Saturday, January 02, 2010


Repro of Washington Post illustration from a few years back.

"[Xenofon Kavvadias,] a graduate of Central St Martins School of Art and Design who has lived in the UK for six years, sought Lord Carlile's advice when he staged his MA degree show, featuring the covers of three extremist texts secured in centimetre-thick clear plastic cases in an attempt to explore the legal boundaries of freedom of expression," reported the Guardian today.

"He now wants to install a bookshelf in an art gallery stocked with texts presented in court to secure terrorism convictions. They include Defence of Muslim Lands by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a jihadist who influenced Osama bin Laden, The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which details how to kill using homemade ricin and how to make poisons from tobacco and potatoes, and the Manual of Afghan Jihad (also known as the al-Qaida Manual), which explains how to plan, finance and execute terror attacks."

The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, much of it largely derived from Maxwell Hutchkinson's The Poisoner's Handbook, published in the US in the Eighties, has been a common feature on DD blog ever since I started.

During the war on terror, it has consistantly cropped up in terror trials and newspaper articles on alleged murderous capabilities. It has, practically speaking, been deemed material likely to be used in support of terrorism in the UK.

"A large number of jihadi documents have been distributed widely on the world wide web – not only by terror groups, but by academics, journalists, and others," DD wrote for el Reg a couple years ago.

"As such, they are not just of interest to terrorists. They also, rather obviously, arouse intense curiosity in a broader populace.

"DD blog has put a number online, including one with an identifier in signifying its previous owner as the Los Angeles Times newspaper. It's a portion of the Manchester manual and it was sent in 2005 by a Times reporter who wanted an explanation of its nature and an evaluation of the capability it did or did not confer. He was told it was part of the Manchester manual, originally recovered in England, now commonly called the al Qaeda manual (or the manual of Afghan Jihad) by the US Department of Justice, and that the Times's portion of it granted little or no capability. Why someone from the newspaper had taken the original and neatly retyped it into Word format was a mystery."

"Since being put online along with other similar documents, it has been downloaded many, many times, now existing on hard disks around the world."

In England, if your skin color and religion are wrong, being found in possession of these things can get you sent over permanently.

"Defendant after defendant has discovered that a long-forgotten internet search has left an indelible record sufficient for a conviction under the profoundly disturbing section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows prosecution for simple possession of an item likely to be useful to terrorists, and carries a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment," wrote famous lawyer Gareth Piece for the Guardian at the end of 2007.

"While the record of use remains permanently, no equivalent reconstruction is available or even required of the mindset of the user at the time," she continued. "The common elements in each conviction have now become familiar: the defendant had not the slightest idea that such possession was inconsistent with the right to freedom of thought; was not remotely involved in any terrorist activity; and was Muslim."

For the trial of Samina Malik, who was known as The Lyrical Terrorist in the British press that year, DD was asked by the defense to contribute a short analysis concerning the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook.

It was found in Malik's possession and [was] considered, wrongly, to be a document of potential use to terrorists. It contains many errors and some rather large fabrications which, while not obvious to laymen, are glaringly apparent to professionals trained in chemistry and biology.

For the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy Bulletin in 2005, it was reported:

"The first time I saw [the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook]," said chemist George Smith of, "I thought it must be a hoax."

"Careful examination of the document shows that it is crammed with errors, seemingly the work of someone with little discernible sense, profoundly ignorant of the nature of simple compounds and incompetent in even minor [laboratory] procedures," Dr. Smith wrote in National Security Notes in March 2004."

This is as true now as it was then.

For example, the statement in the Guardian about how the manual instructs how to make poison from potatoes is merely stupid. And wrong.

In the Poisons Handbook, it simply consists of a brief entry -- originally lifted from Hutchkinson's old US-published book -- on the green spots you occasionally see on potato chips, solanine, as an allegedly workable poison.

While solanine is toxic, there is no practical way to make use of what exists in tiny amounts of it from spoiled potatoes. And the manual, indeed, does not magically make one able to do it.

However, for Samina Malik the document was very poisonous.

She "was found guilty at the Old Bailey of owning terrorist manuals," reported the BBC simply in November of 2007.

Malik was convicted for possessing records deemed to be of potential use to terrorists, including the document pictured above. It had been published many places on the web and the above snapshot was published in a Sunday edition of the Washington Post newspaper in 2005.

"[She] was acquitted on a more serious charge of possessing articles for terrorist purposes, a fact that the judge said he took into account when deciding on a suspended sentence," reported the Los Angeles Times in early December of that year.

But back to the present.

"The government's anti-terror law watchdog has become involved in an artist's attempt to use jihadist handbooks and extremist tracts in his work," reported the Guardian.

