11.9.01

Archive for February 13th, 2010|Daily archive page

The al Qaeda Tapes of Khandahar

In al Qaeda on February 13, 2010 at 9:18 am

Jihadis and members of al Qaeda are recorded on over 200 audio tapes, talking about attacks and making breakfast:

Jihad can sound boring at first.  That’s what Flagg Miller has discovered. For the past seven years, Mr. Miller, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis, has been poring over hundreds of audio tapes that were part of Osama bin Laden’s personal collection. Some of the tapes feature jihadis making small talk, cooking breakfast, laughing at each other’s lame jokes—not exactly riveting material.  But listen closely and they start to get interesting.

In December 2001, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the tapes were acquired by CNN from a prominent family in Mr. bin Laden’s former neighborhood. CNN turned the tapes over to the FBI, which eventually deemed them of limited intelligence value. The FBI passed them along to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College. That’s when Mr. Miller’s phone rang.

It made sense to call him. Mr. Miller, a linguistic anthropologist, is fluent in Arabic and was working on his first book, The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen. When the bin Laden tapes first arrived, they were dusty, poorly marked, and crammed haphazardly into cardboard boxes. Of the more than 1,500 tapes, 23 feature Osama bin Laden himself, while the rest are an odd assortment of sermons, lectures, and scripted melodramas. They were recorded at weddings, in mosques, and in the backs of taxi cabs.

For several years, Mr. Miller would fly to Massachusetts and spend days listening to as much as he could, transcribing, translating, trying to make sense of what he heard. During his first trip, he hardly slept, preferring headphones to his pillow.

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