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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Emerson Vermaat: Mustafa Setmarian Nasar - A close friend of Bin Laden's and Al -Zarqawi's

Emerson Vermaat: Mustafa Setmarian Nasar - A close friend of Bin Laden's and Al -Zarqawi's

December 4, 2005


A close friend of Bin Laden's and Al-Zarqawi's

By Emerson Vermaat

Shortly before his capture in Pakistan, a high ranking Al-Qaeda terrorist ordered so-called sleeper cells to prepare terrorist attacks in the Netherlands, Great-Britain, France, Italy, Germany Denmark, Russia and Australia. In 17-page statement he declared war on the Netherlands ‘because of its continued military presence in Muslim lands.' Who is this man and should his threats be taken seriously?

The Syrian born Mustafa Setmarian Nasar (‘Abu Musab Al-Asuri') may not be as important as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, but he nearly is, and he certainly is a close ally of the latter. He also happens to be a very close friend of Osama Bin Laden's. Bin Laden and Setmarian Nasar know each other since the very inception Al-Qaeda in 1988 – when Soviet forces were leaving Afganistan, that is, – and they have been in touch ever since. Setmarian Nasar even joined Al-Qaeda's inner circle of the leadership's council or Shura. While Zarqawi and Bin Laden are still at large, Setmarian Nasar is safely behind bars now: he was arrested in Pakistani city of Quetta on October 31, 2005. His interrogation will take months. Not only the Pakistanis, but also the American and Spanish authorities are highly interested in extracting information from him, for he surely knows a lot. He may have played a role in at least three major terrorist attacks: Casablanca in May 2003, Madrid in March 2004, and London in July 2005.

Who precisely is Setmarian Nasar and what else makes him so important? His real name was Al-Haj Mohammed Na(s)sar. He was born in Aleppo, Syria, in the summer of 1958. This city was a hotbed of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the 9/11 operational leader Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian, was still studying architecture in the North German city of Hamburg, he met two Syrians in a local extremist mosque called Al-Quds. One was Mohammed Haydar Zammar, born in Aleppo. The other one was Mamoun Darkazanli, born in Damascus. Both got German citizenship and both played a keyrole in Al-Qaeda, Zammar as a recruiter (he possibly also recruited Atta himself into Al-Qaeda), Darkazanli as an important business contact. For some reason Atta decided to write his final thesis for the Technical University on ‘Architecture in the city of Aleppo.' He had been in Syria before, and may have had a number of contacts in local extremist circles.

Mustafa Setmarian Nasar also knew Darkazanli quite well. In 1993 and 1996 he received two payments from Darkazanli. Setmarian Nasar does not look like a man from the Middle East. He has red hair (in Spain he was referred to as El Pelirojo – ‘the Red Haired' – and green eyes. He could easily pass on for a North European, something which would be highly useful to him once he became Bin Laden's confident and had to travel inconspicuously under a variety of identities.