"Lord Carlile of Berriew has advised Xenofon Kavvadias after the Metropolitan police warned the Greek artist he could be arrested and prosecuted under the Terrorism Act if he mounts an exhibition featuring texts such as The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations, a justification for suicide bombings used by Chechen extremists."

"Kavvadias says he is a pacifist and has no sympathy with Islamist extremism, but wants 'to use art to reclaim something that is lost right now: freedom of publishing and freedom of expression," continued the newspaper.

"He argues that most of the texts he proposes to feature are accessible on the internet and is keen to point out that the broad wording of anti-terrorism legislation criminalises thousands of people who have no criminal intent."

In this, Kavvadias is certainly correct.

Thousands of people have downloaded such documents and fragments of them from a variety of places on the web, including servers runs by the academy and the US government -- often out of sheer curiosity. And the British anti-terror legislation did, in fact, criminalize such action, especially so if you were Muslim.

This is just a fact.

Suprisingly, "Carlile, the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorist legislation since 2005, has offered cautious encouragement to the project," added the Guardian.

"I am sure there is a visual arts context into which counter-terrorism legislation can be put ... The best and shortest answer to your question is that you are unlikely to be prosecuted, and if prosecuted not convicted, if you do not break sections 57 and 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 ... I am sorry that I cannot answer your question more directly than that, but I am afraid that the law is no less conceptual than fine art."

"Nobody is going to give him a yes or a no on any particular item," Carlile told the newspaper. "If he shows anything that shows somebody who does not know how to make a bomb, then that would be a bad decision."

One of the problems here is the interpretation on what constitutes showing someone who does not know how to make a bomb or poison how to make a bomb or poison. Or whether or not something digital in your possession does or does not show how to make a bomb or poison.

Those interpretations can be almost whatever one wants them to be, practically speaking.

"My grand project is to design a library [of banned books] for each country to create a portrait of a country's demons and fears," Kavvadias told the Guardian.

"He said the law as it stands means thousands of people who have downloaded copies of terrorist-related tracts and handbooks, are inadvertently putting themselves at risk of prosecution, even when they don't have any criminal purpose.

"Unless he can secure assurances that he will not be prosecuted under laws that proscribe recklessly inciting others to commit terrorist acts, with a maximum jail term of seven years, he will try to stage the show in the Netherlands."

"Dowload al Qaeda manuals, go to prison?" I asked at el Reg in May of last year.

At that time, yes was frequently the answer.

"Especially if you [or] the recipient go by the wrong kind of names," I added.

"In mid-May, University of Nottingham master's student Rizwaan Sabir apparently sent the electronic manual to a school clerk, Hicham Yezza, for printing. This triggered an investigation in which counter-terror police arrested the two and held them for six days, after which Sabir was released without charge. However, Yezza was held on an immigration violation and is in custody, threatened with deportation to Algeria.

"Reg readers know now that reading the wrong stuff in the UK gets you on the fast track to prison for being in possession of something [thought] likely to be of use to potential terrorists. Technically, get-out-of-jail-free cards have been issued for journalists and academics, both of which have a well-defined public interest in writing about and analyzing such documents. However, under the current climate it's inevitable that those with good reasons for possessing jihadi electronic documents will find themselves in anti-terror cross-hairs."

The paradox in the Yezza case was that the Afghan of Manual Jihad had been downloaded from a US Department of Justice server. Practically speaking, at the time it was actually being distributed to the web from the United States in at least two places administered by the government -- from Dept. of Justice property and a mirror at the US Air University. The latter was directly pointed to by the Bush White House's webpage in 2005 when the president wanted to make a point about al Qaeda in a political speech.

"At Nottingham University, the document [went] almost full circle - from Manchester -- where it had been originally given to US authorities], to Washington, around the US and back to England," I wrote for el Reg in May of last year.

"The Times Higher Education Supplement reported on May 22 that Sabir was using the manual 'as preparation for a PhD on radical Islamic groups [and] had downloaded an edited version of the al-Qaeda handbook from a US government website... It is understood that [he] sent the 1,500-page document to the staff member... because he had access to a printer.' The clerk was also arrested.

"Sabir's lawyer told the publication 'The two members of the university were treated as though they were part of an al-Qaeda cell.' "

Xenofon Kavvadias is right when he cites such materials as part of a growing catalog of each country's "demons and fears." As such, and having worked their way into western popular consciousness, they must certainly now be legitimate subjects for art. And who would be better to judge than an artist?

Unfortunately, times being what they are, no bullet-proof assurances can be made that others won't see it differently.

The pusillanimous among us too often win out.


"From the Poisoner's Handbook to the Botox Shoe of Death" -- here.

"Maxwell Hutchkinson's Poisoner's Handbook" -- here.

"Ultimate Jihadist's Poisons Handbook" -- here


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