The book tells how to make bombs and invisible ink, how to mix filth and food to make poison. More basically, it retells an older and uglier lesson: How to mix bad theology and twisted history with rage to create a terrorist.
As with so many descriptions of real terror in recent years, the photocopied pages once would have seemed too ludicrous to be taken seriously, like the idea of killing hundreds of people with poisoned Kool-Aid or that of children bringing arsenals to school to kill teachers and students. In fact, one of its opening pages displays a crude drawing--a sword plunged through a globe--that looks like something a junior-high boy would scrawl on a book cover.
The manual, with its innocent-looking cover image of flowers, didn't draw much attention when it first came to light last spring. The New York Times published a story about it but ran it inside the paper, not on the front page. The Times reporters called it a combination terrorism training guide and Mad Magazine spy cartoon. Few other papers picked up the story.
Those who used the literature, however, apparently took it seriously. In 1998, the U.S. government alleges, they blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa. Wadih el Hage, a former Arlington resident and secretary to Osama bin Laden, was convicted earlier this year of taking part in that plot. As the last page of the manual directed, the conspirators in that incident worked in closely coordinated teams, putting "the right man in the right place."
No close inspection of the manual, introduced last April in a courtroom a few blocks from the World Trade Center, could have prevented the events of September 11. Its pages, however, help explain the meticulous planning and the sources of the hatred that led 19 other men, working in precisely coordinated teams, to change the skyline of New York City and the history of the world. Middle Eastern scholars suggest that governments all around the world might learn from its pages some unintended lessons--not how to commit terrorism, but how to uproot it in the future.
Federal prosecutors called it the jihad manual.
"Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants" was seized in Manchester, England, from the home of another suspected terrorist, Anas Al-Liby. Still a fugitive, Al-Liby has also been indicted in the embassy bombings. According to testimony, he was a computer expert for bin Laden's group, Al Qaeda ("the base"). With another man who has since pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges, Al-Liby allegedly did surveillance of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in advance of the bombing, converting a room in a confederate's apartment into a darkroom for developing pictures of the embassy and its surroundings.
The manual's approximately 180 pages are largely taken up with detailed explanations on subjects such as how to prepare explosives, how to assassinate people in various ways, and how to maintain secrecy and avoid detection. There are drawings of guns and graphs showing how to use various codes to encrypt messages. Many details from its 18 "lessons," or chapters, could have been followed not only by the embassy terrorists but also by the suicide bombers who commandeered four U.S. airliners on September 11.
Equally important, it offers initiates--those who might, for instance, wonder about the religious implications of targeting non-military structures and large numbers of civilians--justifications for such actions, based on skewed history and a perversion of mainstream Islamic beliefs.
The text alternates between the white-hot anger of dogma and the cold-blooded calculations of killing. In the first lesson, for instance, the author lists the missions for which the military organization--that is, the terrorist group--is responsible in attaining the ultimate goal of overthrowing the "godless regimes." In addition to kidnapping enemy personnel and gathering information and destroying bridges, the missions include assassinating foreign tourists, blasting and destroying embassies, economic centers and "the places of amusement, immorality and sin." The lesson also includes a section on the importance of "removing those personalities who block a cell's path [including] all types of military and civilian intellectuals and thinkers for the state."
Another entry suggests that, when seeking people to carry out "special operations," planners choose agents who have, among other qualities, calm personalities "that allow coping with psychological trauma such as those of the operation of mass murder." In Lesson 11, trainees are told that religious scholars permit the beating and torturing of hostages, and that a hostage may be killed "if he insists on withholding information from Moslems." In a section in which various espionage and terrorist incidents are critiqued, a positive point listed for one mission was that "the assassins killed an Israeli they found on the way back."
In the embassy bombings case, the manual was the literary equivalent of a smoking gun. In the final stages of that trial last spring, government lawyers dumped load after load of evidence on the beleaguered jury, so much and so fast that jurors asked the judge to tell them to slow down. Much of the evidence was obscure: stacks of records showing who called whom on what date; wiretap transcripts full of seemingly irrelevant conversations; lists of alleged code words. Defendants had to remember pages of supposed aliases in order to identify the callers and callees. Notebooks full of handwritten names and numbers seemed important to prosecutors, but who knew if jurors grasped the connection between the scribbles and the bombs that killed 224 people?
