For years, UC Davis religious studies professor Flagg Miller has been translating and transcribing hundreds of audio cassette tapes that were found in Osama bin Laden’s compound shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Miller says that more than 200 voices are on those tapes, many of them mujahedeen who were involved in planning attacks in the years leading up to September 11th.
Wrong Side of the Tracks
Artist: by The Slew
BOB GARFIELD: Not long after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, CNN got a hold of 1500 audio cassettes from the Kandahar compound of Osama bin Laden. CNN gave the tapes to U.S. officials, who found them of no immediate intelligence value and passed them along to academics for further study. Enter Flagg Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis. He’s been translating and transcribing the tapes for the past seven years. Miller says the tapes contain more than 200 different voices, many of them mujahedeen who were intimately involved in planning attacks on western targets in the years leading up to September 11th.
FLAGG MILLER: What’s interesting in listening to the tapes is just how much debate there was, even at that time, both about who was in charge but also what the goals were of the militancy movement. What’s fascinating is to kind of hear the speakers deal with these questions of uncertainty and try to bridge gaps in ways that might lend the movement some kind of coherence.
BOB GARFIELD: There is one tape that is labeled “Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War” and this is a tape that we've heard before. But at some point, in the tape, bin Laden veers off into poetry, and you think that that’s significant.
FLAGG MILLER: Well, bin Laden in the summer of 1996 was at the lowest point of his career. He was stateless, for the first time, having been kicked out of Sudan where he'd lived for a good six years before that. He was stripped of his Saudi citizenship. He wasn't in a position to declare war against anybody. And so, in this speech he has to kind of really ramp up the stakes of conflict with the West and somehow claim the mantle of leadership. Much of the first part of the speech - and there’s a full recording of this on one of the tapes in the collection - focuses on legal arguments for why Muslims should individually sign up for Jihad and fight the West, but he also confronts the bulk of legal consensus in the Muslim world that is strongly against individuals launching Jihad wherever they are. So he has to back off of his legal commitments and say, well, in fact there are other reasons. And he then comes up with some wild narratives about the ways in which Muslim youth today can fill the shoes of the companions who fought alongside the Prophet in the seventh century. And he then moves into poetry to rally the emotions of listeners.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, there’s an expression in advertising, “If you've got nothing to say, sing it.” Is that what you’re suggesting is going on here?
FLAGG MILLER: Very much that kind of thing. You know, poetry throughout the Muslim world taps deeply into cultural beliefs, into values. It’s used by villagers. It’s used by political elites. And bin Laden can cite poetry at ease. He composes his own verse. And frequently in translations of the 96th Declaration this stuff drops out. But when you hear this poetry on audiocassette, you hear the intensity of bin Laden’s voice.
[BIN LADEN SPEAKS IN ARABIC] He’s addressing William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration, in a challenge to man-to-man combat. And he says, here’s what the Muslim youth say to you. Tomorrow, William, you will discover which young man will confront your brethren who've been deceived by their own leaders. And then he moves into a poem: 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. As the stallion bears my witness that I hold them back, my stabbing is like the cinders of fire that explode into flame. His vision for himself as a cosmic warrior who can transcend the constraints of time and space and take on the West is nowhere more apparent than in this material. And it’s a material that speaks to cultural memories of glory, honor, of tribal manliness and dignity, broadly writ for Muslim communities.
BOB GARFIELD: There is another tape in which you hear a bunch of mujahedeen milling around the kitchen making breakfast?
FLAGG MILLER: Well, one of the tapes starts and there’s a strange kind of static noise.
[MEN SPEAKING IN ARABIC/TAPPING SOUNDS] There’s some clinking, popping. And then someone says, air, air, air. Give it some air. Don't you notice that its voice is weak? It needs air – I mean, with force.
[TAPPING/CLINKING SOUNDS] So I'm listening to this, and I'm not sure kind of if they're pumping something up, is it some kind of communications balloon? And then the conversation continues, and someone else says, ooh, you see now? Engineers are we. And it turns out it’s a cook, and he’s pumping up a kerosene stove to make eggs. He says, engineers are we, engineers of eggs! And they reflect on the fact that here they are, they've traveled from around the world, they've come to fight this glorious battle, but the battle has not yet begun and there are days in which they're waiting for something to happen. And so, isn't it ironic that here they are, Jihadis in the kitchen?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it must be weird for you to see these guys doing such human things, guys who would go on, some, or maybe even many of them, maybe all of them, to be mass murderers. They killed thousands of people in six or seven or eight countries, and you hear them joking around. What is that like to see the human side?
FLAGG MILLER: One of the things these tapes teach us is the complexity of these individuals. And it’s understanding the dynamism of militancy as a creative and adaptive strategy that will better allow us to defeat them. And that can only come through carefully listening to their arguments and understanding how they appeal to listeners as human beings and how they try, as best they can, to portray their more violent vision in sympathetic terms. That’s difficult to listen to but it’s nevertheless important.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Flagg, thank you very much.
FLAGG MILLER: Thank you. It was great to talk.
BOB GARFIELD: Flagg Miller is associate professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis.