Abu Musab al-Suri, along with Zawahiri, is a major strategist for al-Qaeda and associated movements.

There’s a good profile and summary of his ideas by MSNBC. Al-Suri was captured in Pakistan, but his writings continue to shape al-Qaeda’s organization. In short, he urges the creation of a decentralized organization, where individuals and small groups act independently.

Al-Suri also opposes suicide bombings. It’s a waste of talented resources and difficult to find enough recruits to launch the thousands of attacks needed in a terrorist campaign.

But al-Suri’s important breakthroughs have less to do with specific plots than with his wider approach to what U.S. officials have called “fourth-generation warfare,” where no clear battle lines, or, for that matter, borders, are respected. He disdains old, hierarchical jihadi organizations, espousing instead complete decentralization of a global war where “groups of guys,” as American analysts like to call them—groups much like the doctors arrested in Britain and Australia this week—will operate almost independently.

Al-Suri’s ideal would be to isolate the self-created cells completely from one another before and during their attacks in the West, although in practice this has rarely been the case. A study by John W. Books at the University of North Texas, who is looking into links among terrorist networks in Britain, shows that contacts among several groups that operated in the U.K. from 2004 to early 2007 were much more extensive than initially reported when arrests were made or bombs went off. So, too, were the visits of their ringleaders to secret training camps in Pakistan. “There seems to be a strong urge by these people to reach back to the leaderships of Al Qaeda,” Books told me over the phone. “It seems like this [terrorism] is not something you can just do on your own. There’s this need to be touched on the shoulder and told, ‘Yes, you are a member of the larger global jihad’.”

According to Brynjar Lia, al-Suri offers “a comprehensive war-fighting theory” in which “individual terrorism” is just one element. The idea is to carry out terror attacks in the West while at the same time fighting somewhat more conventional guerrilla wars like, say, the one in Iraq. The attacks on the home front make it harder to sustain support for faraway combat on Muslim lands. When “spontaneously organized and self-radicalized cells” in the West can’t get the job done alone, al-Suri allows for “cell builders” to work with them. The facilitators might supply some start-up money and training, but they’re supposed to “vanish from the scene completely before any jihadi operations commence,” says Lia. They don’t want to leave any telltale footprints that could compromise the rest of the network.

There are downsides to a decentralized organization. It is prone to internal fractures. Some individuals focus on local objectives, others on global ones, they disagree on courses of action or allocation of money, etc. The lack of a command and control hierarchy means that David Kilcullen’s Disaggregation strategy may be able to divide these insurgent and terrorist organizations.

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