A Nottingham postgraduate student and an administrator were arrested in May 2008 and held for six days by counter-terrorism police after a document known as the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ was found on the administrator’s computer. The student had sent him the document some months previously as he wanted his advice on whether or not it was a good source to use in his MA dissertation – which was on Al Qaeda. The student, before his arrest, did ask a lecturer at the university if it would be alright for him to use as a source. This lecturer, after checking the document out, agreed.
What exactly is the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’? It is a handwritten document (originally in Arabic) that was found in Manchester in 2000 by the police and translated by them into English. Its real title is ‘Declaration of Jihad against the Country’s Tyrants’ (or sometimes ‘Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants’) and appears to have originated in Egypt in the early 1990s. It was designed to be used by Islamists opposing the Egyptian government in particular and secular Arab regimes more generally in the 1980s/1990s. The words ‘Al Qaeda’ actually do not appear in it once. It was only given the title ‘The Al Qaeda Training Manual’ by the US Department of Justice (US DoJ) which was using this document (having obtained it from the British police) as evidence in the trial in New York of the East African embassy bombers in 2000. The name was changed presumably in an attempt to ‘sex up’/‘spin’ the document to make it sound more ‘incriminating’ to a jury.
It reads very much like any Western military manual. As ‘The Smoking Gun’ website puts it, ‘Several commentators have observed that this manual appears to be a compilation of material drawn from various military, intelligence and law enforcement manuals for internal security, guerrilla and covert operations’. It has also been linked to the ‘Torture Manuals’ produced by the US Army School of the Americas in the period 1987-91 (see ‘US Army and CIA interrogation manuals’ on Wikipedia).
Having been used in the above trial the document had, under US freedom of information laws, to be made public. Hence it is now on 6,000 websites (apparently) and a Google search for ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ provides 958,000 hits. It is on the websites of any number of respected US organizations: RAND; US Air War College; Pentagon library; Federation of American Scientists; Columbia University library, etc. Thus all any student has to do, if they did want to access this document that the Nottingham student downloaded, is to go along to any university library and just download it from an affiliated site – such as Columbia. It has also come out as two books: The Al Qaeda Training Manual (2006) published by Pavilion Press (available from the likes of Cornell University library), and as Jerrold (or Jerry) Post’s (ed), Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants/The Al Qaeda Training Manual (2004) published by Frank Cass (now Routledge). A hard copy of Post’s work is also available from the US Counterproliferation Center in Alabama (hereinafter ‘US Air Force version’). This latter variant can be ordered on interlibrary loan. The ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ also forms part of another book, Ben Venzke’s, The Al Qaeda Documents, Volume I. (2002).
The US DoJ variant is, in fact, an edited version and has some chapters removed. Of the two books, the Pavilion Press variant has some chapters removed but less than the US DoJ one, and the book edited by Jerry Post has all the chapters present with just a few lines removed about how to make poisons. It is ironic that the fullest version is the one that is freely available from interlibrary loan!
The ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ is common currency. It is not some secret tome lurking deep within Jihadist websites. It is cited in many basic textbooks on terrorism. It is considered to be a seminal text in the study of Al Qaeda’s tactical approaches: Rohan Gunaratna makes great use of it in Inside Al Qaeda (2003); a visit to Wikipedia’s ‘Islamic Terrorism’ provides a link, and the About.com website for ‘Al Qaeda’ lists the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ as being one of only three ‘in depth’ sources to access related to Al Qaeda. Indeed, one of the most popular and basic textbooks in both the US and the UK, Gus Martin’s Understanding Terrorism (Sage, latest edition 2009), has a 3-page section devoted to the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’. Here it actually gives the US DoJ website address to access as a primary source (pp.367-9). Undergraduate students are actually encouraged to access this document! At least one postgraduate student, indeed, wrote her whole master’s thesis on the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ (Melanie Kreckovsky, ‘Training for Terror: A Case Study of Al Qaeda’, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, 2002 http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA401637).
Some observers think it is a good source. It has been described as ‘the sole piece of reference material available to the general public regarding the inner workings of Al Qaeda’. This source goes on to say that the knowledge in it is useful to any person anxious to fight terrorism: it ‘educates the average citizen about the tactics and organizational structure of the terrorist organization for the express purpose of empowering that citizen to take the necessary steps to expose potential terrorists, and bring that suspect and the suspicious activity to the awareness of the proper law enforcement agencies’. Likewise, a reviewer on Amazon (a US Marine) calls it ‘an excellent opportunity to see some of the ways that Al Qaeda and other terrorists think and operate…this is a must read for all military, police, security and any citizen concerned about terrorism and its aims’. An academic at the US Marine Corps University, Norman Cigar, sees it as a ‘valuable document’ (Norman Cigar, Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency, 2009, p.5). Paul Bremer, in his preface to the US Air Force version, talks of the work providing a ‘revealing…view of the “mind” of Al Qaeda and its leadership’ (Jerrold Post (ed), Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants (Maxwell AFB, Ala: USAF Counterproliferation Center, 2004).
