and inaccurate impression of his thinking. That said, others will have to fill in those details, and translate to a Western audience what the religious element means in the minds of these men and how it shapes their strategy and tactics. Know your enemy, know yourself, be victorious. Part of the first clause is understanding that your enemy really is really, really different. No mirror imaging. He is very much the Other. Learn to know the other, penetrate the surface of the mirror, see into the murk, make sense of the shapes and sounds in the depths, see patterns that don’t occur on your own side, then return with this knowledge and shape your own conduct in response.
August 18th, 2011 at 10:56 pm
I’m a bit lost. Could someone please define "Global Jihad"?
August 18th, 2011 at 11:16 pm
Some believe it means that the Moors want their real estate on the Ebro back.
August 18th, 2011 at 11:19 pm
Al Suri thought he and those like him could create a global jihad. So far, it is not happening. Getting Al Andalus back is part of the dream. In practice it will mean intermittent acts of ultra violence by self-motivated individuals here and there, who read AQ propaganda online.
August 19th, 2011 at 5:53 am
There’s an 24-page paper at the Strategic Studies Institute titled The Military Strategy of Global Jihad — and rather than try to find the exact quote to answer your question, I’ll just post an excerpt from its Abstract & refer you to the first major section of the paper (starting p. 7):
I haven’t read the whole thing — I just ran across it looking for a way to respond to your query — so I’m not saying it’s spot on or way off, just that it offers a working introduction to one view of the issue.
If you take the initial premise that whatever territory God has at some point given to Islam, He intends for Islam, and add in the idea that most of those lands have fallen into the hands of dictators and failed Muslims who need to be overthrown (typically, the "near enemy"), and that additionally the west (Christendom and Judaism) have been opposing and oppressing the Muslim world, often with the help of these dictatorial regimes and mainly through the global activities of the US, and must therefore be defeated (hence the US in particular as the "far enemy") — then there are relatively few if any regimes, globally speaking, for a faithful Muslim not to be at war with.
So “global jihad” is constituted (as viewed by its participants) by the multiple fronts of a distributed counter-attack from within Islam on whatever has compromised the teachings and social program of the Prophet. AQ claims to the a “vanguard” of this counter-attack, while the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan would have been a step in the direction of the formation of a geographically widespread but ideologically unified Caliphate.
[ edited for clarity ]
August 19th, 2011 at 5:57 am
"Al Suri is an inspiring figure — once you discount out that he is a homicidal fanatic and murderer. He was using limited means and using his noggin and reading widely and being an almost cynical realist and trying to leverage very minimal assets to bring about massive strategic change. "
I felt the same way. The Islamists have produced very few first rate strategists or theorists – Qtub, al Suri, arguably Hassan Turabi, maybe al Masri and one or two others. Fortunately, they are rarely in the driver’s seat for long. Most are done in by their more concrete and zealous fellows
August 19th, 2011 at 2:20 pm
Thanks Charles, can’t say I find it very convincing though . . .
August 19th, 2011 at 6:28 pm
looking at this post, and also lately by happenstance at bits of clausewitz’s writings, i’d beginning to think — and i’d like to propose — that major theorists of war are also ultimately theologians of war.
this sure seems to be the case with the jihadis, including, i presume, the one featured in this post.
i’m wondering that it may also be the case with the west’s greatest theorist of war, a secularist who rarely mentions god or religion: claus von clausewitz.
consider cvc’s “fascinating trinity — composed of: 1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; 2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and 3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.” (source: h/t to a recent post by joseph fouche at his blog, citing translation by christopher bassford)
and in re-considering this famed trinity, let me suggest the following: the first point holds that man is base and sinful. the second holds that, thanks in part to chance, man can find a way out and redeem himself though purposeful individual action. the third holds that, even so, man should ultimately suborn himself to obeying a higher law.
it all looks rather catholic to me. if we flip the order of the second and third, and re-phrase a bit, it becomes more protestant in design.
a quick googling-around indicates that, early in life, cvc considered studying religion, at his mother’s urging. but he did not go that way; and i didn’t spot anything showing he was particularly religious later on. his devotion was to the secular state.
as a result, cvc is renowned for observing that war is politics by other means. but i’m wondering whether his trinity also means that war is theology by other means.
for the jihadis, war is definitely theology by other means.
