Osama bin Laden left behind over 1,500 cassette tapes after he fled Afghanistan in 2001. The tapes show the radical Islamist responsible for the murder of over 4,000 Americans admired non-violent Mahatma Gandhi and a Jewish singer.
After he left, a local Afghan family kept the tapes, but a CNN cameraman managed to rescue the valuable sources. The tapes landed at the Afghan Media Project at Williams College in Massachusetts, which then handed them over to Flagg Miller, an Arabic expert at the University of California, Davis.
Cassette tapes are easy to use to pass along propaganda. Unless a tab is removed on top of the tape, they can be copied or recorded over numerous times. People can easily disguise the tapes and hide them from censors.
The BBC interviewed Miller, who is the only person to listen to all 1,500 tapes, which “date back to the late 1960s through 2001.” He wrote about the content in his book The Audacious Ascetic.
Bin Laden left his comfortable life in Saudi Arabia to take up arms in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. He does not appear on the tapes until 1987 during a battle between the Afghanis and Soviet Union.
“Bin Laden wanted to create an image of an effective militant – no easy job, because he was known as a bit of a dandy, who wore designer desert boots,” explained Miller. “But he was very sophisticated at self-marketing, and the audio tapes in this collection are very much part of that story – the myth-making.”
One tape included a song from French-Algerian Jewish singer Gaston Ghrenassaia. In another tape, bin Laden expresses his admiration for Gandhi, who urged non-violence as a way to gain freedom from Great Britain in India, in a speech from September 1993. He told his supporters to follow Gandhi’s footsteps and boycott American goods.
“Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that some say the sun never set on it,” Bin Laden said on the tape. “Britain was forced to withdraw from one of its largest colonies when Gandhi the Hindu declared a boycott against their goods. We must do the same thing today with America.”
Miller said that changed in 1996 when he was exiled to Sudan. Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship and he lost all his money. He expresses his anger towards the U.S. in a 1996 speech from Tora Bora, which many believe is his formal declaration of war. Miller disagrees.
“The last third of this speech is 15 poems, and many times when this speech is translated, the poetry gets dropped out,” he said. “Because of this, we don’t appreciate the extent to which this speech wasn’t a declaration of war, as it was framed by the media at the time. It’s about the urgency of taking on the United States, but in light of a far greater struggle – the struggle against Saudi corruption.”
The only mention of 9/11 occurred a few months before the attack at the wedding of Bin Laden’s bodyguard.
“He talks explicitly about ‘a plan’ – he doesn’t reveal details – and how we are ‘about to hear news’ and he asks God to ‘grant our brothers success’,” Miller described. “I understand that to signify the 9/11 attacks [because] he is talking specifically about the United States at that juncture.”
The terrorist targeted fellow Muslims in the majority of his early tapes. Miller found that bin Laden could not believe that Muslims “did not adhere to his strict, literalist interpretation of Islam.”
“They are Shia first and foremost,” stated Miller. “They are Iraqi Baathists. They are Communists and Egyptian Nasserists. Bin Laden wanted to bring jihad to the question of who is a true Muslim.”
Miller is still surprised there is little talk about violence against the West.
“Al-Qaeda’s primary enemy on most of these tapes, most of the time, is Muslim leaders,” he said, adding:
Al-Qaeda’s continued presence in Yemen, its effects in Iraq, and its ongoing devastation of Muslim lives in the Muslim world only confirms the fact that this organisation, this idea, claims many bloody paths. There is nothing inevitable about 9/11 on these tapes. It was hard working on these tapes to remind myself of that.