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Download al Qaeda manuals from the DoJ, go to prison?

In the UK it's all down to your motivation

By George Smith, Dick Destiny, 30 May 2008

Analysis If you download "the al Qaeda manual," never share it, even if you're a scholar-in-training studying terrorism. Especially if you and the recipient go by the wrong kind of names.

In mid-May, University of Nottingham master's student Rizwaan Sabir apparently sent the electronic manual to a school clerk, Hicham Yezza, for printing. This triggered an investigation in which counter-terror police arrested the two and held them for six days, after which Sabir was released without charge. However, Yezza was held on an immigration violation and is in custody, threatened with deportation to Algeria.

Reg readers know now that reading the wrong stuff in the UK gets you on the fast track to prison for one possession of something likely to be of use to potential terrorists. Technically, get-out-of-jail-free cards have been issued for journalists and academics, both of which have a well-defined public interest in writing about and analyzing such documents. However, under the current climate it's inevitable that those with good reasons for possessing jihadi electronic documents will find themselves in anti-terror cross-hairs.

The paradox in this case is that the source of the so-called al Qaeda manual. According to UK reports, Sabir downloaded it from the US government.

Readers may already know that when someone cites a document attributed to al Qaeda, it's time to squint and look closely. Because one either won't be getting the entire picture, or its historical context and provenance will be distorted in some interesting but painful and politically expedient manner.

The "al Qaeda manual" was posted to the US Department of Justice website years ago.* It is more accurately known as the "Manual of Afghan Jihad" or "Military Studies in the Jihad [Holy War] Against the Tyrants." (Or simply the Manchester manual, from its place of confiscation.)

You can think of it as a mouldy oldy, dragged out and banged about to shake loose a dust of fear when counter-terror men need some to sprinkle on the polity.

The "Manual of Afghan Jihad" was obtained in Manchester in April 2000 by British anti-terrorism agents and subsequently turned over to the FBI's Nanette Schumaker later that month. It was originally the property of Nazib al Raghie, also known as Anas Al Liby to the US government. Al Raghie was the equivalent of an old pensioner from the Afghan war living in retirement in Britain. At the time the manual was confiscated during a counter-terror recce operation, UK authorities were not interested in him. Neither, apparently, was the FBI and he was not arrested. Not unexpectedly, he then disappeared.

Translations of it have been copied onto the web but at least two (and possibly more) primary sources for it lie within the jurisdiction of the US government, one on a Dept of Justice server and another at the Air Force's Air University. Since they're officially sanctioned sites, they are seen as legitimate sources by those who would study it, as well as attracting the simply curious.

* The US DoJ originals of the manual, edited, are split into four parts, part one; part two; part three; part four. The Air University mirror, cited by the White House, hosts it here.

During the London ricin trial, the defense considered the American government's description of it as "the al Qaeda manual" a manufactured title. Nowhere within the document is al Qaeda mentioned and it seems to have originated in the last years of the Islamist resistance of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. But from time to time the Manchester manual has been used by the US government to make political points.

In 2006, George W. Bush used it to remind Americans the country was at war against a potent enemy.

"Bin laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them," the president said to the Military Officers Association of America during a speech which was widely publicized. "The question is `Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?'"

The president cited the Manchester manual, calling it "al Qaeda's" - and a grisly example of the organization's methods, specifically pointing to the chapter entitled "Guideline for Beating and Killing Hostages."

As part of Bush's exposition on terror and why we fight, whitehouse.gov linked to a display page for the manual at the Air University, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama. This page was a mirror of the John Ashcroft Department of Justice's old placeholder on the book, one which had been taken down although copies of the material still reside on its machine. (These versions were selectively edited by the American government, for example, to remove poison-making recipes thought to be a public menace.)

At Nottingham University, the document has come almost full circle - from Manchester, to Washington, around the US and back to England.

The Times Higher Education Supplement reported on May 22 that Sabir was using the manual "as preparation for a PhD on radical Islamic groups [and] had downloaded an edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook from a US government website... It is understood that [he] sent the 1,500-page document to the staff member... because he had access to a printer." The clerk was also arrested.

Sabir's lawyer told the publication "The two members of the university were treated as though they were part of an al-Qaeda cell."

University faculty and students have subsequently responded with great alarm, viewing it as an attack on academic freedoms. However, the protest was complicated by the intervention of an unnamed university official acting as spokesman, who explained to the press that there was "no reasonable rationale" for the clerk to have the manual. According to THES, "the edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook was 'not legitimate research material' in the university'’s view."

Many others differed, arguing it is obviously politically and socially relevant material to study. Indeed it is, not only as a collection of terror methods, some of them collected from the American neo-Nazi and survivalist right, but also as a book which has been cited in courts and used by authorities to publicly shape opinion in the war on terror. For example, in 2007 the US government attempted to use it to burnish its case against convicted terrorist Jose Padilla. It was declared inadmissible in that instance, although Padilla was eventually sent over, anyway.

Since the manual has been widely cited and distributed by the mainstream media, too, one could devote an entire scholarly essay to its socio-political utility in framing the nature of the adversary. And, as a matter of fact, Associated Press reported on May 28 that Sabir was using it in "writing on the American approach to al-Qaeda in Iraq."

This story is made more complicated as readers begin to understand that anyone deported to a country like Algeria, fitted with a jacket now defining them as an owner of the manual, has their life completely uprooted. Daubed with a black mark by it, they're set up as a potential target for arrest, subsequent interrogation and all that menacingly entails.

Bootnote: For the purpose of understanding the trail of the Manchester manual, it is proper to include its position on US government servers. Keep in mind that if you are in the United Kingdom and you're the wrong person, downloading it to your computer incurs a significant legal exposure from which bad things may transpire. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.</p

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