August 19th, 2011 at 7:54 pm
Don’t follow. Clausewitz was attempting to create a general theory of war and at the same time a workable theory of Napoleonic warfare. The first would cover all wars in terms of strategic theory and the second would provide the basis for military doctrine. But neither of these can be interpreted as arguing for war let alone being a "theologian of war". Clausewitz’s Prussia was the weakest of the major European powers of its time and situated between Austria in the south, Russia in the east and France in the west, with their traditional ally Britain quite far removed and with other interests. Prussia by necessity had to be ready to fight, which is not the same thing as spoiling for a fight.
I think the comparison with Lenin more fruitful in putting this whole Global Jihad idea into perspective. Lenin was the theorist of the revolutionary party leading the global upheaval which would trigger the next phase of historical materialistic development, but what exactly were the chances of Lenin leading anything in say 1915, let alone 1912?
1%? Rather what it took was a whole series of unlikely events to get him to the Finland station in spring of 1917 and beyond . . . including state sponsorship of his movement by the German General Staff . . . There’s your connection with Lenin. Worrying about a possible Global Jihad today is like worrying about Lenin overthrowing Czarist Russia in 1915 . . . not much chance of anything like that coming about unless of course a whole lot of things change and some very powerful players see it as in their interest of coming about. To which I would say simply, watch out for what you wish for.
August 19th, 2011 at 10:05 pm
"Worrying about a possible Global Jihad …" I think the interest in Al Suri is not that there might be a Global Jihad — that is more remote than Lenin taking over Russia. Rather, it is understanding the motives of people who DO believe there is or can be such a thing as a Global Jihad — and trying to prevent or defeat whatever murderous actions they may take while in the grip of this particular delusion.
August 19th, 2011 at 10:40 pm
So tactics then . . .
August 20th, 2011 at 5:23 am
Could you clarify what you mean by "theologian of war"? — I’d have to say one thing Abu Musab al-Suri did not claim to be was an Islamic theologian with expertise in the theology of jihad — he saw himself more as a trained and theorizing fighter in the way of Allah with a level of knowledge of Islam sufficient for that purpose.
But perhaps you have something else in mind? a more metaphorical sense of the word, perhaps?
August 20th, 2011 at 7:53 pm
i meant the term loosely, not exactly, partly metaphorically, but mainly analogically. i almost stuck the word “like” in front, but i opted to pose the notion in a blunt, stark manner.
a handy dictionary defines theology as “the study of the nature of God and religious belief,” and as “religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed.” a theologian is “a person who engages or is an expert in theology.” to theologize is to “engage in theological reasoning or speculation,” or to “treat (a person or subject) in theological terms.” (an example of the last point is “he even theologizes writing problems.”)
i certainly didn’t have in mind that these theorists of war were professional theologians, or recognized as experts on theology, or necessarily viewed as authorized spokesmen on theology. it might even be unwise for some of the jihadis to pose as such.
but i did have in mind that many were caught up in theological reasoning and advocacy. and not only today’s jihadis. for i suppose that this pattern appeared back in the time of the crusades, when making war and making theology went hand in hand. but again, i’m just wondering aloud (ablog?), for my knowledge in these matters is meager.
as for clausewitz, reading his trinity anew is what prompted me to wonder about all this. his trinity still looks to me as though it has a theological strain embedded in it. not in a truly religious sense. mainly in an analogical way. by which i mean that a theorist of war (war in the abstract, war in general) ends up going through much of the kind of reasoning that a theologian would: pondering the nature of man, assessing the nature of society, figuring out the highest laws that should guide man and society, and espousing what’s worth worshiping and living and dying for.
philosopher and ideologues may do that too. but right now i’d rather wonder about the proto- or para-theological bents that may appear among theorists of war. my impression this past week is that it crops up not only among today’s religion-fueled jihadis, but even in some passages from the secular clausewitz. however, what about sun-tzu or che guevara? i’d have to spot passages in their writings too, if i am to continue wondering about all this. and right now i’ve got my doubts.
even so, i’ve tossed the notion out there, and if you have clarifying remarks about how theologians think vs. how grand war theorists think, i’m all eyes and ears.
p.s.: come to think of it, i’m inclined to regard atheism as being somewhat theological too. tho that would contradict the main dictionary definition . . . .
August 21st, 2011 at 1:31 am
I think your question, read in that metaphorical sense, is an intriguing one. I don’t have an immediate response re Sun Tzu, but the great translator of Buddhist and Taoist texts, Thomas Cleary, writes in his Preface to The Art of War: Complete Texts and Commentaries:
Furthermore, Cleary writes:
So Cleary’s Sun Tzu would be not a bad place to begin…* * *
Just by way of a quick thought provocation, I wonder whether this trinitarian graph (below) would have some form of Clausewitzian equivalent:
I somewhat doubt that the Clausewitzian trinity would have a direct equivalent of the Athanasian formalism, "So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God".
