The Terrorist Notebooks
During the mid-1990s, a group of young Uzbeks went to school to learn how to kill you. Here is what they were taught.
The world of a young man recruited for jihad or holy war is a frightening one. His training teaches hatred in the name of religious purification. He learns to divide people into those who embrace the true faith and properly follow its precepts and those who do not. His former colleagues and neighbors become enemies he must destroy with deadly weapons he learns to fashion out of everyday objects.
That reality describes the world of a group of Central Asians, mostly Uzbek by nationality, who went through local terrorist schools in the mid-1990s. Their course of study is laid out in 10 remarkable notebooks we acquired in 2001–2002. Covering topics such as the use of weapons, the making of poison, and the ideology of jihad, the notebooks offer a unique window into a frightening mind-set that predates the expansion of Osama bin Laden’s network in the region and still holds sway in much of Central Asia.
References in the notebooks suggest that much of this training took place in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley. Long a center of Islamic revival in the region, the Fergana Valley is a mix of scrub desert, low hills, and lush oases. It is the most densely populated area of Central Asia and one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Throughout Soviet rule, the valley was home to a host of underground mosques and religious "schools" that thrived even as Islamic teachings were banned or restricted. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, graduates of these schools played an important role in the revival of Islam in Central Asia, as thousands of new mosques and religious schools opened. Clerics who preached radical Islam gained new contacts and sources of financing when the mujahideen started fighting the Soviets in the Afghan war and when Saudi groups began what became a global crusade.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were difficult and confusing years for young people living in Central Asia. A seemingly invincible state had virtually disintegrated and was replaced by fragile new ones. Conditions were almost apocalyptic: The economy was in disarray, an expansive social safety net had shredded, and the powerful Red Army was in tatters, with those who served it selling off their weaponry to survive. Muslim activists who claimed that moral turpitude brought down the Soviet regime found it easy to muster arguments to bolster their cause, and they organized the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Although the Uzbek government refused to register the IRPP, a number of charismatic clerics who preached rejection of the secular state continued to gain supporters, especially in the Fergana Valley. And these men in turn developed armed supporters, who in the first months of Uzbekistan’s independence briefly took control of key government buildings in the city of Namangan. Fearing the outbreak of civil war, Uzbek President Islam Karimov authorized a purge of the official Islamic establishment and the arrest or disappearance of prominent unlicensed clerics and leaders of "extremist" Islamic groups.
Several prominent figures escaped the official dragnet, fleeing with followers into neighboring Tajikistan and the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated parts of northern Afghanistan, long a host site for jihadi training camps. Thus was born the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), led by Soviet Army veteran Juma Namangani.
During the mid- to late 1990s, hundreds, and, some claim, even thousands, of young Uzbeks belonging to the IMU passed through terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the region. Some of the Uzbek mujahideen went home to train their countrymen, and they created clandestine terrorist schools for this purpose. The notebooks we acquired belonged to students who attended such courses during the period of 1994 to 1996. [For more information on the origins of the notebooks, consult the Want to Know More] We purchased or otherwise acquired these books through various intermediaries, each unaware that we were collecting material from others as part of an effort to document the Islamic revival in Uzbekistan.
Taken collectively, the notebooks allow us to reconstruct the training of the young mujahideen. Students seem to have spent the bulk of their time on military subjects. Once they mastered these subjects, the students focused on when and how to make jihad — and some of the students may have heard lectures on jihad by Namangani himself, or one of his close associates.
We don’t know much for certain about the students themselves. Some of the notebooks have the names (or pseudonyms) of the fighters in training who wrote them — for example, Abdumalik or Ayub. We have reason to think some of them studied in Namangan, possibly in the basement of the Juma mosque; reopened during the 1990s under pressure from the community, the mosque had been used as a storehouse for alcoholic beverages during the Soviet era. Our sources told us that all of the students were eventually arrested — in one case, for smuggling consumer goods (and "trade" was, in fact, their livelihood). Uzbek security forces picked up most of the others as suspected terrorists. Their parents, who gave us or our intermediaries the notebooks, were reluctant to talk about them, save to disassociate themselves from their children’s "mistakes."
We do not know whether the young men who studied in these schools were devout Muslims, but their notes suggest they were not very knowledgeable about Islam. The same may also be said about their teachers: In the lessons on jihad, for example, references to the Koran, offered by chapter and verse, sometimes cite passages unrelated to the subjects under discussion. These errors are clearly those of the teachers; most students at this early stage of religious education would not have possessed their own copies of the Koran, and they also lacked the necessary Arabic-language skills to read the Holy Book in the original.