According to his own account in an interview with an Arab journalist in 1999 (published in a Kuwaiti newspaper in June 2004), Setmarian Nasar first studied mechanical engineering in his hometown of Aleppo. He then joined the so-called ‘Vanguard Fighters,' group of jihadists pertaining to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which was subsequenty suppressed by the secular Baathist regime of president Hafez Al-Assad. In 1980, Setmarian Nasar had to flee to Jordan where he stayed until 1983. In 1981 he joined a group of Muslim Brothers on a trip to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad where they enlisted for a military training course given by ‘Iraqi Popular Army'. Apart from training in the use of all kinds of weapons and tactics, Setmarian Nasar and his friends also received thorough training in the use of explosives. Back in Jordan they followed additional military courses and even founded an institute for military education in Amman. The Jordanian government did not seem to mind. Obviously, they did not consider the Syrian Muslim Brothers who received training both in Amman and Baghdad as a threat to Jordan's own security. Students of the institute in Amman would put their initial training into practice in Iraq. In the 1999 interview Setmarian Nasar claimed to have had problems with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood when it decided to accomodate with the Baathist regime in Damascus. Desillusioned, he left the Brotherhood and planned to study at the Islamic University of Medina, Saudi Arabia, but failed to get permission. In 1984 he travelled to France where he tried to unite migrated local Syrian jihadists under his own banner. Inspired by the war in Afghanistan they wanted globalize the jihad. When these efforts came to nothing, Setmarian Nasar travelled to Spain in 1985. When his initial efforts to get a residence permit also failed, he decided to marry Elena Moreno, a Spanish citizen. He had met her in the ‘School of Languages' in Madrid. After 1987 he was allowed to stay, becoming a Spanish citizen himself. He travelled to Pakistan/Afghanistan in 1987/88 and met Abdullah Azzam (a Palestinian Muslim Brother whose radical preachings strongly influenced him) and Osama bin Laden for the first time. 1988 also happened to be the year of the founding of Al-Qaeda and Setmarian Nasar was invited to join its ranks. Bin Laden liked the promising young Syrian living in Spain with his technical and military skills. Setmarian Nasar in turn named one of his sons after Osama. Using Spain as his main base, he made numerous trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He may have come accross another young fanatic called Ahmad Fadil Nazzal Al-Khaylaylah, a Jordanian who would later be known as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The latter travelled to Peshawar in 1989 where he stayed at boarding houses belonging to Bin Laden's ‘Bureau of Services' or ‘Maktab Al-Khedamat' (MAK), a recruiting agency for young muslims who wanted to fight the Russian infidels and their allies in Afghanistan. Although the young Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan when the Russians had already left, the pro Russian puppet government remained in power and fighting the continued with Zarqawi taking part in the battle of Khost in eastern Afghanistan in 1989.

Although Setmarian Nasar lived in the province of Granada, he was frequently in Madrid where he performed the functions of imam in the Mosque of Abu Baker and published a book on ‘The Jihad in Syria.'He left Spain in 1995 to become the managing director of the London based journal Al Ansar, the principal voice of the extremely violent Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Al-Ansar's editor in chief was a Palestinian refugee from Jordan called Omar Mahmoud Othman, better known as Abu Qatada. Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzon and the Spanish media would later refer to Qatada as ‘Al-Qaeda's ambassador to Europe.' Setmarian Nasar and Qatada became very close friends. He also made many friends among local Algerian jihadists. ‘In London there are many people who helped Bin Laden and the jihad group,' he said in 1999. Writing articles under a different name, his office was legally registered as a ‘Study Center of Islam.' He even made television reports on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for the BBC and CNN. So, Setmarian Nasar was a rather versatile figure: he was an explosives expert and military trainer, a free-lance journalist, a book writer, an imam and a confidant of Osama bin Laden's. And in Spain, he was a close friend of another Syrian immigrant: Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (‘Abu Dahdah'), the founder and leader of a Spanish Al-Qaeda cell implicated in the preparations of the September 11 attacks. (In 2005, a Spanish court sentenced Abu Dahdah to 27 years in prison.) Before September 11, 2001, Abu Dahdah paid about twenty visits to London to meet Abu Qatada. In 1997 Setmarian Nasar returned to Afghanistan where Bin Laden made him the commander of two Al-Qaeda training camps. In these camps jihadists were also trained in the use of poisons, chemical and biological weapons and urban warfare, areas in which Setmarian Nasar had specialised. (A number of his Al-Qaeda jihadists would later join the ranks of Al-Zarqawi in Iraq.) In June 2005, the Spanish newspaper El País quoted him as saying that ‘the solution to confront the United States and its allies is the use of nuclear, chemical and biological arms.' In February 2005, he published an 11-page Manifesto in Al-Qaeda's electronic bulletin Risalat Al-Mujahidin in which he pleaded for the destruction of the United States and its allies by using weapons of mass destruction. And in the 1999 interview he said: ‘God says we must be prepared to confront the enemies. There can be no jihad without preparing ourselves. We must wage war, and from the war of the few we will arrive at the war of a whole people.' (Four year laters, Al-Qaeda and Zarqawi would put these words into practice in Irak.)