Nevertheless, strange patterns of this sort do recur — there’s a fascinating connection between this diagram, the Athanasian Creed, Hasse diagrams and Boolean logic, for instance, that the early conceptual graph theorist, Margaret Masterman, discussed in an excerpt from her Theoria to Theory article  which I introduced here and posted here.
So who knows?
* * *
My particular interest in this diagram and Masterman’s article stems from the fact that my own HipBone Games are also, formally speaking, conceptual graphs.
August 21st, 2011 at 1:48 am
"as for clausewitz, reading his trinity anew is what prompted me to wonder about all this. his trinity still looks to me as though it has a theological strain embedded in it. not in a truly religious sense. mainly in an analogical way. by which i mean that a theorist of war (war in the abstract, war in general) ends up going through much of the kind of reasoning that a theologian would: pondering the nature of man, assessing the nature of society, figuring out the highest laws that should guide man and society"
CvC lived in an era when a state Church was more than a formality, albeit it was en route to becoming so. In Prussia’s case, that was the Lutheran Church and there was religious ferment in Prussia between Lutherans and Calvinists throughout CvC’s lifetime. Catholicism and protestant minorities (Mennonites, Pietists etc) were tolerated but Jews did not become enfranchised until the end of the Napoleonic wars and get full equality until 1848.
Presumably, as an officer of the King and a Court and state official, CvC had to be a communicant of the state Church in good standing.
August 21st, 2011 at 2:01 am
Heh — I have a post upcoming about the tie in between Church, Military and State in terms of high ritual.
August 21st, 2011 at 2:54 am
David, I would agree with this:
At the end of the day, we choose to believe in whatever; God or evolving from primordial slime. Polanyi said, "we know more than we can tell" but much of what we "know" is based on faith in the source.
August 21st, 2011 at 3:42 am
I encountered an inversion of David’s thought recently: a foray of strategic theory into theology. In a discussion of an obscure point of my religion’s doctrine, the distinction between strategy and tactics was invoked to explain the distinction between the unchanging nature of the Divine and divinely inspired changes to ecclesiastical administrative policies made from time to time. The distinction was attributed to one of our recently deceased senior church leaders who’d fought as an infantryman on Okinawa and later became a professor of political science.
August 21st, 2011 at 11:31 am
Interesting how the discussion has developed. I think it due simply to the fact that "Global Jihad" cannot be argued in terms of strategic theory, is simply a police/public order problem which needs to be addressed at that level, from a strategic theory perspective.
So I find "Global Jihad" a political argument – with no basis in strategic theory – to support a specific US policy, that being the Global War on Terror which in terms of strategic theory is incoherent.
Religious influences on Clausewitz are difficult to assess since he never addresses what his religious beliefs are. There are numerous "trinities" in On War, not just the remarkable one, so maybe dividing phenomenon into threes is a basic approach with no religious connection at all. At the same time Pietism and the Prussian Enlightenment were "intertwined" according to Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom pp 137-139, and Clausewitz does display and promote fundamental Pietist values such as modesty, austerity, self-discipline, personal development (Bildung) and introspection.
Then of course there’s the connection between Clausewitz and Schliermacher . . .
August 21st, 2011 at 8:01 pm
I’d be very interested to learn more about Clausewitz and Schliermacher, Seydlitz — any pointers?
Going back to Abu Musab al-Suri, at least temporarily:
It seems the Open Source Center does have a translation of al-Suri’s work, incidentally — Lt. Col. Zabel references it in her footnote 5:
I imagine such things are fairly tightly held, and for good reason.
August 22nd, 2011 at 4:54 am
[…] Not a Mellow Jihadi […]
August 22nd, 2011 at 2:34 pm
This could be something of an introduction . . .
Then there’s Azar Gat’s A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to Cold War, starting on page 192.
August 22nd, 2011 at 6:53 pm
Seydlitz, that comes up as a series of blank pages, and when I go to the original site, it does to.
August 22nd, 2011 at 8:31 pm
Works for me, but try this . . .
August 23rd, 2011 at 3:40 am
Many thanks, Seydlitz. The distance between "polemic" and "war" is an interesting one, given the Greek root of "polemic"… words and swords…
December 29th, 2011 at 6:38 pm
[…] I read and reviewed Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, about Islamist terrorist and strategist Abu Musab […]