We can also say with certainty that the students were not very educated. They made many grammatical mistakes when writing in Arabic, Russian, and even their native Uzbek. Some of the students seem to have had poor attention spans, and they were careless in taking notes and studying.
THE ABCs OF TERROR: HOW TO KILL
One thing is clear, though: These students learned how to make deadly weapons. As their notes show, these pupils "learned by doing" in every field of terrorism from instructors proficient in their respective subject matter. The teachers who used Russian terminology clearly had experience with the Red Army and Soviet system of military instruction, and those who used Arabic likely passed through terrorist camps in Afghanistan and maybe even those of the Middle East. In many cases, several different instructors taught the various military subjects.
Cartography | Students first learned to orient themselves to their surroundings. When we showed some of the notebooks to a professor of cartography in Tashkent — without revealing the source of the material — he was able to identify them as terrorist manuals and was certain the instructor was a cartographer. All high-school students in the Soviet Union were required to receive paramilitary training, so there was no shortage of people capable of teaching cartography or most other military subjects, even in the remotest areas of Uzbekistan. Moreover, with some modification, textbooks from the Soviet courses would have been a good starting point of instruction.
Small Arms | Students then went on to study how to handle small firearms — a fixture of life in a region where military service was compulsory and where anyone familiar with the black market could buy an ak-47. During the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989), more local youth acquired combat experience than at any time since the end of World War II. Much of our knowledge about this field of study comes from the notebook of Ayub, a Tajik from Namangan (writing in Uzbek), who spent so much time mastering this material that we dubbed him "the gunner."
Many of the weapons the students learned to use were common Soviet-era ones, including various forms of the Kalashnikov rifle (ak-47, ak-56, and akm). Ayub, though, also learned to handle several weapons of choice from Afghanistan, including the Egyptian rocket-propelled grenade launcher. This 82-millimeter weapon is based on a Russian or Chinese modification of an earlier U.S. weapon, writes Ayub in broken Arabic. All of these weapons appear in detailed illustrations, with accompanying notes on their functions and maintenance.
Targeting | Ayub was also diligent in learning how to target the enemy, on the ground and in the air. His notebook includes tables with elaborate calculations on how to target planes and helicopters in varying wind and weather conditions. His teacher used both Arabic and Russian military terminology. In the course of his lessons, Ayub handled various forms of sighting instruments, writing in one case that "the front glass reflects many colors" and "the plus sign that regulates distance is easily obscured by finger marks."
Mines and Demolitions | The notebooks suggest this subject was a standard part of the instruction that all young mujahideen in Uzbekistan received. Many of the mines the mujahideen learned to make had been commonly used in Afghanistan and other guerrilla war settings, including the m18a1 antipersonnel mine — a plastic-bodied directed fragmentation mine that has ball bearings embedded in the facing of the target. Variations of this mine were produced in the Soviet Union, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, and Chile. The students also received instruction in the pomz-2 antipersonnel mine, activated through the use of a trip wire, with a lethal radius of 4 meters. Variations of this mine were manufactured in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and throughout Europe’s Eastern bloc.
One notebook includes information on making 16 different explosive devices. The two students who prepared this notebook learned reaction times and temperatures for blowing up buildings, bridges, railroad ties, and electricity relay stations. They were taught everything necessary to become competent arsonists, including how to escape unharmed, a subject emphasized in some of the lessons. These young men were not trained to be suicide bombers but guerrilla fighters who would endure long periods of battle.
Poisons | Students also learned how to make poisons with readily accessible substances, such as tobacco or toxic mushrooms. Precise information on the amounts of each ingredient, how to mix them properly, and reaction times are carefully documented. The students penned lengthy instructions on safety techniques, when to wear gloves and masks, and how to conceal noxious odors so potential targets would not be alerted. Alongside instructions for making and using cyanide, one student writes, "And the power of Allah is mightier" — a phrase commonly used at deathbeds — as if to see off his future victims.
WHO DESERVES TO DIE?
The section on jihad — the final course of study — is also the most terrifying. At one level, the lectures on jihad were designed to mobilize students for battle with the enemy. But stripped of their pedagogical intent, these lectures make clear that the explicit goal of the students’ military studies was to kill people, preferably as many as possible.
