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Bin Laden invoked Mahatma Gandhi to promote boycott of US goods

Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s unusual move of citing Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration is contained in a trove of 1,500 cassettes found in a compound in Kandahar that was hastily vacated by militants when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks.

world Updated: Aug 18, 2015 03:17 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times
Osama bin Laden,Flagg Miller,University of California

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once invoked Mahatma Gandhi to ask his followers to boycott US-made goods, comparing such a move to the apostle of peace’s non-violent campaign against India’s British rulers.

Bin Laden’s unusual move of citing Gandhi as an inspiration is contained in a trove of 1,500 cassettes found in a compound in Kandahar that was hastily vacated by militants when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The tapes, which date from the late 1960s to 2001 and feature more than 200 speakers, feature several speeches made by bin Laden in the late 1980s and early 1990s and hours of Islamic songs.

Flagg Miller, an expert in Arabic literature and culture at the University of California, Davis, is the only person to have heard the full collection. He has now written the book The Audacious Ascetic that explores the unique collection, BBC reported.

Bin Laden, who was killed by US special forces during a raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011, cited Gandhi as an inspiration in a speech in September, 1993. This is also the first speech in the collection in which the Al Qaeda leader asks his supporters to take action against the US.

"Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that some say the sun never set on it,” says Bin Laden. “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.”

He encourages his followers to write letters to US missions to express concern about America's role in the Middle East conflict but there is no mention of violence against the US.

An Afghan family found the collection of tapes, which they took to a cassette shop, believing the tapes could be wiped and filled with pop music that had been banned under the Taliban.

A cameraman working for CNN heard about the tapes and convinced the shop owner to hand over the collection, saying they could be important. The tapes then made their way to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College in Massachusetts, who asked Miller to listen to them.

“It was totally overwhelming," says Miller, recalling the day he received two dusty boxes of tapes in 2003. “I didn't sleep for three days just thinking about what would be required (to) make sense of it."

Bin Laden is first heard in a tape from 1987, a recording of a battle between Afghan and Arab mujahideen and Soviet commandos. Miller says bin Laden wanted to create an image of an effective militant because he was known as “a bit of a dandy, who wore designer desert boots”.

“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,” he adds.

Miller says the speeches feature bin Laden speaking about the ways in which the Arabian Peninsula is threatened by “other Muslims”. While the US would eventually become his prime target, there is almost no reference to America in the early speeches. For several years, bin Laden was more concerned with "disbelief" among Muslims who did not adhere to his strict interpretation of Islam.

The Muslims bin Laden was angry with are Shias, Iraqi Baathists, communists and Egyptian Nasserists, Miller says.

Among the curiosities in the collection are a conversation with a genie who has taken over the body of a man, a recording of Afghan and Arab fighters having breakfast at a training camp in the late 1980s that reveals the humdrum nature of life on the frontline and hours of songs featuring dramatised battles and messages for aspiring mujahideen.

Bin Laden’s attitude to the US changed in 1996, after he was exiled from Sudan. After being stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, bin Laden made a speech from Tora Bora two years later to galvanise his followers. This speech is often called his declaration of war but Miller says this is not entirely accurate.

“The last third of this speech is 15 poems, and many times when this speech is translated, the poetry gets dropped out. 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 US, but in light of a far greater struggle – the struggle against Saudi corruption."

In one of the final recordings made a few months before the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden makes an allusion to the strike at a recording of the wedding of his bodyguard Umar.

“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'," says Miller. “I understand that to signify the 9/11 attacks (because) he is talking specifically about the US at that juncture.”

First Published: Aug 17, 2015 20:06 IST