Before he declared war on the United States, Osama bin Laden was a lackluster commander in the Afghan war against Soviet occupation known for his deep pockets, not his fighting ability. A trove of audio tapes that are the subject of a forthcoming book sheds new light on the early days of bin Laden’s career and how he transformed himself from a middling soldier into a global leader of the jihadi movement.
The collection of al Qaeda audio cassettes is the subject of The Audacious Ascetic, a book by Flagg Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis. The audio archive includes tapes from the 1960s to 2001 and was abandoned in Kandahar in the face of advancing U.S. forces. A CNN cameraman found them in a city shop in 2003, and they’ve since been in an archive at Williams College in Massachusetts. Bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist in the world, was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011.
The first of those recordings to feature the al Qaeda founder is from 1987 and includes radio traffic during a battle between bin Laden’s Arab volunteers and Russian special forces troops. While bin Laden’s myth was cemented during the Afghan war, his record there was decidedly mixed, according to The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s account of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bin Laden’s forces saw some combat with their Russian opponents, but other guerrilla commanders in the Afghan war considered bin Laden’s troops to be tourists who were largely useless on the battlefield.
“Bin Laden was a wealthy guy, and he was always seen as someone who could pull purse strings and recruit,” Miller told Foreign Policy in an interview, adding that bin Laden wasn’t seen as “a base commander” with any notable combat skills or successes. At the same time, bin Laden also lacked the religious credentials of other al Qaeda members, including his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to Miller, bin Laden nonetheless found it to his advantage to promote himself as a seasoned, battle-tested commander — perhaps reflected in his decision to edit and release on cassette radio chatter from a battle in which he directs his cadres. The audio recordings Miller examines were available for al Qaeda members to listen to and were passed around for propaganda and recruitment purposes.
When bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, his reputation as a successful commander preceded him. Media accounts had described bin Laden and his volunteers as key to the Soviet defeat, and bin Laden embraced his role as a leader and fundraiser for Islamist causes. But at this stage of his career, bin Laden hadn’t yet declared violent jihad against the United States. Instead, he cited Gandhi’s model of nonviolent resistance as a possible model for his followers. “Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that some say the sun never set on it,” bin Laden says in a 1993 speech. “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.”
(Also among the more unexpected characters to surface on the tapes is the singer Gaston Ghrenassia, an Algerian Jew. On a tape containing a lecture about Palestine, the singer’s voice suddenly appears, and the religious pronouncements cut out. It is unclear if bin Laden listened to the singer.)
Bin Laden’s belief in the fundamental corruption of the Saud regime — that his native country was squandering its oil wealth while turning away from Islam and toward the West — came to a climax during the 1991 Gulf War. Prior to that conflict, bin Laden had begged Saudi Arabia’s rulers to let him and his mujahideen defend the country’s northern border and oil fields against a possible Iraqi invasion. Bin Laden was spurned, as Riyadh sought protection from U.S. forces.
It wasn’t until 1996 — after being exiled from Sudan and after Saudi authorities stripped him of his citizenship — that bin Laden declared war on the United States, and Miller believes that the statement containing that declaration should be seen in a new light because of information contained in the tapes.
Though the declaration of war is typically described as a “fatwa,” a ruling on Islamic law, Miller says it is better understood as a more generalized call to arms for the world’s Arabic-speaking Muslims that doesn’t carry as much weight. Moreover, translations of the speech typically emit a large section of poetry at its end. “The poetry is good poetry. Some of it is his. Some of it is early Arab warrior poetry. This is where bin Laden is saying what this fight is really about,” Miller says. “It’s really about reclaiming culture for the righteous Muslim.”
Miller notes that the 1996 speech came at a time when bin Laden was at “his wit’s end.” Stateless, without money, and hiding out in Afghanistan, bin Laden “knows at that point that he has to come up with something outlandish.” The strident, anti-American speech that he delivered served exactly that purpose, and it was following that speech that the FBI opened a file on bin Laden. The speech’s immediate goal, however, was to serve as a “more personal call to Muslims in general and in the Gulf to radicalize” — and a denunciation of Saudi Arabia.
The targeting of Saudi Arabia has had deadly consequences, as on May 12, 2003, when al Qaeda fighters attacked three Riyadh housing compounds, killing more than 30.
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