The US Training Manuals al Qaeda Used

Back in April 2009, I wrote a post outlining how purported al Qaeda training manuals formed the basis of Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell’s torture program.

The SASC Report on Detainee Treatment reveals that some information collected from al Qaeda–and not DOD’s attempts to find methods to interrogate detainees–is one key to discovering how we got in the torture business. The SASC report reveals (as Valtin has been pointing out for some time) that DOD first contacted JPRA–the unit that oversees SERE–for “information about detainee ‘exploitation’” on December 17, 2001. But there’s another reference that suggests James Mitchell–one of the two retired SERE psychologists who reverse-engineered SERE and oversaw the first interrogations–was already on the job. In the section, “JPRA Collaboration with Other Government Agencies” (meaning, CIA), this reference appears:

[classification redaction] In December 2001 or January 2002, a retired Air Force SERE psychologist, Dr. James Mitchell, [redaction that I bet talks about a CIA contract] asked his former colleague, the senior SERE psychologist at JPRA, Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen, to review documents describing al Qaeda resistance training. The two psychologists reviewed the materials, [half line redacted], and generated a paper on al Qaeda resistance capabilities and countermeasures to defeat that resistance.

Note, the “December 2001 or January 2002” date comes from an interview of Jessen, not directly from Mitchell. It’s not clear anyone has asked when Mitchell got the al Qaeda documents–but by the time Jessen was interviewed on July 11, 2007, DOD had already sent out notice to preserve all documents relating to Mitchell, so he was already under legal scrutiny at the time Jessen gave these dates.

In a section describing a DIA training session Jessen and Joseph Witsch did, it’s clear the al Qaeda documents form the basis for the training.

[classification redaction] Mr. Witsch stated that he worked with Dr. Jessen to develop a set of briefing slides for the [acronym redacted] training. The Department of Defense provided the Committee with slide presentations that appeared to have been produced by JPRA for the March 8, 2002 training. Mr. Witsch testified that the two slide presentations (1) [half line redacted–elsewhere this appears unredacted as Al Qaeda Resistance Contingency Training: Contingency Training for (redacted) Personnel] Based on Recently Obtained Al Qaeda Documents” and (2) “Exploitation” — appeared to be the same as those used by JPRA in the March 8, 2002 training. Dr. Jessen told the Committee that he did not recognize the slides as those that he presented [redacted] but that the vast majority of the slides were consistent with what he would have taught at the training session.

While the discussion of the slides connected with the al Qaeda documents is heavily redacted, it appears that these slides already attached techniques or objectives to interrogating al Qaeda detainees.

[classification redacted] The “Al Qaeda Resistance Contingency Training” presentation described methods used by al Qaeda to resist interrogation and exploitation and [half line redacted]. The presentation also described countermeasures to defeat al Qaeda resistance, including [~five lines redacted]. Mr. Witsch testified to the Committee that the countermeasures identified in the slides were “just an interpretation of what we were doing at the time and what we constantly did when we trained SERE students.”

So just to review. By “December 2001 or January 2002,” Mitchell already had documents presumably captured from al Qaeda, and he and Jessen proceeded to use those documents to develop a training session on interrogation (one they offered to both DIA and CIA). And al Qaeda’s resistance training–as much as SERE’s program–drove what “countermeasures” Mitchell and Jessen were recommending to the CIA and DIA.

In the comments to that thread, we discussed reports–including from Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower–that al Qaeda member Ali Mohammed had taken training manuals from Fort Bragg.

He managed to get stationed at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Even though he was only a supply sergeant, Mohammed made a remarkable impression, gaining a special condemnation from his commanding offier “for exceptional performance” and winning fitness awards in competition against some of the most highly trained soldiers in the world. His awed superiors found him “beyond reproach” and “consistently accomplished.”


