ClandesTime 115 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: The Manchester Manual
The Al Qaeda training manual ‘Military Studies in Jihad Against the Tyrants’ is one of the most important documents in the history of the terrorist gang. Perhaps more than any other artefact it encompasses the absurd contradictions of the War on Terror – people have been convicted for owning a copy, but for years it was available on the Justice Department’s website and on Amazon. This week we take a look at its origins, how it was discovered by Western authorities and what they used it for, as well as two woeful miscarriages of justice that resulted from it.
In the Manchester bombing episode and in the last episode on Ali Mohamed we looked at Anas Al-Liby, a Libyan who was one of Ali Mohamed’s trainees and carried out surveillance on the African embassies prior to the bombings, who also appears to have been an MI6 asset. After the mid-90s assassination attempt on Colonel Gaddafi, Al-Liby and many other members of the LIFG fled to the UK, where many of them still live. Al Liby was questioned in 1999 and the police raided several properties in Manchester in 2000, including Al-Liby’s home, but the man himself slipped away, apparently aware of the trouble headed his way.
During these raids in Manchester in May 2000 the police found a copy of the Al Qaeda manual. It was turned over the to the American authorities who used it as evidence in the 2001 US vs Bin Laden trial, where Bin Laden, Al-Liby and others were prosecuted in absentia for their role in the 1998 embassy bombings. It was an important piece of evidence, as the US government were trying to establish that Al Qaeda was an organisation, so they could use RICO laws to prosecute people for being members of that organisation. These laws are usually used against the mafia and other organised crime gangs. So, a 180-page terrorism training manual is, as the prosecution saw it, strong evidence that Al Qaeda was a formal terrorist organisation.
Prosecutors also tried to introduce it as evidence in the trial of Jose Padilla, an American who was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of trying to build a dirty bomb. Padilla had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and after his arrest was designated an enemy combatant and thrown in a military prison. He was subject to solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, and it wasn’t until several years later that he was transferred to a civilian prison and actually charged with criminal offences. He was found guilty in 2007, but all notions of a dirty bomb were left off the indictment. Padilla said he had been mistreated while in custody, so the prosecution tried to enter into evidence a portion of the Al Qaeda manual that instructs trainees to say this if they get captured, to try to cast doubt on what Padilla was saying. The judge ruled against this because there was no evidence Padilla had ever even come into contact with the manual, let alone read it.
The Manchester Manual and its Origins
The front cover depicts the earth with a knife shoved through it, and there’s a prologue about Muslims being oppressed and killed in Egypt and other places, and attacking pan-Arab leaders like Mubarak, Sadat and Ghadafi. While the manual doesn’t explicitly mention Al Qaeda, it does refer to a ‘military organisation’ whose aim is the overthrowing of the Godless regimes and their replacement with Islamic ones. So basically Al Qaeda. Interestingly, it does also say that blowing up the places of amusement, immorality and sin is not a priority, that the focus should be on the governments themselves.
There follows a series of lessons on espionage, surveillance and counter-surveillance, interrogation and counter-interrogation, how to set up a cell structure in your gang, security, safe houses and hiding places, counterfeiting money and documents, weapons recognition and handling – it’s basically a very thorough manual for covert paramilitary operatives. I learned a lot from it, and I don’t say that entirely as a joke, I actually found it a fascinating read.
What’s more important is where this manual came from, who wrote it and why. It was, of course this should come as no surprise, written by Ali Mohamed, Al Qaeda’s principal trainer. Exactly when he wrote it is not certain but most sources pointing to it being during his time at the Al Kifah, so 1989-1993. Certainly, he was knocking about taking covert photos of African embassies with Anas Al-Liby in 1993, so presumably it was then, or when Ali Mohamed was training Al-Liby in the months before these surveillance ops, that Al-Liby got his copy of the manual.
Why did Ali write it? No one is entirely sure. I would politely suggest that the reason is because the evil, scheming fuckers who were running Ali Mohamed wanted to turn Al Qaeda into an urban terrorist group, so they needed a formal manual for recruits and trainees. Aside from Ali Mohamed’s biography, there are several reasons why I think this.
One is that the manual quotes from some pretty odd sources, including CIA director Allen Dulles and Victor Ostrovsky’s book By Way of Deception, about the Mossad. A copy of this book was found in El Sayyid Nosair’s apartment after the shooting of Meir Kahane. There is also substantial material taken from US special forces training manuals, a bunch of which were found in Nosair’s apartment. If you read the chapter on ‘Special Tactical Operations’ it bears very close comparison to the relevant passages in the Pentagon’s Counter-Insurgency manuals in use at the time. I won’t bore you with the details, but I did a close paragraph-by-paragraph textual analysis of the Al Qaeda document and compared it to 1980s Special Forces manuals and found numerous points where the text is very similar. Just to give you a flavour – there’s a passage in the Al Qaeda manual where it talks about one of the aims of ‘special operations’ is that when they’re successful this boosts morale among the members of the cell. The exact same psychological doctrine appears in US Special Warfare documents.
