• August 27, 2015

Before Martyrdom, Breakfast

Before Martyrdom, Breakfast 1

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.

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.


1. panacea - January 27, 2010 at 08:03 am

Wow. These tapes are a treasure. They offer an opportunity to get into the minds of al-Queda, and understand what they are about.

I just may pick up this book when it comes out.

2. burkley - January 27, 2010 at 09:27 am

Headline inappropriately uses the word Martyrdom in reference to these evil ones. Islam may have had true martyrs but these are not them. So please change the headline.

3. swish - January 27, 2010 at 10:28 am

I don't want to derail the comment thread on an interesting article by getting into a discussion of censorship. I'll just say please don't change the headline. Burkley has a perfect right to complain (and his comment is appropriate). But don't do it.

4. johntoradze - January 27, 2010 at 11:58 am

Mr. Miller finds the poetry disturbing for expressing ugly, violent thoughts? Homer's Iliad anyone? How about Dire Straits?

Oh, I desire a cup of wine from the Beloved's own hands.
In whom can I confine this secret?
Where am I to take my grief?
I have yearned a lifetime to see the Beloved's face;
I am a frenzied moth circling the flame,
A wild rue seed pod roasting in the fire.
See my stained cloak and this prayer-rug of hypocrisy;
Can I, one day, tear them to shreds at the tavern door?
If the Beloved allowed me one sip from the Jug of Love, intoxicated,
I would break loose from the bonds of my existence.
Old as I am, one signal of hope from those eyes would turn me young again.
Graciously bestow me this favour, and I will transcend this earthly abode.

- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni

5. johntoradze - January 27, 2010 at 12:01 pm

PS - Burkley doesn't know what he's talking about. The history of islam is a history of war. It is also a history of the enslavement of black africans. Approximately 5% of all slaves shipped out of Africa came to North America. Over half went overland into the muslim empire, usually through Sudan. The males were castrated, just as they are today preventing the rise of an underclass. Mohammed himself said that black people were the lowest race, and arabs the superior race.

6. politicalmatt - January 27, 2010 at 02:01 pm

Swish, I understand your concern, but making an editorial change, particularly in the phrasing of a headline, is not necessarily censorship. The headline is in poor taste and it is offensively inaccurate. Jihadists are mass murderers, not martyrs. Changing the wording would merely recognize it for the mistake that it is. I am sure it was thoughtless; editors and writers have to manufacture headlines on the spot and it's easy to make a slip. The content of the article is fascinating. I think this is valuable research, but whoever concocted that headline did the story no favors and they ought to change it.

7. inverse_agonist - January 27, 2010 at 05:44 pm

Jihadists who die in the process of fighting the West died, voluntarily, for the sake of a principle. By definition, that makes them martyrs. There's nothing ambiguous about it. Personally, I think Christianity is really stupid, but people who die in the name of Christianity are martyrs, whether or not I think "idiots" is more apt.

What is so hard to understand about the concept that jihadists have reasonable grievances with the West that they're willing to fight and die over? It's not like we haven't been over there blowing them up and occupying their holy sites and killing them with sanctions. You'd be mad if they came over here and did that to you. If you decided to fight back yourself without waiting for government orders, you'd be a "terrorist" and possibly a "martyr." You could probably manage to fit writing some decent poetry into your schedule.

What's wrong with this article isn't the headline, but the fact that "terrorists are people with ethical ideas" is treated like a profound revelation, hard to imagine. We kill their people. They kill our people. Back and forth. The arms manufacturers laugh all the way to the bank. Sometimes it helps to arm them before we bomb them. This is nothing new.

Since when did everyone in America become an Islamic theologian who gets to decide who is and is not a legitimate martyr under their fairy tale belief system? Any reasonable person should be able to see "why they hate us." They said so, in plain language. We arm Israel, which uses the arms to hurt the Palestinians (undeniable, whichever side of this issue you're on). We had troops in Saudi Arabia, their holiest site, and occupy holy sites in their countries. Our sanctions and war against Iraq killed millions of their people. Anyone with an imagination can see why they're mad, even if they agree with American foreign policy. Did we not do these things and export "sexually immoral" media all over the world? Do we not routinely kill dozens of their civilians at once? Of course we did and do those things, and they're mad. It makes perfect sense. We can't just say they're wrong about their own religion because America only kills civilians for the Greater Good.

