TIMBUKTU, Mali — The photocopies of the manual lay in heaps on the floor, in stacks that scaled one wall, like Xeroxed, stapled handouts for a class.
Except that the students in this case were al-Qaida fighters in Mali. And the manual was a detailed guide, with diagrams and photographs, on how to use a weapon that particularly concerns the United States: A surface-to-air missile capable of taking down a commercial airplane.
The 26-page document in Arabic, recovered by The Associated Press in a building that had been occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu, strongly suggests the group now possesses the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, known to the Pentagon as the Grail, according to terrorism specialists. And it confirms that the al-Qaida cell is actively training its fighters to use these weapons, also called man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, which likely came from the arms depots of ex-Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
"The existence of what apparently constitutes a 'Dummies Guide to MANPADS' is strong circumstantial evidence of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles," said Atlantic Council analyst Peter Pham, a former adviser to the United States' military command in Africa and an instructor to U.S. Special Forces. "Why else bother to write the guide if you don't have the weapons? ... If AQIM not only has the MANPADS, but also fighters who know how to use them effectively," he added, "then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond."
This is not the first al-Qaida-linked group thought to have MANPADS - they were circulating in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a terror cell in Somalia recently claimed to have the SA-7 in a video. But the U.S. desperately wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of al-Qaida's largest affiliate on the continent, based in Mali. In the spring of 2011, before the fighting in Tripoli had even stopped, a U.S. team flew to Libya to secure Gadhafi's stockpile of thousands of heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles.
By the time they got there, many had already been looted.
"The MANPADS were specifically being sought out," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who catalogued missing weapons at dozens of munitions depots and often found nothing in the boxes labeled with the code for surface-to-air missiles.
The manual is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopedia edited by Osama bin Laden. It adds to evidence for the weapon found by French forces during their land assault in Mali earlier this year, including the discovery of the SA-7's battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment.
The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali. They are using more fighter jets rather than helicopters to fly above its range of 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) from the ground, even though that makes it harder to attack the jihadists. They are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed, in line with similar practices in Iraq after an SA-14 hit the wing of a DHL cargo plane in 2003.
And they have added their own surveillance at Mali's international airport in Bamako, according to two French aviation officials and an officer in the Operation Serval force. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
First introduced in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, the SA-7 was designed to be portable. Not much larger than a poster tube, it can be packed into a duffel bag and easily carried. It's also affordable, with some SA-7s selling for as little as $5,000.
Since 1975, at least 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by different types of MANPADS, causing about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths around the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The SA-7 is an old generation model, which means most military planes now come equipped with a built-in protection mechanism against it. But that's not the case for commercial planes, and the threat is greatest to civilian aviation.
N.R. Jenzen-Jones, an arms expert in Australia, confirmed that the information in the manual in Timbuktu on the missile's engagement range, altitude and weight appeared largely correct. He cautions though that the history of the SA-7 is one of near-misses, specifically because it takes training to use.
"Even if you get your hands on an SA-7, it's no guarantee of success," he said. "However, if someone manages to take down a civilian aircraft, it's hundreds of dead instantly. It's a high impact, low-frequency event, and it sows a lot of fear."