Most of this has been pointed out by other commentators, and it’s relatively uncontroversial because obviously Ali got the military training documents from Fort Bragg. Where things get a little more troublesome is that there appear to be sections in the Al Qaeda manual that come from CIA manuals. If you read the passages on the cell structure this is akin to what the CIA talk about in their internal history of the 1953 coup in Iran. If you read the section titled ‘Guideline for Beating and Killing Hostages’, it is very reminiscient of Cold War-era CIA torture manuals. Again, I did a close textual analysis to test this hypothesis and it stood up quite well.
But this begs a different sort of question – if Ali didn’t just use publicly available books and documents he stole from Fort Bragg, but also used still-classified CIA materials to write the Al Qaeda manual then where did he get them from? And why? It makes sense if we assume Ali was still working for the CIA when he wrote the manual, but otherwise? Admittedly this is a bit of a circular argument, but if you’re examining a closed circle of people then they operate according to a circular logic.
So, we have a document based on CIA and Special Forces manuals, written by a spy, that turns up at the home of another spy. Can you see why I think this manual was produced as part of an intelligence operation? After all, a lot of these CIA manuals are now available – you can buy them from online bookshops, you can download some of them. But for a long time they were closely guarded secret documents being used at the School of the Americas and elsewhere to train various insurgencies and terrorist groups in Latin America. In my opinion, Ali Mohamed was a one-man School of the Americas for Islamic operations.
Khalid Khaliq and the Manchester Manual
Shortly after the 7/7 bombings a group of British politicians demanded that the Department of Justice remove the Al Qaeda manual from their website. It had been posted there – with some chapters removed – for several years, freely available to anyone who might want it. According to the BBC a Justice Department spokesperson responded, ‘We have no intention of taking it down’. They explained that some parts had been withheld because the DOJ ‘does not want to aid in educating terrorists or encourage further acts of terrorism’ but this is outrageous doublespeak. If they didn’t want to educate and encourage terrorists then they wouldn’t have published it at all. Indeed, it remained on their site for several years after that.
So, it is ridiculous that anyone could be prosecuted for owning a copy of this document. The Justice Department has it on their site for several years and even when politicians from an allied country, only a couple of weeks after a major terrorist attack, told them to take it down, they refused. It simply should not be a crime to own a prosecution exhibit published by a government agency. And of course, I’m white so there’s little chance I’ll get into trouble for the multiple versions of it that I’ve downloaded from different sources. Indeed, I’ve had then on my hard drive for a decade or more so if I was going to use them to commission an act of terrorism then I would have done it by now.
Others have not been so lucky.
That’s a clip from my second documentary about the 7/7 London bombings about the miscarriage of justice perpetrated against Khalid Khaliq, a friend of the alleged bombers. He was essentially forced to plead guilty because of a box of stuff found in his attic, though exactly who gave him the box is not clear. It’s probably relevant that he was involved at the Iqra bookshop, which was being run by Martin McDaid, a former SBS soldier who bears all the signs of being an MI5 spy. The CD containing the Al Qaeda manual matches the descriptions of an IT guy who worked at the bookshop for a while – Martin Gilbertson. He got famous for a while after 7/7 for claiming to have warned the police years before the bombings about the group hanging out at the bookshop.
So not only did Khaliq get prosecuted and forced to plead guilty to owning a document that it should be perfectly legal to own, the likely reason he came into contact with it was because he was involved in an Islamic bookshop being run by a probable British spy. This is a miscarriage of justice, plain and simple. But it is not the only one resulting from the Manchester Manual.
The Nottingham University Two
In May 2008 two men – Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir – were arrested by officers of the Nottinghamshire Constabulary and the West Midlands Police Counter-Terrorism Unit. Sabir was a student at the University of Nottingham working towards a Masters degree in International Relations. Yezza worked as an administrator at the School of Languages, having gained his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University.
Months earlier, Sabir had downloaded a document and two articles as sources for his dissertation research, and emailed them to his friend Yezza so he could print them out. There was nothing untoward in this – Yezza often helped his friend save on printing costs in this way. In May, Yezza’s supervisor noticed the files on Yezza’s computer and alerted other members of staff. Late in the afternoon on May 12th the University called in the police.
They sealed off Yezza’s office and searched it, so when Sabir turned up on May 14th to visit his friend he found a member of campus security posted outside the office. Sabir asked what was going on but the security officer did not tell him, so Sabir sent a text message to Yezza asking if he was alright. He then asked to use a phone in a nearby office and called Yezza, leaving an answerphone message when there was no answer.
Sabir then left the building and went for a cup of coffee with a friend. Shortly afterwards he was arrested by plainclothes police officers in the gent’s toilets. A report compiled by the head of security for the University claims that the police were ‘uncomfortable’ with what they saw as Sabir ‘interfering with the investigation into Hicham Yezza.’ In reality, Sabir had no idea there was any such investigation, was not interfering with it in any way and was merely trying to find out what was going on with his friend.
After getting Sabir’s message Yezza then turned up at the University, having been absent from work for the previous two days. Yezza was then promptly arrested by the police. The two men were held for six nights and seven days before being released without charge. Bizarrely, the University denied that they had called the police and claimed they were ‘simply co-operating with an inquiry’.
The files in question were and still are widely available, and are typical resources for any student looking into terrorism. The two articles were from the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, and from the Middle East Policy Council Journal. The document was the Manchester Manual, which Sabir had downloaded from the US Justice Department’s website.
All three files were available at the time through the University’s library and the Manchester Manual has been sold in book format through Blackwells, WH Smiths and Amazon. It can also be downloaded from various credible online sources, such as the websites of the Federation of American Scientists. Probably in total ignorance of this, the Registrar told the police that, ‘the documents recovered from Yezza’s computer are entirely inappropriate…I see no valid reason whatsoever for the documents to exist.’ The Registrar also admitted that it was he who had called the police and reported the files on Yezza’s computer, contradicting what the University later said in public after the two men had been released.
Further untruths emerged as despite official claims to the contrary the police were called in without any risk assessment being made by the University. Staff did not even undertake rudimentary internet searches to learn about the Al Qaeda manual, and did not speak to the University’s terrorism expert Dr Rod Thornton about the appropriateness of the files to Sabir’s research. In particular the manual is widely referenced in academic literature on terrorism and in many respects is a must-read document for students looking into the subject. Nonetheless Professor Bernard McGuirk told the police that it was an ‘illegal document’, having been informed of the situation by the administrative staff who found it on Yezza’s computer.
Along with the files found on the computer, McGuirk’s opinion and the Registrar’s original complaint appear to be the sum total of the evidence against Sabir and Yezza, and therefore the reason they were arrested. Even aside from the wide availability and justifiable possession of the document, there are many problems. McGuirk was and is a Professor of Romance Languages and Literary Theory, with no expertise regarding terrorism. There is no evidence he (or the Registrar) had even read the Manchester Manual and so he had absolutely no basis for telling the police that it was an ‘illegal document’. More importantly, there is no such thing in the UK as an ‘illegal document’. The only material that is always illegal to own is extreme pornography, particularly that involving children. Being in possession of documents such as the Al Qaeda manual is only illegal if it is used to prepare for a terrorist attack. A judgement on any given case is meant to be the prerogative of a jury, not a literature academic.
So why did the police take McGuirk’s opinion seriously? He was not an expert in any relevant field and what he was saying made no legal sense. Sabir and Yezza were arrested on suspicion of the ‘commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism’, but they had not acted in anything even approaching a suspicious way. Sabir had downloaded the document using a university computer and sent it via the university email system, leaving a permanent record of what he had done. Yezza had left the files on his computer for months afterwards. Both men made it very easy for the police to find them as they were on the site of the University when they were arrested. There was no attempt by either man to cover up or keep secret the downloading and emailing of the files, or to escape or avoid arrest, as there would have been if this was any kind of terrorist conspiracy.
Had common sense prevailed it would have been immediately obvious that Sabir and Yezza were not involved in terrorism and did not pose a threat of any kind. Both men were peace activists, and Yezza even founded a pacifist magazine called Ceasefire, for which Sabir writes a regular column. Even a cursory examination of the evidence should have led the police to the conclusion that two men were innocent victims of presumption and probable Islamophobia on the part of University staff. Instead, they took seriously the paranoid opinion of an unqualified academic and arrested them. Even though Yezza and Sabir were released without charge, an October 2009 report by the Heritage Foundation listed them as being involved in a ‘major Islamist plot’. The report appears to be endorsed by the UK Home Office as they made it available on their website. This shows how months if not years after people have been shown to be innocent, the scent of guilt hangs around and continues to affect them.
FOIA and the Nottingham Two
That could, and should, have been the end of the story, at least as far as the University were concerned, but it wasn’t. Since his arrest in May 2008 Sabir has been arrested another four times, one of which the authorities subsequently admitted was unlawful. He has been hassled by police, his property searched and in one instance seized. If he needs to travel to the US to pursue his research the authorities there would not let him in, ironically because of him once possessing a document published by the US Justice Department. Though some have called this case Orwellian, perhaps ‘Kafkaesque’ is more appropriate.