8. reeves6 - January 28, 2010 at 06:43 am

Thank you, inverse_agonist, for the only sensible and realistic comment.

9. rebeccak - January 28, 2010 at 06:56 am

Yes, thank you inverse_agonist.

It's not whether onlookers agree about the validity of their beef, it's about whether people are sacrificing themselves for a cause that makes them martyrs.

Please let's try and be accurate about language even if it means political discomfort.

10. johntoradze - January 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Ah, political discomfort! Yes, inverse_agonist has done a good job of enunciating a pseudo-enlightened view, which is indeed a step up from demonization, but it remains uninformed. It is true that jihadists die for what they believe, but calling it "principle" is a misnomer. They kill for religious belief that they are the proper rulers of the world and must subjugate everyone else. Since the reason they die is to kill, it is also inaccurate to say the die for it. They are, instead, soldiers. Thus, their meaning for "martyr" is different from the meaning of the word in our culture.

If we accept their parlance, then we should speak of soldiers in Iraq killed in battle as "martyrs". We find the latter offensive, so why should it be less offensive to us to name their soldiers “martyrs” just because their soldiers book tells them dying to kill will net them paradise?

A student of history knows everyone has "reasonable grievances" that can be made grounds for war. Accepting this logic, Native Americans have grounds to murder us in your beds and take our homes (whether you rent or not). Japanese have grounds to blow up San Francisco and LA, Christians have cause to conquer their way across the Middle East, taking back the territory lost in the thousand-year war of Islam. French have cause to slaughter Germans, and Jews have cause to as well.

People do not fight because of plausible grievances. They fight because they accept an ideology that tells them to fight, and because of deep primate drives to do so. In our inner cities the latter appears as the street gang and aggrandizes the members. In the local ground of any nation plagued by terrorist warfare, they also fight because leadership of a war gives wealth and power.

11. inverse_agonist - January 28, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Suicide bombers do kill people, but their ultimate goal isn't just killing people. Killing people is merely a way of advancing a political/religious agenda. Suicide bombers and their supporters don't think their work is done because they killed some people.

We could say that they're soldiers, but soldiers killed in action are revered as heroes by our culture and many others. How many Medals of Honor have been awarded to people who died fighting in circumstances that guaranteed their own deaths? I don't think this kind of reverence for soldiers is commonly regarded as offensive. We call it "valor" or something similar, and it happens in the name of principles like "freedom." They call it "martyrdom." What's the difference, besides what team they're playing on?

People object to the term "martyr" because they don't like seeing it applied to The Terrorists, not because they care strongly about semantics. We have Our Brave Men and Women in Uniform. They're "evil ones" or "mass murderers." Whatever...thinking that way just helps the war profiteers.

When the Native Americans fought back several hundred years ago, was that really driven by "ideology" rather than plausible grievances? Some of the Somali "pirates" got started because foreign commercial vessels were decimating the fisheries they depended on. Is that ideological?

This comment thread debate is only happening because our government's propaganda operation has been so successful that people imagine jihadists to be so different from us that they don't even eat(!), let alone have anything reasonable to say. Helen Thomas recently asked "why they hate us" at a press conference, and couldn't get answer better than the fact that they have a weird religion they've perverted and want to kill us.


The official government talking points sound a lot like the comments at the top of this thread. Imagine that!

Doesn't it seem strange that the discussion of The Evildoer's motivations completely ignores their readily available public statements on the matter? They might not be any more honest than our leaders are in their propaganda, but it's a curious omission. It can be because of religious brainwashing or ideology or deep primate urges, but most certainly can't be because they have plausible grievances! That's totally outside the bounds of polite conversation.


12. janehamber - January 29, 2010 at 03:08 am

The majority of the attacks by the Jihadists are against other muslims. During the 1990s, they killed somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 fellow muslims. In Iraq, these Jihadists are responsible for the death of tens of thousands of fellow muslims. In Afghanistan, they murder muslim girls who want to go to school and threw acid on the faces of muslim girls whose faces are not sufficiently covered. When they send their suicide bombers to blow up airplanes, they care little if the plan if full of muslims.