The American army was so respectful of his views that it asked him to help teach a class on Middle East politics and culture and to make a series of videotapes explaining Islam to his fellow soldiers. According to Mohammed’s service records, he “prepared and executed over 40 country orientations for teams deploying to the Middle East.” Meantime, he was slipping maps and training manuals off base to downsize and copy at Kinko’s. He used these to write the multivolume terrorist training guide that became al-Qaeda’s playbook. (205)

Which is just one reason this comment from Abu Faraj al-Libi’s Gitmo Detainee Assessment Brief so interesting.

(S//NF) Detainee said prior to 11 September 2001, al-Qaida gained its knowledge of guerrilla warfare tactics from reading translated US military manuals stored in what he described as the group’s vast Afghanistan-based library.

It seems to confirm AQ got its manuals–via some means–from American manuals. And while this reference mentions just “guerrilla warfare tactics,” presumably those tactics would include counter-interrogation strategies like the SERE program taught at Ft. Bragg. While I didn’t get this when I wrote my post in April 2009 (back then I said Mitchell and Jessen didn’t so much use SERE as al Qaeda’s own tactics), this may suggest Mitchell and Jessen used SERE techniques precisely because that’s what al Qaeda used.

I said this was interesting for a couple of reasons. As I noted in that earlier post, Mitchell and Jessen had a series of slides that talked not just about resistance to interrogation, but also resistance to exploitation. And as Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye emphasized several weeks ago, exploitation (that is, recruitment for other purposes, such as propaganda or spying) is at the core of SERE (and therefore, the program Mitchell and Jessen developed from it).

[A]s Jessen’s notes explain, torture was used to “exploit” detainees, that is, to break them down physically and mentally, in order to get them to “collaborate” with government authorities. Jessen’s notes emphasize how a “detainer” uses the stresses of detention to produce the appearance of compliance in a prisoner.


“The Jessen notes clearly state the totality of what was being reverse-engineered – not just ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ but an entire program of exploitation of prisoners using torture as a central pillar,” [retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns, who provided these notes] said. “What I think is important to note, as an ex-SERE Resistance to Interrogation instructor, is the focus of Jessen’s instruction. It is exploitation, not specifically interrogation. And this is not a picayune issue, because if one were to ‘reverse-engineer’ a course on resistance to exploitation then what one would get is a plan to exploit prisoners, not interrogate them. The CIA/DoD torture program appears to have the same goals as the terrorist organizations or enemy governments for which SV-91 and other SERE courses were created to defend against: the full exploitation of the prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents. Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.” [my emphasis]

Mind you, all we know for sure from al-Libi’s statement is that he told his interrogators that the al Qaeda manuals derived from American ones. That doesn’t necessarily mean al Qaeda used manuals on the SERE program, nor does it change the importance of reporting that Mitchell and Jessen designed this torture program so as to use detainees for propaganda and recruitment purposes.

But al-Libi’s confirmation sure does make these connections more likely.

  1. scribe says:

    One is compelled to wonder exactly which manuals were being spirited off-post to Kinko’s.

    I recall, some 30 or so years ago, when I was in officer basic, we got sent over to the publications warehouse to get our individual draw of manuals. The first thing you would get, was a shopping cart, and you’d wind up filling it before you were done. Not many of them would be of interest (I mean, The Book on how to wear the uniform properly? Or how to write military letters?) But the point is, there are a lot of manuals, and some of them would be interesting to potential AQ folks and some of them not.

    But I’m not surprised by this little informational Ouroboros going on.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I wonder what happened to the “vast Afghanistan-based library”. That’s a serious question, btw.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, it is an interesting question. Note that the reports sometimes distinguish between what got picked up w/detainees that JTF has from what they don’t have.

      I’m guessing the training manuals fall into the latter category.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    Thanks for getting into this, Marcy. I had forgotten, until this issue jogged my memory to go back and look, that the use of the Manchester manual as a “Code of Conduct” for Al Qaeda was verified by none other than JTF GTMO in 2007! “Code of Conduct” training, btw, is another name (PDF) for what they do at SERE.

    From the JTF GTMO article (the article is by Army Spc. Shanita Simmons, JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs):

    Military leaders in May 2000 gained an advance on this insight into al Qaeda beliefs and practices when a training document, known as the Manchester Manual, found during a search of an al Qaeda member’s home in Manchester, England proved to have intelligence value.