Since Islam was spread by the sword, holy war is an important theme in the Koran. But since the time of Mohammed, theologians have fought over when jihad is required and when it is forbidden. The view of jihad presented in the notebooks is both simplistic and uniform — so much so that the same person may have taught students studying in different cities. The teacher likely lacked even a middling religious education (8–10 years of study) and was instead a fighter with a religious background, perhaps someone like Namangani or Tohir Yuldashev, the leaders of the imu.
Jihad is depicted as a cleansing act, as "Jafar" (owner of one of the notebooks) writes, "so the old ideology makes way for the new" — by which he supposedly meant that Uzbekistan’s dominant Hannafi school of religious law would make way for Salafi (or fundamentalist) Islam. Central Asian theologians from the Hannafi school preached accommodation with secular rulers; most, in fact, argued that Islamic law demanded such accommodation, for to do otherwise was to put the community of believers at risk.
By contrast, these students learned that Uzbekistan’s secular rulers were betrayers of the faith, and, as Jafar writes, holy war is imperative: "for our faith of Islam, to make Allah pleased with us, to eradicate oppression against Muslims, to establish Islamic rule in perpetuity."
Jafar and his fellow mujahideen were taught that jihad has multiple goals — that economic, political, ideological, and military goals have to be mutually reinforcing. The propaganda that precedes military action, they learned, is critical.
As another student writes, the goal of this propaganda is to raise popular awareness of the enemies among them:
To make a declaration of the fact that unbelievers and the government are oppressors; that they are connected with Russians, Americans, and Jews, to whose music they are dancing; and that they don’t think about their people. We spread true knowledge about Islam in our country [Uzbekistan]. We speak of the fate of faith betrayers, according to Islamic law, and about how people should distance themselves from those who breach the faith and should side with the mujahideen. At the same time, it has to be announced that jihad is a necessary religious requirement, for all social groups of people. And in life, everyone must either be a Muslim or a non-Muslim, that is, no one can remain in the middle. After this, the declaration will be done, the mujahideen will inform the people of the beginning of jihad.
Targeted enemies are depicted in political cartoons, which the students appear to have been asked to draw outside of class. In a perverse manifestation of continuity with the Communist years, many of these cartoons are variants of the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist pictures that Soviet students sometimes drew during their studies. The drawings in these notebooks, however, include caricatures of Russians alongside those of Americans and Jews.
The anti-Semitism taught to these Uzbek students in their classes was primitive, based on perverse distortions of history, but effective:
All the countries of the world are today ruled by Jews. This people who is cursed by God began to rule everyone 120 years ago, at the time of Napoleon. It was so. At the time of the fighting between the armies of Napoleon and the British, the Jews spread rumors among the people of England that Napoleon won the battle. Upon hearing these rumors, the British fell into panic and began to sell their stores, factories, plants, and other kinds of enterprises. They thought as following: "After the victory of Napoleon, he will arrive in England, and we will lose everything." And so lots of enterprises were sold, and very cheaply. The Jews took advantage of this opportunity and started buying everything very cheaply. A week later, it became known that the British won the battle against Napoleon. Upon hearing this news, all the people began to buy back their things. The Jews sold all this, but for 5 to 10 times more than they paid, and received enormous profit. That the Jews are cursed by God is demonstrated in Ayat 14 of sura al-Khashr. (59:14)
The first Jews came to the region long before the Arab conquests in the mid-seventh century. Traditionally, anti-Semitism was much worse in the Slavic parts of the Russian Empire than in Central Asia. And historically, Uzbeks have had more resentment for the Russians, who conquered Uzbek lands in the late 19th century and restricted the practice of their faith. Russians remain a target in the notebooks, despite their withdrawal from Uzbekistan after the country gained independence in 1991.
Now, the mujahideen are determined to rout out these enemies and kill them, as part of larger economic, political, and ideological goals. Such economic goals mentioned in one notebook include:
1. To attack the joint ventures that have been organized by the officials of our city [perhaps Namangan — M.B.O. and B.B.]. That is, in the first instance, those enterprises with Russians, Jews, and American [partners] at the head.
2. To destroy all that is imported from the countries of the enemy, whatever it may be, food, clothes, etc. This, too, is an economic and political blow.
3. To destroy all raw materials exported from the country by unbelievers. This includes fruit . . . one or two cases of fruit should be poisoned, and when this is discovered, it should be announced that all the fruit that was sent (for example) to Russia, is poisoned . . . . [This threat is very serious, since Uzbekistan is such an important source of fruit and vegetables for Russia — M.B.O. and B.B.] Those who transport things for personal use will be warned once or twice, and then everything will be confiscated from them.