The manual was different. Once they gave jurors its English translation, prosecutors didn't have to interpret it, or ask jurors to put two and two together to grasp its meaning. What it said--and what it meant--was clear and chilling.
"Islamic governments are never established through peaceful means," the book said, in the first of many misstatements of history. "The confrontation that Islam calls for with...godless and apostate regimes does not know Socratic debate...But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine gun."
We vow, the author said, "to make their women widows and their children orphans...to make them desire death...to slaughter them like lambs and let the...rivers flow with their blood."
The bombers who made the streets around the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania run with blood on August 7, 1998, seem to have followed many of the precepts in the book. It urges that members of the group develop patience in performing their work, "even if it lasts a long time." Witnesses testified that Al-Liby, in whose home the manual was found, came to Nairobi to photograph and scout the embassy there four years before it was bombed.
The manual recommends that false documents include photos of agents clean-shaven, less radical in appearance to the minds of many in the West and the Middle East, and that agents try in appearance and otherwise to blend in with the people around them as much as possible. Trainees were told that, when traveling, they should try to hide their luggage amid that of other people or even, on a train, to put it in a different car than their own. They were also warned not to talk to other people much--a rule that many of the September 11 bombers seem to have followed to the extreme.
One section discusses the technicalities of building bombs, with details of fuses, charges, switches, detonation cord, car bombs and, in one case, a time bomb placed in the radio of an airplane. The agents were advised to use code words in conversation, as prosecutors said the embassy bombers did.
Believers are told that, if arrested, they should complain about their treatment in custody, "take advantage of the visits to communicate with brothers outside of prison" and learn to hide messages. El Hage complained mightily of his treatment in federal custody both before and during his trial, although his lawyers and some others believed the complaints had merit. Part of the sanctions, including near-solitary confinement and a refusal to allow el Hage to communicate with his religious advisor, were imposed because prosecutors indeed feared he would pass information on to other conspirators. Moataz al Hallak, then imam of the Arlington mosque that el Hage attended, also complained that he was not allowed to talk to el Hage. Al Hallak has been questioned repeatedly by federal officials in connection with both the embassy explosions and last month's suicide hijackings. He has not been charged with any crime.
The sections in which the manual's author uses the teachings of Islam to justify murder and savagery make some Islamic scholars fume and others cringe at the continuing and dangerous misrepresentation of that religion.
Even the word "jihad" itself has been corrupted by the extremists, says Imam Moujahed Backhach, leader of the Islamic Association of Tarrant County. "Jihad" can mean many kinds of struggle. But when used to refer to physical conflict, he said, it refers only to defensive struggle, to the right that Islam gives to a person to defend self, family and home. "It is not to be an offensive war waged against innocent people. I don't know what kind of scholar or what kind of Muslim this is" who would write that, he says.
Like most faiths, Islam allows the use of violence to defend oneself or others, and it approves of war for similar purposes--but not terrorism. "There is no text in the Koran that would legitimate any form of terrorism, any form of torture," says Dr. John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. While the manual praises those willing to become martyrs, Esposito and many others said that this kind of martyrdom--as in the suicide bombings--is a deadly sin in Islam.
Dr. Richard Bulliet, a history professor and authority on Islam at Columbia University, says the author of the manual was no Islamic scholar. "This just sounds like someone who is picking fragments here and there, ignoring the vast scholarship about the Koran, in order to inflame feelings or justify bad things. That is something scholars really don't do," he says.
Esposito adds that, in calling down the protections of religion, bin Laden and the other Islamist terrorists are following the same path taken by other extremists. "People who blow up abortion clinics or [people] who commit acts like the assassination of [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin search out religious texts that enable them to frame essentially political acts as religious," he says. "You've moved beyond 'I told you to do this.'...If God wants you do to it, then you don't question the nature of the act."