The nerve of those muslim girls to challenge those principled jihadists who burn their faces off. The gall of those Algerians and Iraqi muslims to stand against the principled jihadists. The audacity of muslims to fly in planes targeted by principled jihadist underware/shoe bombers.

13. mart7624 - January 29, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Actually, muslims have slaughtered tens of millions of christians, Hindus, Jews, and pagans over the last 1400 years. islam is not so much a religion as a cult of death established by a pedophile and genocidal sociopath.

14. adiwyner - January 29, 2010 at 01:24 pm

Inverse- You have to break your congitive egocentrism, which is your need to impose our intellectual, emotional and moral values on others.

So, why do they hate us?

First, you have to completely understand that theirs is a society built on the considerations of honor and shame. We have nothing remotely like this here.

Islam, in the medieval period, was once a great civilization- foremost in the world in intellectual, scientific and religious achievement. The Ottoman empire, the seat of the Caliphate, was great and powerful. Until the West rose and broke its back. This is terrible loss of honor. And today the whole world grows in riches and accomplishment and Muslim world stagnates (even with massive oil wealth).

Muslims ask themselves if this defeat happened because of the Muslim's failure to adopt modern science, education and western liberalism? or did it happen because they failed to hew to the Islam of their forefathers? And if it is the latter, why did they fail to follow the righteous path? Obviously, because of western cultural imperialism (abetted by the greed and lust of their own accomodationist rulers).

So to avenge the shame and restore honor, they must fight the west and humiliate it (as opposed to defeat it in battle). They must depose their rulers and restore a more pure and sacred Islam. Shariah must be imposed. Their leaders of course have harnessed this rage to empower themselves. After all, what capable and charismatic leader does not know to secure power with external enemie to rally the troops!

Israel they hate because the very history of that country is the essense of humilation and shame (think about it: a rag tag bunch of individuals, poor and despised, builds a hugely successful economy and bests them in battle over and over again. To make is worse, these humilators are JEWS!). The US doesn't arm Israel. It is rich enough to arm itself. The US, economically, does much more proportionaly for the Palestinians and the Egyptians. What the Islamist have quickly learned since 9-11 is that blaming Israel generates sympathy. They don't honestly care about deaths in Iraq. They kill each other in much greater numbers. But again, they have learned that Iraq is a popular cause and generates them sympathy. They don't hate us because we have troops in Saudi Arabia. They hate their rules for shaming themselves by inviting us in.

When their honor is restored they will stop their war. Until then, we have to hold fast to our own values, by which we hold that those who intentionally target and kill innocents are murderers not martyrs. If we do not, we risk losing them.

15. johntoradze - January 29, 2010 at 01:50 pm

The best estimate for killings by muslims of non-muslims up to the end of the Ottoman Empire at the dawn of the 20th century is between 200 million and 300 million. No other nation, ethnicity, group, religion comes anywhere close. All of the 20th Century comes to roughly 200 million on all sides. The depradations of islam are astonishing if one bothers to study them. Since restoring their "honor" requires accepting their system of oppression, I reject it as I reject the pullulations of the KKK at the blight on their “honor”.

16. aetolius - January 30, 2010 at 12:09 pm


Airplane flies into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people.
Suicide bombers scamper through public places in the Middle East and slay as many infidels as possible, thereby racking up points on the afterlife scoreboard.
Audio tapes recall the mundane conversations of radical islamic fundamentalists before they fulfill their religious duties that will require not only the blood of those with different beliefs but theirs as well.

Funny, the word 'martyr' doesn't seem to come to mind...

Perhaps I'm not educated or sophisticated enough to recognize what martyrdom entails.

Oh wait, I remember: pacifism.

17. leilita21 - January 31, 2010 at 10:22 am

So now this brilliant scholar has discovered that even evil "jihadists" have breakfast and daily life conversations... This shows how far the enemy becomes dehumanized when conflicts are taken to such good vs. evil terms. "Jihadists" are portrayed as evil monsters with nothing but hunger for innocent blood, why would they need to eat or chat?

No matter how terrible a conflict is, there´s a need to try and understand what lies behind each aggression, to be able to go to the roots of the matter, and that´s not going to happen with scholars who consider terrorists as "superhuman" and get suprised to see human behaviour in them. How scary...

