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The architect of the new war on the West

Writings by al-Qaida strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar lay out the post-9/11 plan of decentralized cells joined in jihad.
Al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Setmarian Nasar is shown in an undated photo provided by Rewards for Justice.Rewards for Justice via AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

From secret hideouts in South Asia, the Spanish-Syrian al-Qaeda strategist published thousands of pages of Internet tracts on how small teams of Islamic extremists could wage a decentralized global war against the United States and its allies.

With the Afghanistan base lost, he argued, radicals would need to shift their approach and work primarily on their own, though sometimes with guidance from roving operatives acting on behalf of the broader movement.

Last October, the writing career of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar came to an abrupt end when Pakistani agents seized him in a friend's house in the border city of Quetta and turned him over to U.S. intelligence operatives, according to two senior Pakistani intelligence officials.

With Spanish, British and Syrian interrogators lining up with requests to question him, he has turned out to be a prize catch, a man who is not a bombmaker or operational planner but one of the jihad movement's prime theorists for the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

Counterterrorism officials and analysts see Nasar's theories in action in major terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In each case, the perpetrators organized themselves into local, self-sustaining cells that acted on their own but also likely accepted guidance from visiting emissaries of the global movement.

Nasar's masterwork, a 1,600-page volume titled "The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance," has been circulating on Web sites for 18 months. The treatise, written under the pen name Abu Musab al-Suri, draws heavily on lessons from past conflicts.

Nasar, 47, outlines a strategy for a truly global conflict on as many fronts as possible and in the form of resistance by small cells or individuals, rather than traditional guerrilla warfare. To avoid penetration and defeat by security services, he says, organizational links should be kept to an absolute minimum.

"The enemy is strong and powerful, we are weak and poor, the war duration is going to be long and the best way to fight it is in a revolutionary jihad way for the sake of Allah," he said in one paper. "The preparations better be deliberate, comprehensive, and properly planned, taking into account past experiences and lessons."

Intelligence officials said Nasar's doctrine has made waves in radical Islamic chat rooms and on Web sites about jihad — holy war or struggle — over the past two years. His capture, they added, has only added to his mystique.

"He is probably the first to spell out a doctrine for a decentralized global jihad," said Brynjar Lia, a senior counterterrorism researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, who is writing a book on Nasar. "In my humble opinion, he is the best theoretician among the jihadi ideologues and strategists out there. Nobody is as systematic and comprehensive in their analysis as he is. His brutal honesty and self-criticism is unique in jihadi circles."

After the bombings in Madrid and London, investigators fingered Nasar as the possible hands-on organizer of those attacks, because he had lived in both cities in the 1990s. But so far, investigators have unearthed no hard evidence of his direct involvement in those attacks or any others, although they suspect he established sleeper cells in Spain and other European countries.

‘A very difficult man’
Nasar was 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.

He arrived in Spain in 1985. He married a Spanish woman who had converted to Islam, and through that connection, he became a dual Spanish-Syrian citizen. He also made contacts with other Syrian emigres who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. His neighbor in a small town in the province of Granada was Tayssir Alouni, a journalist for the al-Jazeera satellite television network who would later interview Osama bin Laden. Another friend was Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, who was convicted last fall on charges of running an al-Qaeda cell in Spain.

In 1987, Nasar journeyed to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help Muslim fighters in their rebellion against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He trained at camps, met bin Laden and joined the ruling council of al-Qaeda, according to a Spanish indictment filed against him.

When he returned to Spain in 1992, he concentrated on building his own cell there and also traveled widely in Europe to set up other al-Qaeda groups in Italy and France, according to the Spanish.

"He's pretty much designed the structure of the cells that have operated in Europe," said Rogelio Alonso, a terrorism expert and professor at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. "He was the one with the prominent role as the individual who had the links with the higher echelons of al-Qaeda."

Although Nasar attracted the notice of Spanish police, investigators did not classify him as a serious threat. According to Spanish court papers, detectives had Nasar under surveillance in 1995. But when he moved to London that year, they stopped paying attention.

Life above ground in London
In London, Nasar led an above-ground life as a writer and voice of Islamic extremism. He did publicity work for al-Qaeda, helping to arrange interviews with bin Laden in Afghanistan for CNN and the BBC.

He edited an Arabic-language newsletter called al-Ansar, which was devoted primarily to the cause of fundamentalists fighting a long and bloody civil war in Algeria. Even in London's sizable community of Arab exiles and radical Muslims, Nasar stood out for his strong views and unwillingness to compromise.

