In Depth

Five things we learned from Osama bin Laden's tapes

The al-Qaeda leader gave a chilling warning of 9/11 and believed fellow Muslims were the real enemy

Cassette tapes owned by Osama bin Laden containing music, prayers and speeches have revealed surprising details about the al-Qaeda leader.

The collection of more than 1,500 audio tapes was recovered by a CNN journalist from a compound in Kandahar after the US invasion of Afghanistan.

They were then handed over to Flagg Miller, an expert in Arabic culture from the University of California at Davis, who studied the tapes and has written a book on them titled The Audacious Ascetic.  

"It was totally overwhelming," Miller told the BBC, recalling the day he received the tapes in 2003. "I didn't sleep for three days just thinking about what would be required [to] make sense of it."

What exactly have the tapes taught us about the jihadist?  

He was inspired by Ghandi

During a speech in 1993, the Islamist leader called on his supporters to follow Mahatma Ghandi's example during his fight for independence by boycotting Western goods. "Britain was forced to withdraw from one of its largest colonies when Gandhi the Hindu declared a boycott against their goods," he said. "We must do the same thing today with America." 

He used music as a recruitment tool

His audio library contained hundreds of Islamic anthems featuring dramatised battles and musical propaganda, and they were used as powerful tools to recruit aspiring young Mujahedeen. "For many, this is the way into jihad – through the heart," says Miller."These songs have an emotional draw, bringing home the sound of combat many would read about and see on TV – there's something intimate about hearing them in your headphones because they really play on your imagination."

He made an ominous reference to 9/11

A month before the planes were hijacked, Bin Laden delivered a speech at his bodyguard Umar's wedding where he hinted that an attack would soon take place. He said that while it was important to celebrate, the party should not overshadow more important issues.

 “He [then] 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'," says Miller. "I understand that to signify the 9/11 attacks [because] he is talking specifically about the United States at that juncture."

He liked Jewish music

Given al-Qaeda's deep-seated anti-Semitism, one of the most unexpected discoveries was music by Gaston Ghrenassia, a 76-year-old Jewish French-Algerian pop star. Ghrenassia, who performs under the stage name Enrico Macias, told The Times he was "surprised and troubled" to discover that Bin Laden enjoyed his music. "It would seem odd that the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks could have listened to the man who sang Children of all Lands," he said, referring to one of his first hits about love and peace. 

He thought Muslims were the real enemy

"What's fascinating is how Bin Laden is speaking about the ways in which the Arabian Peninsula is threatened – but who is the enemy? It's not the United States, as we often think, or the West. It's other Muslims," said Miller. Bin Laden directs much of his anger towards fellow Muslims who do not adhere to the strict Wahabbist school of Islam he followed. "Al-Qaeda's primary enemy on most of these tapes, most of the time, is Muslim leaders," says Miller.

The Bin Laden tapes are available now on BBC iplayer

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