Others see little of use in the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’. One observer noted that it is ‘the sort of thing anyone with any common sense could figure out. Nothing at all was mind blowing or informative’. Another said ‘I’ve read just about every credible book on Al Qaeda and I honestly have to say this book’s not worth the money I paid for it. The information it contains can be found on the internet. An excellent alternative is Ben Venzke and Aimee Ibrahim’s The Al Qaeda Threat: An Analytical Guide to Al Qaeda’s Targets and Tactics.
Academics teaching terrorism would probably not recommend any of their students to look at this particular document. It is strange that an ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ does not mention Al Qaeda once and it is very dated and of little relevance in the contemporary age. The stated target set in the manual also gives away its origins. This is patently a document written in Egypt (probably from someone in the Muslim Brotherhood) and is designed to push readers towards taking action against murtid (or apostates) – Muslims who have renounced Islam – in Arab countries (‘US Air Force Version’, p.14 and p.16). Specific targets were those leaders in Arab countries who had adopted socialism and communism in the 1970s and 1980s; including Assad (the elder), Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and Ghadaffi (ibid, p.18). As the manual puts it, ‘the main mission for which the Military Organization is responsible is: the overthrow of the godless regimes and their replacement with an Islamic regime’ (ibid, p.23). There are no references to the killing of Jews or Christians and there is no mention of the US. Indeed, the passages quoted from the Koran, which originally included references to Jews and Christians, have had such references removed. Jews and Christians in this ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ are not targets.
Moreover, when a terrorist ‘manual’ talks of using revolvers, invisible inks and ciphers in letters – while never once mentioning computers, the web or email – then the information within it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. For instance, under the title, ‘Communications Means’, some of the ‘means’ to be used along with the telephone, messengers and letters are ‘some modern devices, such as facsimile and wireless communication’ (ibid, p.39)! Mobile phones are not mentioned.
The last date referred to in the document is in 1987. But there is some talk of how readers should try and get into Afghanistan through Pakistan. Whether this section was added later is not clear (there are various different handwriting styles in the document). Also, this section could refer to Afghanistan under the Soviets or during the period of the Taliban when Al Qaeda training camps had been set up there. It does not, of course, refer to the current post-Taliban Afghanistan since the document was discovered back in 2000.
The ‘bomb’ section does not tell readers how to make bombs, merely how to plant them and how to ‘light a fuse’. This section is all very ‘innocent’. The section on interrogation is designed to relate what a member of the ‘organization’ might face when captured by the authorities; it is not about members of the organization interrogating other people (although reverse-engineering is, of course, possible).
Interestingly, Post, as the editor making comments in the ‘US Air Force version’, is twisting information in the document to fit a certain point of view. He notes, in the interrogation section, that the writer of the manual refers to ‘the personal experiences that Al Qaeda personnel and their wives, mothers and sisters have undergone’ during interrogations by the Egyptian authorities (ibid, p.166). Yet none of the ‘experiences’ are actually of Al Qaeda members; rather they are of Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood! Post, a US government employee, seems to be taking the wording of the manual and trying to make it fit a preconceived notion – that this is, actually, written by ‘Al Qaeda’.
The ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ falls into the category of interesting but not particularly useful. As the Director of the Royal United Services Institute, Michael Clarke, puts it, ‘I have not seen any Al Qaeda manuals that look like genuine terrorist training’ (Uzi Mahnaimi, ‘Finger points to British intelligence as al-Qaeda websites are wiped out’, Times Online ). A much ‘better’ (or should it be ‘more dangerous’?) book is Norman Cigar’s (ed), Al Qaida’s doctrine for insurgency: a practical course for guerrilla warfare (Potomac Press/Brasseys 2009). It is a translation of the manual of the Al Qaeda cell in North Africa. This is much more ‘useful’ to terrorists than is the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’. It is far more up-to-date; is far more detailed, and is actually written by someone in Al Qaeda. While, for instance, the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ has only one page devoted to how to block a car in assassination attempts, the Al Qaida’s doctrine for insurgency has a whole 7-page chapter on this subject! Ironically, though, not only does the translation of this manual emerge from one of the most prestigious presses in the US, but it also has a foreword by Julian Lewis MP, a UK shadow defence minister!
Incidentally, the UK police did ask the US DoJ to remove the document from its website in 2005. It refused, saying that ‘the public has a need for more information about how terrorists operate, so as to be able to protect themselves better’.
And, as a final postscript, the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ is certainly nowhere near as ‘dangerous’ as any of the dozens of ‘manuals’ one could download from US Militia websites.