NEW YORK — The latest Islamic radical captured after commanding a multi-million dollar reward from the U.S. government was being sought because of his contacts and influence, not because he directs terrorist operations, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Mustapha Setmariam Nasar al-Suri, a native Syrian with a Spanish passport, he was quietly placed on the State Department's "Rewards for Justice" list in 2004 and a $5 million reward posted for his capture. Unlike others on the list, however, officials -- all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity -- said Nasar is "not a man of action.”
"He is a pen jihadist, a propagandist," said one official. "He is all pen, no action, but the man has amazing access to a lot of other key players."
Among those who he has had contact with is Osama bin Laden, meeting him in Sudan during the early 1990's, they said. In addition, Nasar both taught at and ran al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and had contact with bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders there as well.
Wanted in Spain
Born in Aleppo, Syria, Nasar married a Spanish woman Elena Moreno with whom he has two children. Nasar himself looks very little like the typical Arab, being red-haired and fair skinned.
In September 2003, he was among 35 people named in an indictment handed down by Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon for terrorist activities connected to bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Garzon has said Nasar gave terrorism training, particularly in the development and use of poisons, to individuals from Spain, Italy and France, then sent them home as "sleepers" awaiting orders.
Of particular interest, said a second U.S. official, is the role the 45-year-old Nasar may have played in two of the most spectacular terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic radicals — the Sept. 11 attacks and the Madrid train bombings earlier this year.
Contact with Atta
One of his closest aides, Amer Azizi, met with Mohammad Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers, and his friend, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, the organizer of the 9-11 hijack teams, in Tarragona, Spain two months before the attacks.
Investigators view the meeting is as critical in the attacks' planning. Azizi also is believed to have activated the cell that planted more than a dozen bombs on Spanish trains and at train stations, killing 191. Nasar's role in Madrid remains murky, say officials.
Much of what is known about Nasar comes from interrogations of al-Qaida militants in U.S. custody, in particular Bin al Shibh, who another official described as the most cooperative of the militants.
Nasar is famous among radicals for his book, "The Syrian Experiment,” a call to action against the repressive Arab nationalist regime of the Asad family. As a journalist, he has often written under the pseudonym, "Abu Musab Suri.”
"He is a lover of books more than bombs and his organizational skills leave a lot to be desired," said the first official, who also dismissed reports in several media that Nasar is the ideological and religious advisor to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose organization has taken responsibility for many of the terrorist attacks in Iraq over the past year.
"He doesn't get along with Zarqawi," said the official, declining to provide more details. "He is not a spiritual leader for Zarqawi. They don’t like each other."
Robert Windrem is an NBC News Investigative Producer.