    According to an authoritative source within Joint Task Force – Guantanamo, the Manchester Manual is an operations primer that is similar in function to an Army field manual used to instruct Soldiers during combat. “The Manchester Manual is literally an overarching basic guide that simply covers just about everything. It covers how to conduct general combat operations, how to escape and evade capture and how to behave in captivity,” said the JTF source. “There is even a chapter on how to poison yourself using your own feces,” he added.

    The document has become a kind of code of conduct for many detainees; it functions as a manifesto that guides their day to day conduct with JTF Troopers, the media, and their attorneys. Although many of the detainees are illiterate and have not read the manual, a JTF source said there is a segment of the detained population who were trainers in the various terrorist camps and that these trainers have either, by example or through different modes of communication, disseminated the document’s principles to the larger detainee population.

    The many chapters within the document are believed to have been written by very well- educated individuals who used information gathered from various sources, including U.S. Army field training manuals and those of other foreign governments.

    Chapter six of the manual provides detainees with procedures and guidelines on how to disclose information during an interrogation. The chapter outlines the type of mindset a detainee should have during their captivity and during the interrogation process. For example, the chapter states that a detainee should expect to be treated harshly and will be ordered by their captors to illicit information that would be detrimental to their cause.

    The 18th chapter focuses on how detainees should conduct themselves while imprisoned or held captive. The chapter includes various statements such as “the brothers must insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them before a judge… and the brother has to do his best to know the names of the security officers.” The statements are included with the intent to elicit behavior that would tarnish their captors’ image during a trial. Information in this chapter also instructs detainees on how to engage in tactics such as hunger strikes.

    “What they are basically trying to do [in chapter 18] is to minimize the compromise to their integrity and their operations by the loss of a cell member who is captured,” said the JTF source.”

    As Michael Kearns told me at the time, “Manchester is on-par with the guidance we practiced in the early 1990s in the DoD,” which Jason and I wrote about in the T.O. article you cite.

    I think it goes without saying at this point that we can assume that JPRA must have advised the higher-ups to be wary of the terrorists who follow the Manchester Code of Conduct, as they are prepared for — and expect — torture. This is why Bush went to torture so quickly after 9/11. He was most likely advised by JPRA’s Psychologists that we needed to take “them” right to where they expected to be anyway, torture, via reverse-engineering the SERE torture, including the Navy’s use of the waterboard (and it didn’t hurt that they would get contractor $$).

    Bush said in his book interviews that’s what the terrorists needed to get to… to torture…. before they would tell anything. Should we think he made this up himself?

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      This hypothesis then gives a possible understanding for the origins of the torture program. Various analysts (probably at the CIA, but could be DIA) realized that their new enemies were once allies, and that they had received earlier govt-military materials earlier, either when they worked with the CIA when they were fighting the Soviets, or from Ali Mohammed himself, or both.

      They went to Haynes, who then went to JPRA and said, we need help on this, at least as early as Dec. 2001.

      Another scenario has this situation as a casus belli for taking up a torture program that had already been on the books, if idle, from years and decades before. It is as if there is an internal torture faction within government (in the military and CIA) who were needing an opportunity to use their “skills” once again. They may have also decided that a new world of technology also needed to be tested out at the same time (on deception, on measuring stress, etc.), and then they were off to the races, gathering subjects to measure their “new” counter-measures to the “enemy’s” counter-measures.

      Quite the clusterfuck, eh? Unless you are one of the people tortured, then it was something more. Something much more.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:


    It’s clear from the SASC report what two additional forms of counter-contingency factors they developed based on knowledge of the Al Qaeda resistance documents.