18. janehamber - February 01, 2010 at 03:33 am

Defenders of principled Jihadists must be overjoyed by Al Qaeda's new approach to creating a just world. According to the Zionists at MI5 intelligence service, principled Jihadist bombers may now carry bombs surgically implanted into their bodies to avoid detection by airport body screening technology. Or perhaps the justifiers of principled Jihadists are excited by the latest intelligence reports (undoubtably Zionist disformation) that suggest that Yemen-based Al Qaeda cells have trained female suicide bombers to advance their reasonable grievances.

19. che08 - February 01, 2010 at 09:58 am

Fascinating! I'm enjoying being a fringed-observer of this conversation!

20. janehamber - February 01, 2010 at 11:59 am

Defenders of principled Jihadists must be rejoicing over today's successful grievance excercise by a principled female Jihadist who turned 54 Iraqui muslim pilgrims into burning ashes.

21. johntoradze - February 01, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Shia are heretics to Sunnis. Sunnis of the muslim brotherhood have been exterminating them, torturing them, etcetera. See human rights watch on genocide in western Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule. Heretics in islam are worse than infidels, although it is complex, because at the same time no muslim is ever supposed to take the part of a non-muslim against another muslim.

It is not principle. It is ideology. People that accept an ideology will do extreme things to take it forward.

22. dyskolos - February 01, 2010 at 01:15 pm

inverse_agonist's commentary and some of the responses to it remind me of this poetry...

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.


--- W.H. Auden (September 1, 1939)

23. rapprods - February 02, 2010 at 01:39 am

Invert Agonist is an ass. I love theses blithe dismissals of Christianity. I am not a believer, but the historic import of Christianity to Western Civilization (of course, I am certain that is also blithely dismissed by the ignorant) has determined the world we now inhabit. Naturally, it does not approach the glories of Islam, or Confucianism or even Marxism or Hinduism or the determined blankness of Buddhism and the wondrous worlds those systems made. Any knowledge of the Ancient World where mass death was an entertainment where slaughter was remorseless. At least, after Christ, we flinch. Even a little. Is love thy neighbor as thyself a stupid idea? I think Invert is looking in the wrong place for stupidity.

24. sundog - February 02, 2010 at 08:34 am

I'm really surprised at all this back-and-forth about the title and whether it's justified to call the jihadis 'martyrs'.

Of course the title is not a tacit endorsement of the jihadis' activities, nor is it even an admission that they can be called 'martyrs' (and I have no stake in whether they can). The title is clearly intended to be (facetiously) from the jihadis' perspective. Whoever wrote the title is echoing the mind of a jihadi in the morning: "before martyrdom, breakfast".

25. johntoradze - February 02, 2010 at 10:46 am

Didst thou read the article through sundog? Didst thou then follow the thread of discussion? Or didst thou, sundog, as many an undergrad doeth, read the title ... and move on?

I agree with rapprods insofar as there is not proper understandng at large about the huge difference in values bequeathed by Christianity versus Islam. Christianity, like Judaism requires a synthesis because the literature is historical story and conflicting. Islam is not very contradictory. It is a bible of commandments accompanied by the historical story of a prophet who committed torture, assassination and mass murder. This is why the Abassid Caliph had to make the declaration that koran was not the word of god, but a work of man. After this came the crash of muslim civilization as the fundamentalists used the first great depression within islam's empire to say that muslims were being punished. (In an economy built on continuous expansion, the defeat at Tours and then loss of Spain's large taxpaying dhimmi base stopped continuous deflation for the first time. In a deflationary economy, a formal interest rate of zero is a real positive interest rate.) It is from the time of that Caliph onward that islam lost its cultural ability to evolve.

The ideologues of today are just the latest throwback soldiers for a book of pre-medieval prescription for glory on the backs of everyone conquered.

26. janehamber - February 03, 2010 at 05:43 am

The above supporter of principled Jihadist (and his fellow travelers) must be thrilled at today's principled Jihadist bomb attack at the opening ceremony of a girl's school in northwester Pakistan. The death of six people (including two muslim girls) and the wounding of 70 other muslims must truly warm the hearts of the supporters of these pincipled Jihadists. Yes,indeed, inverse_agonist, turning muslim school girls into pieces of burnt flesh is just another way for principled Jihadists to demonstrate their reasonable grievances.

27. barwilk - February 05, 2010 at 09:28 am


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