Working with The Bin Laden Tapes

Hopefully you caught the story about Professor Flagg Miller (Assoc. Prof. of Religious Studies at UC Davis) and the Bin Laden tapes on NPR’s On the Media.  The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently ran an article along similar lines about him and his. 

Prof. Miller, whom I know very slightly as a result of having overlapped with him as a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been working with a collection of some 1500 tapes acquired by CNN in Afghanistan in 2001.  Apparently they came from a house occupied by Bin Laden.  The tapes include recordings of a broad swath of Al Qaida activities, ranging from religious and military content to weddings to cooking breakfast.  CNN offered them to the Intelligence Community but it wasn’t interested.  Now the tapes are at Yale University and on Miller’s computer.  Miller, it should be said, is a fine choice to take a first hack at these tapes.  His last major project dealt with audiocassette poetry and Yemeni culture. 

Flagg Miller

Prof. Flagg Miller

The Chronicle article tells how one of Prof. Miller’s students expressed her surprise that the jihadists ate breakfast.  I don’t want to overemphasize this particular incident, but it struck me straight away that a student of military affairs would never have made such a comment.  It’s a well known fact that warfare–whether one is stateless terrorist or a soldier in an uber-organized military of a nation-state–is largely made up of utterly boring stretches of time.  Many of the best war movies make this clear, but Das Boot is probably the foremost example. 

On the other hand, where Prof. Miller and probably his students have an advantage over many people who study or take part in armed conflict is in having deep human understanding of the enemy, or at least part of it.  Understanding the enemy, even empathizing with him, is not at all incompatible with fighting him; in fact, it adds to ones ability to fight him.  Thank you General Sun Tzu.  This, presumably, is one of the reasons why the Intelligence Community has showed some interest in funding Prof. Miller’s work.  (Bloody ironic, considering that they told CNN originally that they had no interest in the tapes.)  Quite sensibly, Miller turned down the offer on the grounds that accepting such finding might appear to taint his work.  

Professor Miller is writing a book on what he has learned from these tapes and I very much look forward to reading it.  His will probably be the first book I’ve ever read by someone whose training is in linguistic anthropology.  I heard him give a “work-in-progress” talk at the Wilson Center and he has some interesting things to say, including some potentially important revelations about previously unknown ideological influences on Bin Laden.  Miller also has some views on the origins of the term “Al Qaida” that come, in large part, from his work with the tapes.  In particular, he has argued that the people we think of as “al Qaida” did not start using that term until very late on, largely as a result of rhetorical interaction with the West.  Now, I do not agree with him on this question, but he makes some good arguments and if he is correct, then his argument has some small but real implications for people in the worlds of strategic studies, counterterrorism, and intelligence. 

U.S. forces have captured and will continue to capture a large number of documents, tapes, and other detritus from our jihadist enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and doubtless other places.  Digital copies of many of these records are going to end up accessible to scholars in the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) that the Defense Department is opening.  (More controversially, the CRRC will also hold copies of records from Saddam’s regime.)  However, having worked with these materials, it appears to me that the U.S. Government often does not bother to retain or at least duplicate the sorts of everyday materials that are so meaningful to scholars such as Flagg Miller.  For instance, it is known (see here , here and here) that in 2001 the U.S. military took materials  from the house of the then #3 person in al Qaida, Mohammed Atef a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Masri.  Given that the intelligence community was not interested in the Bin Laden tapes, one can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor from one of his deputies. 

If, as I suspect, all these enemy materials are being lost, it is a pity.  Though Miller is doing his research for his own academic reasons, as he should, it is helping to secure us all.  It would be good to give him more material to work with and it would be good to see others join him in this line of study.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The Chronicle article tells how one of Prof. Miller’s students expressed her surprise that the jihadists at breakfast.

    Should that be “ate”?

    • Probably. Or “et” breakfast, if they were speaking colloquially. I’ll fix that. It’s good to know that someone is reading carefully, even if it isn’t me…

  2. I would appreciate hearing professor Flagg Miller’s lectures, if any are put online, or anyone can point to more recent articles by him.

    As to the importance of the name of al-Qa’ida:
    Jason Burke made much the same point about al-Qa’ida, both in his book and later in the Adam Curtis documentary ‘the Power of Nightmares’. (I will add that for most young muslims, “al-qa’ida” most immediately suggests the foundational text of reading and grammar that is studied in the process of learning Qur’anic Arabic)

    Agree or disagree about the name, I think the idea that there was one solid organization, uniting all Afghan mujahidin, that pivoted around Osama and Zawahiri, before say 1997, doesn’t work for me. Most of the stories I’ve heard or read from jihadis – see ‘Inside the Jihad’ by ‘Omar Nasiri’ for example – described the mujahidin as united by principle and cause, not by charismatic leaders.

    And as Zarqawi showed, even where there is titular inheritance, there can be severe disagreement over tactics and ideas.

    • Thanks for the comment. I am not aware that any of Flagg Miller’s lectures are online and I’m not aware of anything he’s published more recently. That said, if I run across anything newer than the article I linked to, I’ll let everyone know.

      On “al Qaida,” I am in at least partial agreement with you. Certainly the mujahidin in Afghanistan were not unified under one banner in the early to mid 1990s. That said, there was an organization in existence as such that we now know as AQ. I believe that the Combating Terrorism Center from West Point has a translation of a copy of the Al Qaida charter posted on their website. Several memoirs also make clear that in 1996 the U.S. received a defector from Al Qaida who provided the US Intelligence Community with the name “al Qaida” and who said that he’d been present at its founding meeting in 1988. That said, he purportedly said that the group–whatever it was then called–was only about a dozen people initially.

  3. Hi, thanks for the comment. I am not aware of Flagg Miller’s lectures

  4. […] the normal circle but who will have important contributions to make, I think.  For instance, Flagg Miller will be there, as will Cynthia Storer, one of the few analysts in the Intelligence Community who […]


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