While in Afghanistan (between 1997 and 2001) as an ally of the Taliban and an associate of Bin Laden, Setmarian Nasar was one of Al-Qaeda's most important military instructors, able, in addition, to travel freely with his Spanish passport. Formally he worked in the Taliban ministry of Defence. If he had not met Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi back in 1989, he certainly must have met him in 1999 when the latter again travelled to Afghanistan, this time to join the ranks of Al-Qaeda and quickly ingratiating himself with Bin Laden and with Algerian and Tunesian extremists in Kabul. Early in 2000, Al-Zarqawi moved to the western town of Herat where he became the leader of an Al-Qaeda training camp. Although Setmarian Nasar's two camps were in eastern Afghanistan, it is quite likely that the two Al-Qaeda leaders saw or talked to each other either in Kabul or Kandahar when Osama bin Laden summoned them for meetings. Both would stay in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Setmarian Nasar's last meeting with Osama bin Laden took place in Afghanistan in November 2001. Shortly after this meeting he fled to Pakistan whereas Al-Zarqawi left Herat and first took refuge in nearby Iran, and later in Northern Iraq and Baghdad.

In his book 11-M: La Venganza, Spanish investigative journalist Casimiro García-Abadillo describes an important meeting in Istanbul at the end of 2002. The Moroccan police provided data to the Spanish police about that meeting where, according to Moroccan and Spanish police investigations, the first preparations were made for the terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003. Present were Amer Al-Azizi, a high ranking Al-Qaeda operative close to Abu Dahdah, Mohammed Al-Guerbouzi (possibly the founder of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group GICM) and Setmarian Nasar himself. After the US-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Setmarian Nasar may have been in Iraq a number of times to assist his Al-Qaeda fellow-jihadist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with whom he became very close. El País (June 6, 2005) quotes the Spanish Syrian as saying: ‘I pray to God that he may protect Al-Zarqawi, that he may guide and grant him victory, that he may strengthen him and all the other cambatants in Iraq. I am with them.'

After the arrest of Abu Dahdah in Spain in November 2001, Setmarian Nasar is likely to have succeeded him as leader of the Spanish Al-Qaeda network. The Spanish press decribed Setmarian Nasar as the ‘The Spanish Al-Qaeda chief.' He may very well have been the real mastermind of the terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004. Indeed, he praised the seven March 11 terrorists who committed suicide when their apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganés was besieged by Spanish special forces in early April 2004. His name has also been mentioned in connection with the suicide bombings in London in July 2005, but there is no hard evidence that he was really involved. But is quite unlikely that he was? No, it is not. Two of the London suicide bombers, Mohammed Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, have been to Pakistan more than once, their last visit began in November 2004 and ended in February 2005. They were in close touch with a banned terrorist group called ‘Jaish-e-Mohammed' (which the US State Department links to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden), two militants even stated in an interview with The New York Times that they had seen Khan and Tanweer in a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp located north of Islamabad. Setmarian Nasar was close to the very same group. When he was arrested in Quetta at the end of October 2005, he was in the company of two of his friends: one was a Saudi Sheikh (who was killed in the shootout with the police) the other one was Abdul Hanan from Jaish-e-Mohammed. It is possible that Setmarian Nasar passed on instructions from Al-Qaeda to Khan and Tanweer through intermediaries linked to Jaish-e-Mohammed. It seems that this radical Kashmiri group has stepped up its recruiting efforts both in Europe and Pakistan. When Jason Walters, a key member of the Dutch terrorist network ‘Hofstadgroup,' visited Pakistan in 2004 he met Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Maulana Masood Azhar, at least that is what he claimed in an e-mail to a friend after he had returned to the Netherlands. However, the Hofstadgroup (to which Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh also belonged) was not in any way linked to Al-Qaeda, although some of its members repeatedly praised Osama bin Laden.

