News & Current Affairs

September 24, 2008

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

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But now a host of previously unpublished speeches made by the man accused of planning the 9/11 attacks on the US are to be made public.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

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.

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August 7, 2008

Bin Laden ex-driver found guilty

Bin Laden ex-driver found guilty

Sketch of Salim Hamdan by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the US Military

This was the first US war crimes trial since World War II

A US military jury at Guantanamo Bay has convicted Osama Bin Laden’s former driver of supporting terrorism.

The verdict on Salim Hamdan is the first to be delivered in a full war crimes trial at the US prison in Cuba.

The jury found Hamdan guilty of five of eight charges of supporting terrorism but acquitted him of two separate, more serious, charges of conspiracy.

A sentencing hearing is now under way. Hamdan, a Yemeni aged about 40, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The White House said the trial was fair and looked forward to more tribunals.

The defence team has said it plans to appeal, while rights groups have condemned the trial as unjust.

‘Vital role’

Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, was initially impassive when the verdict began to be read out. But the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, at the trial, said he later appeared to break down in tears.

HAMDAN CHARGES
Conspiracy:
Found not guilty on two counts of conspiring with al-Qaeda to attack civilians, destroy property and commit murder
Providing support for terrorism:
Found guilty on five counts, including being the driver and bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden, a man he knew to be the leader of a terrorist group
Found not guilty on three other counts

Our correspondent says the defence team’s appeal could go as far as the Supreme Court.

One of the defence lawyers, Michael Berrigan, said: “Is material support a war crime? The defence believes it is not. That issue will go forward on appeal.”

The jury of six military officers had deliberated for about eight hours over three days in the first US war crimes trial since World War II.

The prosecution had said Hamdan played a “vital role” in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. But defence lawyers said he was a low-level employee.

The BBC’s Adam Brookes in Washington says US President George W Bush will hope to use the conclusion of the first full trial as evidence that the Guantanamo Bay system does actually work.

In its first response, the White House said Hamdan had received a “fair trial”.

Spokesman Tony Fratto said: “The Military Commission system is a fair and appropriate legal process… We look forward to other cases moving forward to trial.”

However, defence lawyers had said they feared a guilty verdict was inevitable and that the system was geared to convict.

Rights group Amnesty International said the trial was “fundamentally flawed” and called for all the remaining military tribunals to be halted and for proceedings to be moved to civilian courts.

‘Guilt by association’

Hamdan had admitted working for Bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 for $200 (£99) a month, but said he worked for wages, not to make war on the US.

Guantanamo Bay in Cuba

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay

The defence said the case was “guilt by association”.

But the prosecution said Hamdan was an “uncontrollably enthusiastic warrior” for al-Qaeda.

Prosecutor John Murphy had said: “He has wounded, and the people he has worked with have wounded, the world.”

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Among the dozens of other inmates due to be tried there in the coming months are men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

August 5, 2008

Bin Laden driver trial jury out

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A US military jury has retired to consider its verdict after the two-week trial of Osama Bin Laden’s former driver at Guantanamo Bay.

Yemeni Salim Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.

In closing arguments, the prosecution said he played a “vital role” in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks.

But defence lawyers said he was a low-level employee, who was “not even an al-Qaeda member”.

Mr Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, has pleaded not guilty and his defence team say he worked for wages, not to wage war on America.

Mr Hamdan has acknowledged working for Bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 for $200 (£99) a month, but denies being part of al-Qaeda or taking part in any attacks.

He is the first prisoner to be tried by the US for war crimes since World War II.

The jury ended its initial deliberations after 45 minutes on Monday, and will resume on Tuesday morning.

‘Guilt by association’

In its closing argument, the prosecution described Mr Hamdan as a loyal supporter of Osama Bin Laden, who protected the al-Qaeda leader knowing his goals included killing Americans.

“Al-Qaeda aimed to literally take down the West, to kill thousands, and they have; to create economic havoc, and they have.

“They needed enthusiastic, uncontrollably enthusiastic warriors, like that accused, right there, Salim Hamdan,” said justice department prosecutor John Murphy.

Lawyers for Mr Hamdan said not one witness had testified that Mr Hamdan played any part in terrorist attacks. They questioned the fairness of the trial, which began on 21 July.

“This is a classic case of guilt by association,” said Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer, a military defence lawyer appointed by the Pentagon.

“Mr Hamdan is not an al-Qaeda warrior, he is not al-Qaeda’s last line of defence – he’s not even an al-Qaeda member,” said Mr Mizer.

Black hole

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Among the dozens of other inmates due to be tried there in the coming months are men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Human rights campaigners have accused the court of operating in a legal black hole.

They and the other accused will be watching the out come of the Hamdan trial closely, correspondents say.

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