By Michael Hirsh
“I think al-Qaida’s capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11.” Congressman Mike Rogers
Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama and his senior lieutenants have been telling war-weary Americans that the end of the nation’s longest conflict is within sight. “Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self,” Obama said in a speech in May. “This war, like all wars, must end.” That was the triumphal tone of last year’s reelection campaign, too.
The truth is much grimmer. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaida “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaida as a global threat. Its tactics have morphed into something more insidious and increasingly dangerous as safe havens multiply in war-torn or failed states—at exactly the moment we are talking about curtailing the National Security Agency’s monitoring capability. And the jihadist who many terrorism experts believe is al-Qaida’s new strategic mastermind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means “the Syrian”), has a diametrically different approach that emphasizes quantity over quality. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mechanical engineer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is believed to have helped plan the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London—and has been called the “Clausewitz” of the new al-Qaida.
Whereas bin Laden preached big dramatic acts directed by him and senior Qaida leaders, al-Suri urges the creation of self-generating cells of lone terrorists or small groups in his 1,600-page Internet manifesto. They are to keep up attacks, like multiplying fleas on a dog that finds itself endlessly distracted—and ultimately dysfunctional. (A classic Western book on guerrilla warfare called The War of the Flea reportedly influenced al-Suri.) The attacks are to culminate, he hopes, in acts using weapons of mass destruction.