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An Omission of Note

Iraq, Iran, and al Qaeda's master strategist.

12:00 AM, Jun 2, 2006 • By DAN DARLING
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LAST WEEK the Washington Post featured a story on Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the Spanish-Syrian al Qaeda strategist who wrote the 1,600 page Call for a Global Islamic Resistance. The Post story provided a revealing look at Nasar who, despite his capture, remains the leading ideological architect of al Qaeda's war against the United States. But the Post also missed a number of important points in Nasar's career.

The Post describes Nasar as having been "born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1958 and studied engineering. In the early 1980s, he took part in a failed revolt by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood against Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad. According to his own written accounts, he fled the country after that, then trained in camps in Jordan and Egypt. Later, he said, he moved to Europe when it became clear that Assad was firmly entrenched in power."

But according to Murad al-Shishani's profile of Nasar during this same period for the Jamestown Foundation:

Nasar was initiated into al-Tali'a al-Muqatila (Fighting Vanguard), a Jihadist group linked to the Syrian Muslim Brothers, founded by the late Marwan Hadeed. Nasar received training from Egyptian and Iraqi officers and additional training in camps in Jordan and Baghdad during an era when Arab regimes were on a collision course with the Syrian Ba'athists. He was also a member of the higher military command of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement that was established in Baghdad after the Syrian Brothers fled from their country. According to unverified sources Sheikh Saeed Haowa was head of that military command.

Following the events in Hama in 1982, when the Syrian army successfully suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising, Nasar left the movement, after declaring his opposition to the Brotherhood's alliance with sectarian movements and the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. He headed for Afghanistan where he met with Abdul-Kader Abdul-Aziz writer of the book entitled The Master of Preparations, which is regarded as a reference point for the jihadis, and also met with Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.

This resentment towards the Iraqi regime, which Nasar believed had co-opted the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood for their own purposes and stymied their revolution, is reflected in Lessons Learned from the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria, in which Nasar discusses the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's alliance with Saddam Hussein and warns prospective jihadis to ensure that their own organizations are self-sufficient. Al Qaeda seems to have taken Nasar's advice to heart concerning any dealings with Saddam Hussein, which the CIA assessed (according to p. 322 of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on pre-war Iraq intelligence):

In contrast to the patron-client pattern between Iraq and its Palestinian surrogates, the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida appears to more closely resemble that of two independent actors trying to exploit each other--their mutual suspicion suborned by al-Qaida's interest in Iraqi assistance, and Baghdad's interest in al-Qaida's anti-U.S. attacks . . .

THIS DYNAMIC appears whenever al Qaeda involves itself with state actors; which may be a result of Nasar's influence. As Dr. Reuven Paz notes in his discussion of Nasar's 1,600 tract (Nasar is using the nom de guerre "Abu Musab al-Suri"):

Al-Suri also surprises his readers by sending requests to North Korea and Iran to continue developing their nuclear projects. It is most unlikely for a Jihadi-Salafi scholar to hint at possible cooperation with countries like Shi'ite Iran or Stalinist North Korea, both of which are generally regarded as infidel regimes. However, Al-Suri seems to advise that Jihadi Sunni readers should cooperate with the devil to defeat the "bigger devil."

. . . Al-Suri does not see much benefit from the guerrilla warfare waged against the U.S. by al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Hence, "the ultimate choice is the destruction of the United States by operations of strategic symmetry through weapons of mass destruction, namely nuclear, chemical, or biological means, if the mujahideen can achieve it with the help of those who possess them or through buying them." One other option, he says, is by "the production of basic nuclear bombs, known as "dirty bombs."

There is some debate as to the nature of Nasar's views with regard to Shiites. Paz states elsewhere that Nasar "has no anti-Shia sentiments, and refrains, as much as known, from being involved in the Islamist insurgency in Iraq. His pragmatism might be connected also to his known Sufi family origins."

But Lorenzo Vidino notes that:

A further glance at [Nasar's] extremist ideology is provided by tapes of his sermons that were seized in the apartment of a member of an Algerian terrorist cell dismantled by Italian authorities in Naples in 2000. The tapes reveal [Nasar's] deep hatred for Shiites, whom he considers deviators from pure Islam . . . In fact, he points at the "negative influence" that Shiite groups have had on the Palestinian struggle, as some groups like Hamas have decided to work with Shiite groups like Hezbollah.

This would seem odds with the Post's claim that one of the reasons Nasar left the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was because its alliance with other sectarian movements.

THE FACT THAT NASAR is the leading ideological architect of al Qaeda's strategy (combined with his endorsement of both the Iranian nuclear program and the use of the weapons of mass destruction) takes on an added emphasis when taken in conjunction with his apparent flight to Iran after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A June 2005 story by NBC News quotes Spanish counterterrorism judge Baltasar Garzon as describing Nasar's role in a November 2002 meeting of the al Qaeda leadership to discuss how to operate in the post-9/11 environment:

al-Qaida convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002. Without bin Laden present, but with many of the top leaders, the group's "shura," or consultative council, met secretly to decide how to operate within the new restraints and confinements.

Leading the discussion was a Syrian, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. He looked unlike most Arabs, being fair-skinned and red-haired, and carried a Spanish passport, having married a Spanish woman in 1987. Setmariam Nasar, derisively called a "pen jihadist" by some at the CIA but a "strategist" by Spanish counterterrorism officials, said it was time for al-Qaida to carry out the February 1998 fatwa bin Laden wrote and transmitted widely across the Arab and Muslim world.

"He told the shura that al-Qaida could no longer exist as a hierarchy, an organization, but instead would have to become a network and move its operations out over the entire world," said Garzon, the prosecuting judge who investigated the role of Spanish citizens in Sept. 11 as well as the Madrid attacks. "He pointed to the Feb. 23, 1998, fatwa for inspiration."

Whether or not the Iranian authorities were aware of this meeting is unknown, but an October 2003 Washington Post article cited a European intelligence official as saying that al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri used his relationship with Ahmad Vahidi (the then-commander of the elite Iranian Qods Force unit) "to negotiate a safe harbor for some of al Qaeda's leaders who were trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001."

It helps to know the back story when trying to understand the development of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar's views and how they influenced al Qaeda.

Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant.