In May 2000, British police raided the Manchester home of reputed al-Qaeda operative Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi. On Oct. 15, some 10 days after having been plucked from the streets of Tripoli by US special forces, Libi was arraigned in a New York courthouse on charges relating to the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Sometime around the May 2000 raid, Libi went missing, only to turn up again in his native Tripoli in the wake of the fall of the Libyan capital to anti-[former leader Moammar] Gadhafi rebel forces in August 2011. Among the possessions seized from Libi’s Manchester home in May 2000, investigators discovered a 180-page handwritten document that has been widely cited in the intervening years as a supposed al-Qaeda training manual: the famous “Manchester Manual.”
The manual was translated into English and introduced as evidence in the first African embassy bombing trial, which took place in New York in 2001 and concluded with the conviction of four of the men with whom Libi allegedly conspired. It will presumably be introduced as evidence against Libi as well. But for the US government, the manual is a double-edged sword. While it may help to convict Libi, on closer inspection it shows that the jihadist “cause” to which Libi rallied nearly a quarter of a century ago is essentially the same “cause” that the United States and its Western allies have been directly or indirectly supporting in places such as Libya and Syria today.
With its detailed instructions on operational security measures for conspiratorial cells and its lurid descriptions of assassination techniques, it is not hard to understand why the Manchester Manual was of interest to both counterterror investigators and prosecutors. The advice to captured militants to insist during their trial that they had suffered torture at the hands of their captors even became something of a locus classicus in efforts to defend the “war on terror” practiced under the Bush administration. But given all the attention that has been devoted to the manual, it is remarkable how little the actual context of the document has been appreciated or even indeed noticed.
Contrary to the impression created by US government officials and the media, the Manchester Manual has in fact nothing to do whatsoever with al-Qaeda operations against US or other Western targets. Indeed, though it may well have served as a reference for al-Qaeda members, the common description of the document as an “al-Qaeda manual” is clearly a misnomer.
The text was likely completed before al-Qaeda as such was even formed, and it was surely completed several years before Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa in which he first declared war on the United States. Various aspects of the text point to a date of completion in the early 1990s. These include the notable lack of any mention of the Internet in the section devoted to communications and references to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad as a recent (or even current) event.
Rather than being an al-Qaeda document strictly speaking, the manual appears to have been a product of one of the Egyptian militant organizations that helped to school bin Laden in the ways of jihad, and that would later join forces with him in the “World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders.” The Egyptian roots of the document are particularly evident in the chapter on assassinations, which includes numerous detailed examples of assassination attempts on Egyptian political figures. The author was presumably a leading member of either Ayman al-Zawahri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad or of the Islamic Group of the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahmen.
In keeping with the manual’s roots, the target of the operations and techniques outlined in it is not the United States but rather what the opening chapter describes as the “godless and apostate” Arab rulers and regimes. This was the original target of the modern jihadist movement, before the focus gradually shifted to the “distant” US enemy in the aftermath of the first Iraq War. The document does not fail to name names. Thus, the author writes:
"Unbelief is still the same. It pushed Abou Jahl — may Allah curse him — and Kureish’s valiant infidels to battle the prophet — God bless and keep him — and to torture his companions — may Allah’s grace be on them. It is the same unbelief that drove [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak, Gadhafi, [former Syrian President] Hafez Assad, [deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh, [late Saudi King] Fahd — Allah's curse be upon the non-believing leaders — and all the apostate Arab rulers to torture, kill, imprison and torment Muslims."
If we leave aside the somewhat anomalous inclusion of Fahd and abstract from Sadat — who had already been succeeded by Mubarak at the time of the document’s composition — then we need only substitute Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his father Hafez to obtain a list consisting of none other than four of the most prominent Arab leaders to come under attack in the contemporary Arab uprisings: Mubarak, Gadhafi, Assad and Saleh. Seen in this perspective, the so-called “Al-Qaeda Manual” starts to look suspiciously like a blueprint for the Arab Spring.
The document calls for the overthrow of the “apostate” Arab regimes and the restoration of an Islamic caliphate. This program is in fact already contained in the document’s actual title, "I'alan al-Jihad 'ala al-Tawaghit al-Bilad," which has been translated as “Declaration of Jihad against the Country’s Tyrants.” But the term that has been translated as “tyrants” — tawaghit — in fact has a religious connotation. It refers to (false) “idols” that are worshipped in the place of Allah. The idea is that the “apostate” leaders are idols or tawaghit inasmuch as their rule substitutes human sources of legislation for sacred text. It should be noted that per this definition, democratic regimes would be every bit as much tawaghit as autocratic ones.
Most of the operational aspects of the Manchester Manual will nowadays seem hopelessly outdated or even quaint. The heavily armed jihadist brigades that are the dominant force in post-Gadhafi Libya or those that constitute the vanguard of the rebellion against Assad in Syria will hardly be interested in elementary lessons on how to use a revolver. But the ideological part of the document is arguably more relevant than ever. Among other things, it shows why such forces can never be part of a negotiated “political solution.” The author insists that “Islam does not coincide or make a truce with unbelief.” Or, as he puts it in the epigraph to the document:
"The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates … Platonic ideals … nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine gun."
John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on transatlantic security issues. His new book is The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. His articles have appeared in such publications as World Affairs, Policy Review, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Les Temps Modernes and Die Weltwoche, as well as numerous online media. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.