Fellow Studies Bin Laden's Tapes

Scholar Spotlight, Centerpoint April 2010

Apr 06, 2010
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After the fall of the Taliban, in December 2001, CNN acquired some 1,500 audiotapes from Osama Bin Laden's former residence in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Wilson Center Fellow Flagg Miller has listened to hundreds of them so far and is writing a book about the collection. "There's a lot to be unpacked," said Miller about the tapes as well as the various messages they convey.

Miller, an anthropologist who speaks Arabic and receives additional help on the project from native Arab speakers, said the tapes reveal "there is not one coherent narrative on the Afghan struggle." Instead, there are debates about strategies, including the use of violence vs. religion and politics.

Only 23 tapes feature Bin Laden speaking; the others featuring hundreds of Muslim preachers from around the world and other voices, from muftis to militants to intellectuals and legal specialists. Some are sermons and speeches; some are amateur recordings. Some feature debates between militants or teachers. On others, there is laughter at family celebrations. "I'm interested in what the recordings tell us about how Islamic laws are situated in everyday life," Miller said.

Miller is mapping the intellectual terrain, looking at "what these tapes can tell us about Bin Laden and militancy in the Muslim world" and the complexities of Al-Qaeda. Certain tapes feature critics of Bin Laden, including Saudi clerics who call for reform, not violence. A few pro-western voices appear on some tapes; on others, Muslims speak out who supported jihad in Afghanistan but later came to criticize it.

There is a narrative unfolding, Miller said. "One cannot leap from one voice on a tape and then leap to 9/11. It's not one causal event." Instead, he said, the tapes reflect decades of conflicted debates in the Islamic world.

Some of the tapes date back to the 1960s but most were recorded in the 1980s and 90s. Three tapes from the late 1980s feature Bin Laden talking about a common U.S.-Afghan common enemy at the time: the Soviet Union. From the 1990s onward, the talk evolved into anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric. Initially militant in speech, Bin Laden took a more diplomatic tone after 1998, as he called for justice and an end to corruption, decried crimes against Palestinians, expounded on the hypocrisy of human rights in the West.

Miller seeks to distill from these tapes the essence of Bin Laden, a military recruiter and fundraiser with no religious training, who long failed to rally other Muslims to his cause. Miller said Bin Laden was a mediator among splintered groups who became a spokesperson for a larger movement as his international connections grew.

After acquiring the audio collection, CNN gave the tapes to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College, where Miller's friend contacted him about the project. The FBI declined rights to the tapes, deeming them more historical than a means of explaining emerging security threats. Now they reside at Yale University where technicians are digitizing them for public release.

Miller said he believes the tapes have great utility. "The more we can help the intelligence community distinguish between the faces of political Islam, the better."