Before Martyrdom, Breakfast

Karen Kasmauski for The Chronicle

Flagg Miller, of the U. of California at Davis, has listened to hundreds of audio tapes that once belonged to Osama bin Laden. It's the everyday conversations among jihadis that he finds the most interesting.
January 24, 2010

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.

The tapes he found most intriguing were those that captured everyday, unscripted conversations between jihadis. In a recent paper presented at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, he focused on one tape in particular. It begins with mysterious hissing and popping noises. When he first heard it, Mr. Miller imagined militants in a remote outpost fixing a communications balloon or perfecting some as-yet-unknown terrorist weapon.

Turns out, they are making eggs. They are having a hard time, too—the kerosene stove is being uncooperative. Here is Mr. Miller's translation:

Speaker A: Give it to him ... Give it more, more, more ... No, don't stop too early ... Aaaaay! Too early, too early ... Give it more ... Give it more until ...

Speaker B [admiringly]: Oooooo!

Speaker A: Huh? You see now? ... Engineers are we!

Speaker B: Engineers of ... eggs.

The men laugh. They are in a makeshift kitchen somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. One of the voices on the tape belongs to Abu Hamza, a veteran militant from Yemen (not the better-known Egyptian militant, Abu Hamza al-Masri). The others are eager to hear about Abu Hamza's adventures, to benefit from his experience. But they also joke around with him.

Mr. Miller was fascinated by how the conversation flows from the serious to the jocular, from the mundane to the theological, from discussions of food to the vocabulary of martyrdom. During the following back-and-forth, Abu Hamza accidentally spills water on the cook's sleeping mat:

Cook (chuckling): Abu Hamza ... like this, huh? You spill water on the place I sleep? Now I see a wet dream!

(Everyone laughs, including Hamza.)

Abu Hamza: I seek God's forgiveness.

Cook (chuckling): God willing ... In the rivers of paradise ... we'll see Abu Hamza swimming in the rivers of paradise.

The outside world is rarely privy to those kinds of conversations. We usually hear prepared rants, aggressive posturing, and homicidal threats. But the tapes capture men attempting to square their grandiose visions with their humble reality. They have, in some cases, traveled a long way in order to fight for the cause, and here they are struggling with a kerosene stove.

One of Mr. Miller's students said she was surprised to learn that the jihadis ate breakfast. She had never thought about it before. "They're sort of superhuman world terrorists, and you don't think about what they do in the morning," she told him.

Mr. Miller, who is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, is writing a book about the tapes. He often gets asked what they teach us about Mr. bin Laden himself. Quite a lot, he argues, but the lessons can be hard to interpret. On the tapes, the world's most-wanted terrorist can be heard speaking at a wedding and, in another case, reading his own poetry. In his poems, Mr. bin Laden paints himself as a cosmic warrior, transcending time and distance, slaughtering infidels in the ninth century. He's a good poet, Mr. Miller says, though that fact troubles him, the idea that poetry could be a vehicle for such ugly, violent thoughts.

The tapes don't reveal where Al Qaeda leaders are holed up or when they're planning their next attack. They do, however, offer clues about how the jihadis see themselves and one another, how they think about what they're doing and why they're doing it. One tape is titled "Listen, Plan, and Carry Out Al Qaeda." What's on the tape is not, however, a practical treatise on committing terrorism, but rather a four-hour speech by a theologian on Islamic law. Al Qaeda is presented as a middle road for all Muslims and yet, at the same time, the theologian encourages followers to isolate themselves from those who disagree. The tape may sound esoteric to Western listeners, but according to Mr. Miller, its message is at the heart of the movement. "They see it as an ethical calling," he says. "That may be difficult to swallow, but it's important to deal with."

Securing funds for his research hasn't always been easy. Some foundations have been nervous about supporting scholarship that might be construed as policy related. The National Endowment for the Humanities turned him down, he says, for that very reason (a spokeswoman for the NEH said the organization doesn't comment on grant applications).

Intelligence agencies have indicated interest, but Mr. Miller worries that taking money from, say, the CIA would appear to compromise his objectivity and hinder later work.

The process of transcribing and translating the tapes has been long and arduous. He has hired native Arabic speakers to assist him, though sometimes they dismiss portions of the tapes as meaningless hubbub, not worth including. Often it's those portions—the asides, the impromptu chatter—that capture Mr. Miller's attention. The original tapes are now at Yale University, though Mr. Miller has digital copies on his MacBook. And sometimes he listens to them in his car, driving around, Osama bin Laden on the stereo.

For more by Tom Bartlett on ideas and how they happen, see his blog, Percolator, at http://chronicle.com/blog/percolator.