Manual for a Raid

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Soon after the attacks, a handwritten letter was found in Mohamed Atta's luggage that appeared to be instructions for the hijackers. It included advice on how to prepare for such a suicide mission, the invocations that should be recited and how to behave on the plane. A copy was found in a car associated with Nawaf al-Hazmi left at Dulles Airport, and "essentially the same document" was found at the Flight 93 crash scene. Quotes like "you must make your knife sharp and must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter" were taken from a translation, and used in the press to chilling effect.

Some questioned parts of the letter, though. A Bob Woodward piece mentioned "two scholars said they found "incongruous" the opening line that refers to praying "in the name of God, of myself and my family . . ." because Muslims do not pray in their name or their families' names." Robert Fisk asked "What Muslim Would Write: 'The Time of Fun and Waste is Gone'?", and these objections are still raised occasionally to question the legitimacy of the document. Here's what History Commons have to say on the issue, for instance:

Accounts like this are good at covering apparent anomalies, but not quite so forthcoming when it comes to possible explanations.

The Washington Post story from which Fisk took his quotes, for instance, relied on an initial summarised translation of the document, and Fisk himself wondered if errors here might be responsible for the problems:

And sure enough, when the FBI released images of four pages and they were translated independently, significant differences from the original English version began to appear.

Here is the quote about "the time of fun and waste" that Fisk found so implausible, for instance:

But here is that section of the document, from a later translation in the New York Review of Books:

It seems the original version isn't just a translation of the document, but also a summary, condensing sentences into a few words to provide a quick overview. It may be unwise, then, to rely on that summary as an indication of whether the document is real, or a forgery.

It's also worth remembering how much these translations can vary. The original line that "you must make your knife sharp and must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter", for example, appears in the New York Review of Books version as "sharpen your blade and relieve your sacrifice." And in quotes, too, so presumably it's sourced from somewhere else. While this remains disturbing, it underlines the point that understanding the document is no easy task.

Still, some have made the effort, and notably they don't back up the forgery suggestions. The New York Review of Books article doesn't appear to doubt that the letter was written by one of the hijackers. Two German academics, Hans G. Kippenberg (Professor in History and Theory of Religions at the Max-Weber-Kolleg, University of Erfurt) and Tilman Seidensticker (Professor in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Friedrich Schiller Univeristy of Jena) worked together on a book about the document, titled "The 9/11 Handbook", where they describe forgery of the document by the FBI as "possible, though highly improbable". And they express none of Fisk's concerns about the document in their own analysis.

Further support for the legitimacy of the document comes from al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda. He reports discussing it with Ramzi Binalshibh when they met in 2002, when he was told that the letter was written by Abdulaziz al-Omari (see his book Masterminds of Terror).

One small fragment of hope remains for those claiming "forgery". Originally it's claimed there were five pages in the letter, but only four were released, and one of the lines quoted from the "missing" page - "In the name of God, of myself and of my family" - was recognised as of questionable authenticity immediately (including by scholars like the 9/11 Handbook authors).

Of course we also know that the initial translations were of questionable accuracy, and so cannot be relied upon. And scholars seem content that the four released pages are likely to be genuine. However, until the question of the fifth page is cleared up, some small doubts about the authenticity of this document will remain.

FBI Press Release

Photos of four pages from the letter were made available in an FBI press release on September 28, 2001.

Mfar1.jpg Mfar2.jpg Mfar3.jpg Mfar4.jpg

We've also cached the complete release as a PDF file here.


Several notable analyses of the "Manual for a Raid" letter have appeared. We've included two of those that contain quotes commonly used to express doubts over its authenticity, as well as a later New York Review of Books analysis that doesn't appear to have the same issues.

Bob Woodward

This analysis of the letter appeared on the same day that the FBI released images of four of its pages. This means it is reliant on early translations, which later analyses have shown to be less than reliable.

Robert Fisk

Fisk's piece was published the day after the Washington Post article, and appears to rely on the same flawed translations.

Hassan Mneimneh, Kanan Makiya

This analysis of the letter appeared in the New York Review of Books on January 17th, 2002. It was based around a translation performed by one of the authors, Hassan Mneimneh, and not the summarised chunks used by early articles.


Capital Communications Group/ Imad Musa

This translation, based on the documents released by the FBI, was carried out for the New York Times.

Hatem Bazian

Hassan Mneimneh