According to the Spanish newspaper El País, Elena Moreno, Setmarian Nasar's wife and a Muslim convert, believes that her husband has been transferred to Guantanamo Bay or to one of the United States' secret prisons. She joined her husband when he settled in London in 1995 and also accompanied him when he travelled to Pakistan in 1997. She did not go to Afghanistan, though and claims she did not know his exact address after 1997. After September 11 2001 Setmarian went completely underground and his wife and her sons first went to Kuwait in 2003 and then to Qatar where they currently live. She claims her husband is innocent. Others say Setmarian Nasar may be one of the very few who could lead investigators and security services to Osama bin Laden himself.

5 December 2005.


Emerson Vermaat, a law graduate from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, is an investigative journalist specialized in terrorism and crime. He recentely published ‘De dodelijke planning van Al-Qaida' (‘Al-Qaeda's deadly planning') and ‘De Hofstadgroep. Portret van een radicaal-islamistich netwerk' (The Hofstadgroup. A radical islamic network), Aspekt Publishers, Soesterberg, Netherlands. The so-called ‘Hofstadgroup,' a terrorist network in the Netherlands, is currently on trial.


Emerson Vermaat, De dodelijke planning van Al-Qaida (Al-Qaeda's deadly planning, Aspekt publishers, Soesterberg, the Netherlands, March 2005)

Juzgado Central de Instrucción No. 005, Summario (Proc. Ordinario) 0000035/2001 E (Madrid, 17 September 2003), p. 37 (Setmarian Nasar in Afghanistan/Pakistan around 1988, contacted Osama bin Laden), p. 54 (received money from Darkazanli in Hamburg).

El Mundo, 17 juli 2005, p. 16, 17 (‘Un español en la cima de Al Qaeda').

El País, 6 June 2005. 15, 16 (‘España sigue amenazada'). ‘Bin Laden encarga al sirio español Setmarian el diseño estratégico y militar de la futura "guerra santa".' Quotes from Setmarian Nasar: ‘Confronting the United Statres and its allies with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.' ‘I met Sheikh Osama, may God protect him, for the last time in November 2001 during the battles in defence of the emirate (=Afghanistan).' ‘I worked in the Taliban Ministry of Defence.' Poisons, chemical and biological weapons, a specialisation of Setmarian Nasar. Quote on Al-Zarqawi. Referred to as ‘el jefe español de Al-Qaeda.' Praising the March 11 terrorists who, one month later, committed suicide in Leganés. Quotes on weapons of mass destruction.

El Mundo, 17 July 2005, p. 17 (‘Mustafa Setmarian: "En Londres había mucha gente que apoyaba la "yihad"'). Full text of interview in Kuwaiti newspaper. Setmarian Nasar was interviewed in 1999 by Magid Al–Ali, the interview was published in Kuwait on 2 June 2004

El Mundo, 12 August 2005, p. 19 (‘Abu Qatada: El "Embajador" de Al Qaeda en Europa')

Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, Al-Qaida dans le texte (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005), p. 370, 371 (Zarqawi in Peshawar and Afghanistan in 1989).

Casimiro García-Abadillo, 11-M. La Venganza (Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, 2004), p. 112 (meeting in Istanbul).

The Times, 11 July, 2005, p. 4 (possible role of Mustafa Setmarian Nasar in the London attacks).

United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2004 (Washington, April 2005), p. 100, 101 (Jaish-e-Mohammed, Bin Laden and the Taliban).

The Daily Telegraph, 19 Julk 2005, p. 4 (‘Suicide bombers flew to Pakistan together').

The New York Times, 26 July 2005, p. 6 (‘Two militants place suspect at a camp in Pakistan').

Emerson Vermaat, De Hofstadgroep. Portret van een radicaal-islamitsich netwerk (Soesterberg: Aspekt Publishers, October 2005), p. 91, 92 (Jason Walters in Pakistan).

El País, 4 November 2005, p. 20 (‘Pakistan anuncia que el fundador de Al-Qaeda en España ha sido detenido en Quetta') Setmarian Nasar arrested in the company of Abdul Hanan from Jaish-e-Mohammed.

El País, 18 November 2005, p. 20 (‘Setmarian, en el limbo judicial'). About Elena Moreno.

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