The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.
Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.
Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.
The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.
Can anything be learned from the particular dreams discussed in the video? Bin Laden and his followers mention a total of seven dreams and dream-like experiences. The first involves a strange soccer game between American pilots and Muslim pilots, which the Muslim team wins. Three other dreams portray airplanes crashing into tall buildings. A man is reported to have had a vision of carrying a huge plane on his back to the desert, while another man envisioned a group Muslim faithful leaving for jihad in New York and Washington. Bin Laden says a soldier told him he’d dreamed of a tall building in America, and then of learning from a spiritual teacher how to “play karate.”
What’s most striking about these dreams is how similar they are to the dreams reported by Americans about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since September 11 I have gathered several hundred dream reports, most of them highly disturbing nightmares, from people all across the U.S. The predominant themes in these fear-ridden dreams are airplane crashes, military conflict, building explosions, terrorist attacks, and threats to children and family members. Many of the American dream images are almost identical to the bin Laden dreams, but the emotions they evoke are radically different: the American dreams are suffused with fear, confusion, and a horrible sense of vulnerability, while the bin Laden dreams are welcomed as good omens. What terrifies the Americans brings joy to the Muslims. Nothing could make clearer the distressingly huge psychological gap separating the two warring sides.
Many of the dreams people have reported to me came before September 11 and appear, like the bin Laden dreams, to have “prophetically” foreseen the attack. There is of course great scientific controversy about whether dreams can actually anticipate future events. But for people who feel they’ve had such dreams, the experience often bring a terrible sense of guilt—“Did I really see this coming? Could I have done anything to stop it?” For those people, the most chilling part of the bin Laden videotape surely comes right after he tells about the young man who dreamed of a tall building in America: “At that point,” bin Laden tells his followers, “I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dreams. So I closed the subject.”
Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., teaches religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is editor of Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001)