The Next Bin Laden

Al-Qaeda's new mastermind favors small, opportunistic strikes over spectacular attacks. Are we scaling back the NSA at the very moment we need it most?
Al-Suri, who is suspected of planning the Madrid train bombings, is encouraging a higher quantity of smaller attacks, a break from bin Laden's methodical and dramatic approach. (Courtesy of the U.S. State Department)

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-Qaeda 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 Qaeda "core" in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda'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-Qaeda.

Whereas bin Laden preached big dramatic acts directed by him and senior Qaeda 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.

"I think al-Qaeda's capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11."

Recent terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, from the murderous 2009 spree of Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood to the Boston Marathon bombings last year, suggest that al-Suri's philosophy dominates al-Qaeda's newly flattened hierarchy. The late Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who preached this strategy and induced Hasan's attack, is said to have developed his ideas from al-Suri's. Meanwhile, with new refuges in North Africa, Syria, and Yemen, jihadists have much more territory from which to hatch plots unmolested.

Yet the politics at home are changing as the threat abroad is growing. The revelations dribbled out by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden have outraged members of Congress and world leaders, including those of close allies such as Germany and France. They say they are aghast at American overreach. Writing in Der Spiegel, Snowden justified himself this way: "Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear, because reforms to politics, supervision, and laws are being suggested." Thanks to him, Congress will almost certainly rein in the National Security Agency's data-trolling methods—though it's not yet clear how much.

But the agency's opponents may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors. For the foreseeable future, al-Suri's approach will mean more terrorist attacks against more targets—albeit with a much lower level of organization and competence. "It's harder to track. Future attacks against the homeland will be less sophisticated and less lethal, but there's just going to be more of them," says Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who steered the agency after 9/11 toward deep dives into Internet and telephonic data. Adds Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, "I think al-Qaeda's capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11." For better or worse, the only hope to track them all is an exceptionally deep, organized, and free-ranging intelligence apparatus, experts say.

Intelligence officials who are well briefed in the technical aspects of NSA surveillance also note that global communications are vastly more complex than they were as recently as 9/11, not just in terms of speed and bandwidth but also in the kinds of digital paths they can take. Messages can travel partly by air and partly by cable, for example, and the NSA must keep up. "If you take the diffuse physical environment [of more failed-state havens] and you layer that with the diffuse communications environment, and then you layer that with the diffuse ideological environment—more lone wolves, for example—that makes for a far more generally dangerous environment," says a knowledgeable U.S. government official who asked to remain anonymous.

All of which means that despite very legitimate questions about whether the National Security Agency is going beyond what the law and Constitution allow, Americans probably need the NSA now more than ever.

In the early 2000s, the world seemed a lot smaller to Western intel analysts. Qaeda leaders had been chased from several countries and could settle only in Afghanistan. Back then, just after 9/11, Washington had a slew of allies in the Muslim world providing regular updates. In the early 2000s, even Syria helped track Sunni Islamists before cooperation ended in 2006, according to an intelligence expert who works on contract with the Pentagon. Syrian intelligence helped avert two major attacks—against the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and a Navy base in Bahrain, he says. Back then, total information awareness was less essential.

No more. With the exception of Egypt—where the military has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood—the Arab Spring uprisings have opened up huge swaths of ungoverned territory in Muslim nations that once cooperated with Washington against terrorism. The toppling of strong autocratic leaders has led not to secular democracy but to fractionalization, allowing some Islamist groups to seize territory in which they might host terrorists cells in the way the Taliban welcomed bin Laden. "There are at least 25 failed states in the world, an unprecedented number," says Pascal Boniface, head of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations. They stretch from Yemen and Somalia to Syria and Libya and Iraq.

Beginning with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted "underwear bomber" of 2009, more attacks have emanated from Yemen, home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, than from the "core" in Pakistan. It's only a matter of time before other failed states begin yielding plots as well, intelligence experts say. Even Afghanistan, despite America's 12-year war there, is expected to harbor new threats; NATO officials concede that large sections of that country along the border with Pakistan will remain ungoverned indefinitely. 

Al-Suri is out there somewhere. He was said to have been rendered to Syria by the CIA after his 2005 capture in Pakistan, but President Bashar al-Assad reportedly released him. Today his whereabouts remain a mystery. "We don't even know for sure that he was released," says the intelligence expert contracted to the Pentagon, who is privy to classified reports on al-Suri. "The Syrian government announced that they let him go, but there have been no sightings and little chatter about him." With the United States calling for Assad's overthrow—despite signing a pact with him banning chemical weapons—it stands to reason that the Syrian dictator would relish seeing the jihadists he is fighting turning their attention to American targets. Yet even the senior diplomatic, intelligence, and defense officials who run the U.S. government's "Rewards for Justice" program, which offers money for tips leading to top terrorists, are unsure whether al-Suri is at large: A State Department official told National Journal this week that defense and intelligence agencies are still discussing whether to put him back on the wanted list.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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