4. Specialists from Russia, Jews, and Americans working in the economy will be destroyed.
The same groups were targeted under political goals: "At the time of the political strike against the state, we should also kill Russians, Americans, and Israeli citizens. That is, ambassadors, or others of them, who live here, they all must be beaten."
Clerics and missionaries of other faiths are slated for extermination as part of the ideological program:
From among religious people we will kill:
1. Those who try to gain converts to Christianity on Muslim soil
2. Spies who work as Christian clerics [During Soviet times, there were many kgb employees among Christian clerics — M.B.O. and B.B.]
3. We will kill those Christians and Jews who speak against the mujahideen and those who propagate against Islam
4. Those Christians who collect money for the struggle against Muslims, and those who speak against Muslims. They will be stabbed or shot or hung or beaten to death.
The Christian missionaries targeted here were fairly recent arrivals in Central Asia. Many belonged to U.S. evangelical groups that saw the fall of communism as a signal to expand proselytizing efforts throughout the former Soviet Union.
But it’s important to remember that the mujahideen who were trained in Uzbekistan at this time were mobilized to fight a local war, for local causes. Their goal was to prevent enemies of Islam from using new economic structures, like joint ventures, to keep down true believers. Such arguments echo those of radical Muslim thinkers such as Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, who died in 1966. Qutb’s works had circulated clandestinely among Islamic activists in Central Asia for decades. Only occasionally do the notebooks make a connection between the efforts in Uzbekistan and a larger, global cause. Those teaching and studying in these schools were keenly aware of the situation in Tajikistan and the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan. But the notebooks make no mention of or link between their efforts and the ongoing Chechen war nor to conflicts in more distant places such as Bosnia or Somalia.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
The good news is that the owners of these notebooks were never able to execute the number or kind of operations planned with the deadly knowledge they acquired. True, in February 1999, the imu was credited with masterminding the simultaneous bombings of key government offices in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, killing 13 people. But these attacks did not set off the panic or chain reaction of other violent acts predicted in the notebooks. After the bombings, the Uzbek government successfully pressured the United States to list the imu as an international terrorist group. And faced with heightened Uzbek security, the imu made do with taking hostages and raiding parts of nearby Kirgizstan. The group did become part of the al Qaeda network, with camps in Afghanistan and safe havens over the border in Tajikistan. But its founder, Namangani, and many of his fighters were reportedly killed during the U.S. bombings in Afghanistan; the whereabouts of another prominent leader, Yuldashev, are still unknown.
The bad news is that the threat posed by such terrorist groups is infinitely renewable in states such as those in Central Asia, where large numbers of young people with limited education and diminishing economic prospects live in densely populated communities. Moreover, popular resentment toward these countries’ secular leaders remains high: Many of these leaders were local masters of the openly atheistic Soviet regime, and most of them have profited mightily from the unprecedented increase in corruption since independence.
Each of the budding Central Asian states has attempted to carve out an identity in the past decade. But conditions have not favored the development of authentic moderate Islamic clerics. State authorities view leaders who are credible to religious believers as too threatening, and religious believers are suspicious of those championed by state authorities.
These conditions are made-to-order for those preaching more radical forms of Islam. The best known of these groups is Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which attracts young people despite the extraordinary efforts of the Uzbek government to harshly punish those associated with the group. Its numbers are increasing in Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. This movement is committed to the reestablishment of the Caliphate — the rule of Islam as it was practiced by the Prophet Mohammed. For now, the group maintains, this goal can be advanced only through persuasion, not force.
Whatever the fate of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, other radical groups seem certain to emerge from the turmoil of the transitions that Central Asian states are still undergoing. Notwithstanding the presence of new U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan and expanded assistance in the war on terrorism, no amount of force alone will defeat such groups. Any security agency capable of routing out all potential terrorists would inevitably become a source of terrorism. Not only would such an organization tread on the basic civil rights of peaceful citizens, but, by targeting "radical" Islam, it would invariably cause those who consider themselves devout Muslims to see the government as an enemy of Islam.
In every part of the world, there are heroes who have died fighting for their faith and who make ready role models. In Central Asia, it is Namangani or Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir in Afghanistan. As the disturbing contents of these notebooks attest, purveyors of jihad supply their own credentials and design their own curricula. They require no licenses for their undertakings. The proof of their success is whether they can gain recruits and successfully teach them how to kill.