Resembling an Irish pub landlord, the flame-bearded portly Abu Musab al-Suri does not fit the archetype of a militant. But this week’s truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin bears the hallmark of this Clausewitz of terror.
Fear of the ordinary
Like many guerrilla movements of the past, while it has been good at fighting the Islamist militant movement has been hopeless at statecraft. The ideological compulsion to fight the “far enemy” rather than consolidate territorial control led to the American reprisals that overthrew the Taliban. The international array of powers, for all their rivalries, will also bring down the ISIS.
The persistence of Islamist militancy relies on its viral evolution, guided by al-Suri who stands as the post-9/11 architect of global Islamist resistance. Under his strategy, militancy has repeatedly adapted to the military strategies employed against it by superpowers, coming back stronger with every defeat.
While many secular insurgent movements have sought to use terrorism to assert demands, al-Suri’s “third generation” of militants has used terrorism to foster a psychological transformation in their enemies. The Berlin atrocity is the latest in a succession of low-tech, lone wolf martyrdom operations that are intended to destabilize our perception of reality. They seek to make ordinary life a frightening place and transform the future into bleak uncertainty.
A striking similarity exists between the attackers: their ordinariness. They were not radicalized or organized in Muslim lands, but in the West. They were not known as strict Muslims; indeed, their lifestyles would have condemned them to death under ISIS. Their radicalization was brief and crude and their terrorist education was rudimentary.
Their attacks used the simplest everyday instruments in the most everyday situations, such as trucks. They are radicalized through social media that is part of our contemporary existence and embedded within our economy. They are attacking the urban sanctuaries of liberal enlightenment.
The importance of al-Suri
Unlike the self-proclaimed caliph Ibrahim al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Suri has an intimate understanding of the West and understands how the West is ordered. Originally from Aleppo, al-Suri was a Muslim Brotherhood militant who participated in the Hama Uprising of 1982. After it was crushed by Hafez Assad, he fled to Europe, achieved Spanish citizenship through naturalization and married a Spanish woman of non-Muslim origin.
Seeking an Islamic utopia, he emigrated to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1997, but left for Pakistan immediately after 9/11. In 2005, he was arrested by the Americans amid allegations that he masterminded the Madrid and London terrorist attacks and was rendered to Syria. The Assad regime released him in 2012, possibly in a deal with the al-Nusra Front or as an act of defiance against the US following the Arab Spring uprising.
While the role he now plays in directing terrorist activity is unclear, his greatest gift to the movement is his “Global Islamic Resistance Call”. The military treatise, published in 2004, grew out of the Syrian militant’s disillusionment with Osama bin Laden’s strategy and the “Tora Bora mentality”.
The back of the truck is towed off on December 20, 2016 from the scene where it crashed into a Christmas market near the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) in Berlin. (AFP)
Al-Suri stated that “the outcome [of the 9/11 attacks] as I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current which started in the early 1960s.” Al-Qaeda had provoked an attack that destroyed Taliban rule by a country that it could not defeat. Al-Suri saw that a centralized leadership was increasingly cut off from its acolytes and the Muslim masses.
The 9/11 attacks caused the destruction of Taliban rule by the US, a country that it could not defeat by conventional means. In the course of Western military campaigns, old militant training methods that brought about 9/11 “have been made irrelevant due to the elimination of the margins” of the international system which permitted operational freedom. As the “areas of chaos” and the “open fronts” come under American control, safe havens and camps become impossible.
In response, al-Suri proposed a distributed network model of decentralized resistance formed by blind cells or even individuals acting merely through inspiration to take on militancy. A centralized unit would exist only to guide and counsel, but not to exert operational control. Operations would be self-directed by units and individuals.
His call to militancy sought to use small-scale attacks in the West “to reach a state of security exhaustion, political confusion, and economic failure.” The lone wolf is the ideal soldier in al-Suri’s strategy.
Changing Western civilization
Although there was no obvious operational control over the 14 July Bastille Day attack in Nice, ISIS claimed responsibility and declared that “the crusader countries know that no matter how much they enforce their security measures and procedures, it will not stop the mujahideen from striking.”
This generalized threat from within will change Western civilization. Since al-Suri wrote the “Call”, social media has become a communications architecture that militants have easily exploited to create a network. The movement has adapted to pressures by enmeshing itself with the fabric of contemporary Western society in order to chip away at our old certainties at a time when the repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis are undermining trust in institutions.
Like an ouroboros eating its own tail, liberal society is devouring itself. Militancy and fiscal austerity have helped conjure up a “post-truth” politics in a civilization where the pursuit of truth is central. Donald Trump has emerged in the climate al-Suri is fostering. Lies are no longer disguised as truth. People vote for the lies they like, not for integrity or even competence.
Politicians like Trump provide people with lies they want to believe, an illusion of moral simplicity in a confusing world where ordinary spaces are no longer safe. His narrative of a conflict of civilizations – banning Muslims and building walls against Mexicans – very much fits the militants narrative of perpetual global conflict.
Yet, in the name of protecting the liberal values that were held up as virtues in contrast to Islamist radicalism, freedoms are being sacrificed to bolster the security state.
Incapable of eradicating one another, the Islamist militants and Western governments are reaching a state of violent symbiosis, each needing the other to justify their existence. Where we go next, as a species, depends on escaping dichotomies that separate us and force us – Muslim and non-Muslim – into a hostile, destructive relationships that benefit only war-mongers, businessmen and politicians.
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