    For one thing, sexual pressures of a particular sort:

    The presentation, entitled “Counter Measures to Defeat al Qaeda Resistance Contingency Training Based on Recently Obtained AL-QA’IDA Documents” listed several countermeasures to deal with resistant detainees including “invasion of personal space by female.33 Mr. Witsch explained that “[i]n a lot of cases, it’s uncomfortable for a male to have a female in their space. It could also be looked at as uncomfortable having a female in front of an Arab… What this is is a form of pressure in that situation.331 He testified that JPRA might have become aware that the invasion of the personal space by a female might make an Arab detainee uncomfortable while conducting research in preparation for the training.

    The presentation on countermeasures to defeat al Qaeda resistance also explained that “[i]f the prisoner believes that Americans are immoral barbarians and what he sees counters those beliefs then his core beliefs have been shaken and he is more likely to cooperate…. If his core beliefs are reinforced by his treatment he is more likely to stick to his resistance. [pp. 45-46]

    I remember something Steven Miles told me one time, that he figured out that the govt was using new techniques especially crafted for an Islamic population, and in particular, the sexual seductive technique. I believe that I’ve read elsewhere that the use of dogs was specially formed to appeal to fears and phobias around dogs in the Arab culture.

    In essence, they added cultural components to the old torture paradigm to fine-tune it for the new population, driven at least in part by knowledge that some of them (not the innocent ones, of course) had been already conditioned via their own form of SERE.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    That suggests that the US intended to use torture from day one – pro forma official protests to the contrary notwithstanding – and that it always intended its prisons at Gitmo to include detainees that had little to do with any theater of war we admitted we were fighting in.

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      Not sure who your comment is aimed at. I’m suggesting, yes, they were going to use torture from day one. But no, they did know what group they were aiming it towards, hence the adaptation of the old DDD/SERE/KUBARK torture program for a particular cultural group, as I argue above.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Thanks, I had intended my comment as a follow on to several of your posts.

        Assuming the “enhanced” interrogation methods were meant to include several of the most likely Middle Eastern cultural variants, the interrogators generally seem inadequately informed about who they were questioning.

        Several of the more obvious phobia are exploited, but I don’t get the sense that the information was sifted for cultural biases and references references; obvious lies, distractions, bragging; etc.

        A legal issue, of course, is the apparent original intent to use illegal torture from the get go and to lie about it brazenly, on the assumption that their lies would never be tested. Mr. Obama has rewarded that cynicism, though the int’l community might be less willing to do so as the case for torture as general, unambiguous policy gets stronger.

        • Jeff Kaye says:

          Re the cultural twist to the torture: It’s one thing to recognize such an opportunity (if you’ll excuse the expression in this context, but from the POV of the torturers) as to try out culturally-oriented techniques to the torture, and another to have a really sophisticated understanding of different cultures.

          I can’t know, of course, how intricate the interrogation plans for each detainee were — none of those have ever been released — but in general it appears they added two or three new “techniques” (such as approach by women in a sexual fashion), or the working dogs. But I don’t think they went as far as differentiating between, say, Iraqi or Libyan cultures, or different Afghan tribal-national differences.

          From my reading and research, what they do is try and construct the individual interrogation around an individualized interrogation plan, which includes a psychological assessment of the prisoner. That’s always been their MO in “strategic” interrogation centers like Gitmo. Not that they always follow it, and at Gitmo, I suppose there was a fair amount of bureaucratic bungling, struggles between different agencies, the need to accommodate foreign IC, etc.

  6. bobschacht says:

    Yikes– from one of the quotes, emphasis added:

    Even though he was only a supply sergeant, Mohammed made a remarkable impression, gaining a special condemnation from his commanding offier “for exceptional performance” and winning fitness awards in competition against some of the most highly trained soldiers in the world.

    Isn’t that supposed to be “commendation”? (and then also “offier” should be “officer”.)

    But thanks for another exceptional report!

    Bob in AZ

  7. pdaly says:

    I remember this discussion.

    I also remember emptywheel discovering that the 9/11 report left out Ali Mohamed’s role (Kinko’s, photocopying of Army manuals and maps) and the 9/11 Commission “credited” other persons with the Al Qaeda manual:

    Was wondering if the apparent discrepancy in the origins of the Al Qaeda manual would develop into a bigger story.