In his newsletter, he defended the Armed Islamic Group, the Algerian rebel force known by its French acronym, GIA, for targeting Algerian civilians in a series of massacres that destroyed entire villages. When other Arab dissidents decried the tactics, Nasar turned on them as well, denouncing his critics in letters and in person.

"In Algeria, he pushed people to violence," said one Arab exile living in Britain who tangled with Nasar in the mid-1990s. "He was not just an editor. He served as a strategist for those people and played a very bad role in what happened in Algeria," said the exile, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared harassment from al-Qaeda supporters.

British intelligence officials also took note of Nasar's activities in their country and questioned him on at least two occasions, according to people who knew him. But he was never placed under formal investigation, they said.

"He's very intelligent and powerful in making his arguments," said an Arab dissident who knew Nasar well and also spoke on condition of anonymity. "But he is also a very difficult man. His tough attitude created many, many enemies for him, even in jihadi circles."

With his pale white skin and red hair, Nasar physically blended into British society more easily than many Islamic fundamentalists. But he sometimes struggled to reconcile his beliefs with his surroundings.

For instance, friends said, he was well educated on the finer points of Western classical music and enjoyed talking at dinner parties about composers. But he refused to actually listen to the music, for religious reasons. And while he rejected the authority of secular institutions, he once filed a libel lawsuit in a British court against the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat.

Unlike many of his acquaintances who favored arranged marriages, the unsmiling Nasar possessed a romantic streak and surprised friends by doting on his Spanish-born spouse. "I was in his house once and he was putting out all these romantic touches for his wife," said one of the Arab dissidents. "I asked him, 'Where did you learn how to do that?' He said, 'We Syrians, we know these things.' "

Moving beyond al-Qaeda
Nasar departed London in 1998 to return to Afghanistan, according to intelligence sources. There, he forged close ties with the new Taliban government and swore an oath of allegiance to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. He was given a position in the Taliban defense ministry.

He also resumed his contacts with al-Qaeda, but frequently clashed with bin Laden, according to Arab dissidents and Nasar's own writings.

In an e-mail to bin Laden in 1999, recovered from a computer hard drive in Kabul by the Wall Street Journal, Nasar complained that bin Laden was getting a big head from his frequent media appearances. "I think our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans, and applause," Nasar wrote.

In public statements and in interviews with Arab media, Nasar said he was happy to work with al-Qaeda but emphasized that he was an independent operator. His theories of decentralization had already taken shape: It would be a mistake, he said, for the global movement to pin its hopes on a single group or set of leaders.

"My guess is that he saw bin Laden as a narrow-minded thinker," said Jarret Brachman, research director for the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "He clearly says that al-Qaeda was an important step but it's not the end step and it's not sufficient."

Nasar's theories of war also called for the most deadly weapons possible. In Afghanistan, he worked with al-Qaeda leaders to train fighters in the use of "poisons and chemicals" at two camps near Jalalabad and Kabul, according to the State Department. After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Nasar praised the attacks. But he said a better plan would have been to load the hijacked airplanes with weapons of mass destruction.

‘We apologize for the radioactive fallout’
"Let the American people — those who voted for killing, destruction, the looting of other nations' wealth, megalomania and the desire to control others — be contaminated with radiation," he wrote. "We apologize for the radioactive fallout," he declared sarcastically.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Nasar went into hiding, moving to Iran, northern Iraq and Pakistan, according to intelligence officials. In November 2004, the State Department posted a $5 million reward for his capture.

Within a few weeks, Nasar responded by posting a lengthy statement on the Internet. He denied reports that he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or the Madrid bombings, but issued warnings of his own.

"As a result of the U.S. government's declaration about me, the lies it contained and the new security requirements forced upon us, I have taken the decision to end my period of isolation," he wrote. "I will also resume my ideological, media-related and operational activities. I wish to God that America will regret bitterly that she provoked me and others to combat her with pen and sword."

Around the same time, Nasar posted his 1,600-page book on the Internet. In it, he critiqued failed insurgencies in Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan and offered a new model aimed at drawing individuals and small groups into a global jihad.

Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, in Herzliya, Israel, called Nasar's book "brilliant — from their point of view." He said researchers fear that it is already serving as a how-to manual for uniting isolated groups of radical Muslims for a common cause.

"We are witnessing a new generation of jihadists who were not trained in the camps in Afghanistan," Paz said. "Unfortunately, this book has operational sections that may be more appealing to this new generation."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.