Lessons from the Al Qaeda Cult Handbook

As investigators learn more about Al Qaeda's operations on U.S. soil, a perplexing question remains: How could terrorists on a suicide mission live among us for so long and not abandon their resolve? The answer, some experts say, is that Al Qaeda is not a militant religious group, but a cult.

The events of Sept. 11 upset the conventional wisdom on suicide bombing and martyrdom. "Having analyzed the phenomenon in the Middle East, the intelligence community had decided that suicide attacks were a form of terrorism that could not easily be exported from Palestine," says Brian Jenkins, former member of the Presidential Commission on Airline Safety and senior analyst at the Rand Institute. "The events of Sept. 11 thoroughly disproved this presupposition."

Experts originally held that suicide bombers could be recruited and trained for local struggles only, within a relatively short time before an attack.

The Al Qaeda Handbook may provide clues to the migration of suicide terrorism to America. A how-to manual for members of the terrorist organization, the book sheds light on the psyche of the Al Qaeda terrorist, and paints a picture of a religious cult headed by charismatic leader Osama bin Laden.

Chapter after chapter, the handbook outlines a pyramidal organization in which the lowest members never get a complete picture of the group's actions. Furthermore, the book makes clear that the lives of these members can be extinguished at any time by those in the upper echelons of the organization.

English authorities found the 180-page manual in May 2000, while searching the home of a suspected bin Laden operative in Manchester, England. A translation of the Arabic manual was introduced as evidence in New York City this year in the trial of four Al Qaeda members accused of bombing American embassies in Kenya and Sudan in 1998.

"The manual outlines how to perform a variety of terrorist acts, including assassination, poisoning, and torture," explains Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University. "But above all, I would say that the manual is a good example of how a cult mentality can hijack and manipulate legitimate religious beliefs and turn them into fanatical tenets. The text reveals an organization that follows a very peculiar and extreme kind of Islam and that does not hesitate one bit to depart from Islamic teachings to pursue its own interests."

Post testified as an expert witness in the New York City trial and has compiled detailed psychological profiles of dozens of jailed terrorists in the Middle East.

"The most disturbing aspect about the Al Qaeda members is how normal they appear, when in fact they all fit the profile of the 'true believer,' an individual whose low self-esteem and confusion push him to seek refuge within a charismatic mass movement," Post says.

In this sense, the manual is not just a nuts-and-bolts how-to for terrorists. It also plays a role in the brainwashing of Al Qaeda members, encouraging them to subordinate their individual will to the charismatic power of the group's leader, Osama bin Laden.

"It's the fitting of the fragmented persona of a true believer into a group identity that benefits the organization. Once that's in place, the terrorist can be aimed like a missile," Post says.

The handbook repeatedly provides religious and ideological justification for actions many Muslims would find profane. For example, lesson eight in the manual directs the Al Qaeda member, when operating undercover, to go to great lengths to avoid an Islamic appearance. Lesson 11 exempts him from having to fulfill his Muslim duties, such as praying, fasting, and doing good deeds.

"The text implies that if these violations are carried out for the greatness of Allah, they are then permitted," Post says.

Acts such as torture, mass murder, and killing one's fellow members -- which are all specifically and explicitly forbidden by the Koran -- are explained in practical terms in the Al Qaeda manual. At the same time, the book identifies sacred readings to refer to during each heinous activity.

"Of course, very few Muslims would agree with this zealous interpretation of Islam," Post says. "Jihad is a word which literally means to struggle for the cause of religion. For a Muslim, the struggle means striving to be a better person, donating money to the poor, fulfilling obligations toward the faith and, in extreme cases, fighting in defense of Islam."

According to the standards of an Al Qaeda militant, Post's ideas are simply the interpretation of an infidel. But his opinions are shared by Muslim experts at the Islamic Research Center (IRRC) at Cairo's al-Azhar University, the world's leading authority on the teachings of Islam. According to the IRCC, a legitimate jihad must meet several requirements: A Muslim must never be the aggressor; a Muslim must fight only those who fight him; and women, children, and the elderly should be spared the duress of war.

Ultimately, the handbook shows that Al Qaeda could pose a threat to Islam itself if it prevails.

Paulo Pontoniere (pmpurpont@aol.com) is a correspondent for Italy's leading news weekly, L'Espresso.

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