Both Bulliet and Esposito say that the governments in Arab and other heavily Muslim countries bear some of the responsibility for the rise of Al Qaeda and other terrorist movements. Such governments, Bulliet says, have often suppressed even moderate Islamic political activity "with almost the same vigor that they attacked the violent movements.
"When you look across a good deal of the Arab and Muslim world, you have relatively new nation-states, most emerging after World War II," Esposito says. "Many of them are coming off 200 years of European colonialism...What you wind up seeing are very fragile states that have had a history of problems with authoritarianism, instability and violence. Until, say, 20 years ago, [government opponents] would cloak themselves in secular terminology. Now in the last 20 years, religion has re-emerged as a more significant force in society" for both mainstream and radical groups.
Bulliet says that, in fact, ignorance about the tenets of Islam has allowed misinterpretations of the religion, such as that offered by the extremists, to gain ground.
"One of the sad things in modern Islamic history is that, with the growth of nationalist governments, the quality of Islamic education at the mass level went down," Bulliet says. Because many secular governments--new, fragile and often undemocratic--saw religious forces as a threat to them, he says, they discouraged the study of Islam. "In the Arab world, general knowledge of Islam became worse" beginning in the late 19th century, he says. Many of the best-known people in Islamic thought now are self-taught, and many have never really studied the religion in depth. "The scholars are few and far between," he says.
The growing ignorance of people about their religion "opened the way for this flood of new ideas, some of which are benign and some of which are pretty ugly. When I see that kind of manipulation, it saddens me," he says.
Indeed, in giving its fractured version of history, the terrorism manual speaks with as much venom about the governments of Arab and Muslim countries as it does about the West.
The document refers to the fall in 1924 of the remnants of the Ottoman empire as the last legitimate rulers of much of the Muslim world. Afterward, it says, the Islamic nation was afflicted with rulers "who turned out to be more infidel and criminal than the colonialists themselves." Such rulers started to "openly erect...societies and organizations like Masonic Lodges, Lions and Rotary clubs, and foreign schools. They aimed at producing a wasted generation that pursued everything that is western."
Such "unbelief," the writer says, is what drove a long list of Middle Eastern leaders--including Libya's Moammar Gadhafi--"to torture, kill, imprison and torment Moslems." The manual also justifies torturing prisoners during interrogation partly on the basis that Arab governments do the same thing to Islamic radicals. "Let no one think that the aforementioned techniques are fabrications of our imagination or that we copied them from spy stories," the manual says in the section on interrogation. "On the contrary, these are factual incidents in the prisons of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all other Arab countries."
The document repeatedly stresses that true Islamic governments through history are installed only by violence and that government must be by force. Young Muslim men who are now awakening to such "truths" have "realized that an Islamic government would never be established except by the bomb and rifle," the manual says.
Rubbish, say Esposito and Bulliet and other scholars.
"Historically, that's foolish," Bulliet says. "Islam has spread in many parts of the world without guns or bombs. Indonesia never got invaded, or Malaysia...That's 250 million Muslims, a quarter of the Islamic world, whose history does not include establishing Islamic government by bombs and rifles."
"That's really sad," Esposito says. "I'm trying to picture the person writing that...This person is fulfilling the distorted stereotypes of Muslims. It's not true at all."
Statements like that and, indeed, the massive political and philosophical fallout of the September 11 terrorism, both men say, may in the end cause a major shift in the attitudes of the Muslim community in the United States and elsewhere, causing them to be more open than ever before in their condemnation of radical twists placed on their religion by extremists.
"This is going to really highlight the radical interpretation of Islam that is going to require, it seems to me, that many people address it," Esposito says. "Even though many Arab and Muslim leaders are going to be totally offended by this [statements in the manual and other terrorist documents], this is going to require that they be right out there along with everybody else, saying, this isn't what we represent."
Bulliet says he believes it may be a major turning point for American Muslims. "I think we are going to look back historically and say, from this date on, Muslims committed themselves to America," he says. "As we move on, I think this will bring Muslims into the American community in ways they were not before."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- A Dallas Attorney's One-Man Crusade Against a Debt Collection Giant
- Oops. New Numbers Show That Toll Road Underwater After All.
- Emails Show How Easily Texas Regulators Roll Over for Coal Polluters