In April 2011 the University of Nottingham’s terrorism expert Dr Rod Thornton wrote a paper that he delivered at the British International Studies Association. The paper explored in great detail exactly how Yezza and Sabir came to be arrested and how the University management dealt with the case. Thornton obtained dozens of emails, reports and other documents pertaining to the case through Freedom of Information requests. Though much of the information is inexplicably redacted the documents contain numerous revelations.
Thornton’s investigation found that the University played a central role in having the men arrested, despite never bothering to find out any information about the three files on Yezza’s computer. No one in the University’s management ever read the Manchester Manual. The University claimed that they had never made any judgement on the case, when it was their staff who told the police (not vice versa) that the document was ‘illegal’. They never provided any support to their employee, Yezza, or their student, Sabir. The day after the arrests they even drafted a letter excluding Sabir from the University. They tried to blame junior lecturers (and by implication Thornton himself) once it had become clear that the arrests were unjust.
The University also engaged in crude and unprofessional tactics in dealing with Sabir once his innocence had been established. Rather than apologising they told him that the Crown Prosecution Service had said that it was illegal for him to possess the Manchester Manual, when the CPS had said no such thing. Furthermore, Sabir was subject to a strange flaunting of the University’s regulations when it came to marking his academic work for his Master’s degree. A dissertation that two internal assessors graded at 75% was downgraded by an external assessor to 62%, lowering Sabir’s overall score for his Master’s degree. This was done because the external examiner, in their first work for the University of Nottingham, employed different marking criteria to those given to Sabir and his internal assessors. Perhaps conveniently, this meant that his average was just 0.2% below what Sabir needed to progress onto doing his PhD.
Thornton also found that within an hour or so of Sabir’s average mark being determined, one academic sent an email saying that Sabir had ‘bombed on his Portfolio Assessment (scraped a pass) and won’t get the mark he needs to be admitted to the PhD’. This demonstrates that even after he had been shown to be completely innocent that the University was still keeping a close eye on Sabir. When it emerged that due to a bureaucratic error Sabir was allowed to progress to his PhD a further email expressed ‘considerable irritation’ and commented that the situation ‘leaves us with no grounds to refuse entry’. When Sabir finally gave up on the University of Nottingham and moved to Strathclyde to continue his studies, several celebratory emails were sent. ‘Nice to have some good news!’ said one. ‘Both delighted and astonished!!’ said another. It is clear that far from feeling contrite at having got an innocent man arrested that some academics at Nottingham continued to see Sabir as a problem to be gotten rid of, even long after his arrest.
The documents obtained by Thornton were published by the Unileaks website, and further analysis has found that Yezza and Sabir are not the only ones to have suffered from the University’s Islamophobia. Among the documents is a log of all Middle Eastern-related demonstrations and seminars, and University security staff have admitted to filming students who engaged in protests. It even emerged that the police made up the notes from their interview with Thornton when Sabir and Yezza were first arrested, twisting or inventing words to try to use them against the two innocent men.
Dr Thornton should have been praised for having brought to light repeated and consistent prejudice and mismanagement in the Yezza/Sabir case. Instead he has been subject to numerous disciplinary proceedings, and in May of 2011 he was suspended. Within days an open letter calling for his immediate reinstatement and a proper investigation into the case was signed by dozens of academics, including Nafeez Ahmed and Noam Chomsky. Footage available on youtube shows a member of security staff in plainclothes, covertly filming students protesting Thornton’s suspension.
Eventually the University and Thornton came to an agreement, and Thornton resigned and the University did not pursue him for defamation. They issued a joint statement fudging the issue and saying that Thornton’s paper contained some inaccuracies. For what it’s worth, I think he was absolutely right – I think the University behaved very poorly and essentially caused a miscarriage of justice and then persecuted one of their own students.
What was the Purpose of the Manchester Manual?
All of this leaves us with another question – why? Why was this manual written? Was it always intended to be used in this way? That is, of course, impossible to answer and it’s unlikely that Ali Mohamed wrote it with the intention of it one day being on the internet where it could be downloaded by students who then get arrested. But you have to wonder why it was still available online, on a US government website, even after people had been successfully prosecuted for owning a copy. That’s just stupid, contradictory and immoral.
So in many ways this is the perfect metaphor for the War on Terror and a very good microcosm of this Alternative History of Al Qaeda. The War on Terror is a confused mess of mutually contradictory ideas leading to idiotic policies that just cause more terror, chaos, death and destruction. The process by which Al Qaeda evolved from an insurgent guerrilla force into a multinational urban terrorist gang was riddled with spies, and resulted in numerous trials of dubious legality and worth. The very existence of Al Qaeda online is a provocation and a trap, and in this case one that seems to have been state-sponsored at every turn.
So that’s the story of the Al Qaeda manual.
Subscribe to Spy Culture
If you enjoyed this content then keep up with new posts here at Spy Culture by subscribing via email, RSS, Instagram, tumblr or facebook: