Languages
Page last updated at 14:09 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 15:09 UK

Analysing Bin Laden's jihadi poetry

By Michael Hirst
BBC News

Undated file image of Osama Bin Laden
The tapes show Osama Bin Laden to be 'an entertainer with an agenda'

To many people Osama Bin Laden is the ultimate barbarian, to others an elusive Muslim warrior. Most know him simply as the world's most wanted man.

Few would imagine him as a published poet or wedding raconteur.

But now a host of previously unpublished speeches made by the man accused of planning the 9/11 attacks on the US are to be made public.

They include sermons and readings delivered at a wide range of events from weddings to jihadi recruitment sessions.

The material was discovered on a dozen of 1,500 cassettes found in al-Qaeda's headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was evacuated during the US-led invasion in 2001.

Encompassing recordings from the late 1960s until the year 2000, the collection includes hundreds of sermons by Islamic scholars, political speeches by al-Qaeda's top strategists and even footage of live battles - as well as recordings of the group's reclusive leader.

According to one US linguistics expert, Flagg Miller, who has spent five years analysing the material, the tapes provide an audio library of Bin Laden's development as an orator.

The assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis said the recordings also offer "unprecedented insight" into debates within Bin Laden's circle in the years leading up to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.

Jihad and weddings

Prof Miller's analysis of the tapes shows Saudi-born Bin Laden to be a skilled poet who weaves mystical references as well as jihadist imagery into his verse, reciting 1,400-year-old poetry alongside more current mujahideen-era work.

"[The readings] were sometimes given to large audiences when he was recruiting for jihad in Afghanistan... and other times they were delivered at weddings, or to smaller audiences, possibly in private homes," Prof Miller, a linguistic anthropologist specialising in the Middle East, told the BBC.

Poetry is important to Bin Laden's core audiences of radical Islamists and disaffected youth, and his verses have been picked up by his followers around the world and used in their own work, said Prof Miller.

"The violence and barbarism of war can sicken anybody and poetry is a way to frame that violence in higher ethics," he said.

However, some scholars have objected to the publication of Bin Laden's poetry, saying the work has only sparked interest because of the notoriety of its author, and that publishing the verse gives a forum to a reviled figure.

In one of his own poems, Bin Laden, whose whereabouts remain unknown, refers to a youth "who plunges into the smoke of war, smiling".

"He hunches forth, staining the blades of lances red. May God not let my eye stray from the most eminent humans, should they fall," continues the recital.

The words are believed to have been recorded in the mountainous Afghan cave complex of Tora Bora in 1996, as the al-Qaeda chief made his first declaration of war against the US.

Performer with an agenda

Often identifiable by his distinctive monotone, Bin Laden's recitals show him to be "the performer, the entertainer with an agenda", said Prof Miller, who is researching a book analysing the poetry and its role in jihad.

Flagg Miller
Bin Laden uses poetry to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam
Prof Flagg Miller
University of California, Davis

"They also show his evolution from a relatively unpolished Muslim reformer, orator and jihad recruiter to his current persona, in which he attempts to position himself as an important intellectual and political voice on international affairs."

Earlier material is littered with references to tribal poetry, Koranic verses and mystical allusions - mountains, for example, are used as metaphors to help his followers avoid the temptations of the secular world.

In one instance the man accused of orchestrating bombings in East Africa, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as the US, describes himself as a "warrior poet", whose words will lead his followers to an idyllic refuge in the Hindu Kush mountains.

More recent recordings are both more professionally produced and more overtly political - the anti-Western rhetoric with which the world has become familiar since the 9/11 attacks.

Prof Miller said that if alive, Bin Laden would still be writing poetry, which is central to the oral traditions of his tribal culture.

"Poetry is part of the oral tradition in the Arab world, which Bin Laden uses to tap into the cultural orientation, the history and the ethics of Islam," he said.

The tapes are currently being cleaned and digitised at Yale University in the US and public access is expected to be granted in 2010.

Prof Miller's findings are published in the October issue of the journal, Language and Communication.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
06 Dec 09 |  South Asia
Al-Qaeda's origins and links
20 Jul 04 |  Middle East
Timeline: Al-Qaeda
07 Aug 08 |  Special Reports

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific