The recent assaults that have struck the European cities show a strategic change in Islamist terrorism. Young Muslims, in some cases already known to the authorities, have acted in unexpected ways, using light weapons and improvised resources to maximize terror in public spaces. While some analysts have discovered a lessening degree in the severity of these attacks, the terrorists have succeeded in their primary intent: putting these countries in crisis-mode. The attacks up to now have been mostly vindicated by the Islamic State which, in serious apprehension on the Syrian/Iraq front, has opened a deceitful line of fire.

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The question is if ISIS really has operational control in every attack they claim, or, more likely, if they just assume responsibility and claim its ideological paternity. Whatever Daesh’s involvement, these episodes follow a similar strategy as described as “Lone Wolf” attacks.  This is not all that unique of a strategy, and they certainly aren’t exclusive to the Islamic State.

The rules of this modus operandi are not at all a novelty, but the strategy doesn’t belong to the Islamic State; it spawns from al-Qaeda.  In November 2005 in Quetta, a Pakistani Police raid led to the high-level arrest of a jihadist whose features distinguished him from the others Muslims — a thick red beard. His name? Mustafa Setmariam Nasar a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Suri. He was at the top of the wanted intelligence list and he had been identified as one of the bin Laden organization’s most merciless operatives. Of Syrian origin, Mustafa married an European, acquiring a Spanish citizenship and then moving into the suburbs of Neasden in London. After years of anonymity and silence, his name returned to the limelight after the July 2005 subway attack investigations — not as forehand assassin, but as an organizer and inspirer [1]. The al-Suri core curriculum was similar to that of many al-Qaeda’s activists: mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and, from 1988, an old friendship with Osama bin Laden whose opinions diverged in regards to some strategic choices and doctrinal visions. For example al-Suri didn’t approve of the theatricality of the Saudi Sheikh, coming even to condemn the attack on the Twin Towers. On this point, al-Suri’s jihadist’ worldview coincided with that of another criminal, the Iraqi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi follower of the Palestinian Cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi [2].

Once the Taliban regime collapsed, Abu-Musab went off the grid to devote himself to writing “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” posted on jihadist websites in November, 2004. The 1600 pages compiled by the Syrian theorist represented a military abridged edition, motivated by the most extreme Salafist speculations on jihad: “who are primarily military strategists, and whose main preoccupation is political outcome, not doctrinal purity [3].”

Abu Musab al-Suri avoided the title of “cleric,” preferring to call himself “terrorism’s tactician,” whose interest aimed in perpetuating the jihad political outcome. Brynjar Lia, author of a biography devoted to the terrorist, has emphasized a conflict among the Salafist traditionalists school and al-Suri which — contrary to bin Laden’s pattern — didn’t care anything of the clerical legitimacy, judging it hostile and misleading: “Their clerics mislead the mujahidin and turned them away from the battlefield by preaching loyalty to corrupt rulers who had allied themselves with the infidels [4].”

Individual Terrorism

According to al-Suri’s thought, the former terrorist groups had substantially failed their mission, since they depended upon a hierarchical and centralized structure. From the beginning al-Qaeda had similar characteristics, altering them as a result of the war. Al-Suri suggested a more innovative model, based on “individual terrorism” and small operative cells. In the pages of his essay “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” the author stresses the potential of these well-defined, “spontaneous” operations, apparently without connections to any centralized structure, and this strategy has “put the local and international intelligence apparatuses in a state of confusion [5].”

Moreover, acting in isolation meant a further advantage since it made the terrorists less vulnerable to the investigators’ inquiries: if a cell was discovered, immediately another was ready to perform uninterrupted. From the media’s point of view, this kind of attack achieves two results: instigate the fear among the people, but above all encourage other frustrated Muslims to emulate their coreligionist’s initiatives. “The issue of individual jihad,” argued al-Suri, “was a great da’wah success. It had great influence on awakening the spirit of jihad and resistance within the Ummah, and it transformed unknown individuals […] into becoming symbol of a nation [6].” The individual terrorism theories coincided with the new al-Qaeda demands that, after 9/11, it needed to restructure into a more flexible and decentralized organism. The term al-Qaeda, “The Base,” lost its original meaning, turning itself into a brand, a belief and an operational method [7].

The Abhijnan Rej essay, “The Strategist: How Abu Mus’ab al-Suri Inspired ISIS,” has clarified once and for all the difference between the “Lone Wolf” and the assassin outlined in al-Suri’s book. The Paris, Brussels, London or Barcelona killers — according to the “The Global Islamic Resistance Call” values — belonged to decentralized cells, but all responded to that which Rej describes as a “called” or an “appeal” to associate them to a larger system with: “a common aim, common name, common doctrinal jihadi program and a comprising educational program [8].” To keep calling them “Lone Wolves” would then be a mistake.

If the al-Suri theory is examined (imagined by Rej as a graph of concentric circles), there is a directive nucleus linked to a second circle of decentralized unity in connection — through the bay’at (oaths of fidelity) — with a third ring, released and separated (from the logistic point of view) by all the others. These external autonomous cells are those that: “are in contact with a militant group via online communication but not receiving specific instructions about carrying out an attack [9].”

Open Front Jihad

Another remarkable point of al-Suri’s jihadist military theory is the “Open Front Jihad”: a wide arena (Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria) in which to trap the enemy troops, forcing them to fight in asymmetrical warfare. Only in this way the jihadistis can challenge a technologically superior rival: Al-Suri claims that:

It is not possible for a few jihadi organizations, or for tens or hundreds of mujahideen and there, to deter this fierce international attack … It is absolutely necessary that the Resistance transforms into a strategic phenomenon … after the pattern of the Palestinian Intifada against the occupation forces, the settlers and their collaborators [1o].”

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For obvious reasons, the Open Front doctrine coincides with individual terrorism. The Foreign Fighters phenomenon exemplifies the practice suggested by al-Suri:

Some elements working in the field of recruitment and the building of cells can benefit from the Open Fronts, by recruiting some of the elements coming to fight jihad, selecting them, and sending them to operate in their countries, or wherever they are able to operate in the field of individual or cell terrorism [11].”

In light of al-Suri’s philosophies here, we can make the assertion that, although the jihadist attacks are losing their sense of grandeur, they remain unpredictable and destabilizing. The Islamic State headed toward a humiliating military defeat, depriving the jihadists of an important recruitment base. One of the probable outcomes of this downfall would be the thick reentry of Foreign Fighters in their respective countries of origin (Europe, for example), which would generate new militarily prepared sleeper cells.



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[1] Brynjar Lia, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s Critique of Hard Line Salafists in the Jihadist Current, CTC Sentinel, December 2007, Vol. 1, Issue 1, URL:’s-critique-of-hard-line-salafists-in-the-jihadist-current

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Abhijnan Rej, The Strategist: How Abu Mus’ab al-Suri Inspired ISIS, in “Occasionale Paper”, August, 2016, p. 3. URL:

[4] P. Cruickshank-M. Hage Ali, Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda, in “Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30, 2007, p. 1. URL:

[5] Abu Musab al-Suri, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, p. 9.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Rej, cit. p. 5.

[8] Ibidem, p. 6.

[9] Ibidem, p. 9.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] Ibidem, p. 21.