Before Martyrdom, Breakfast
At home with Osama bin Laden and his personal tape collection
image by John Ueland / www.uelandillustration.com
Jihad can sound boring at first.
That’s what Flagg Miller has discovered. For the past seven years, Miller, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis, has been poring over hundreds of audiotapes that were part of Osama bin Laden’s personal collection. Some of the tapes feature jihadis making small talk, cooking breakfast, laughing at one another’s lame jokes—not exactly riveting material. Listen closely, however, and they start to get interesting.
The tapes surfaced in December 2001, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when CNN acquired them from a prominent family in bin Laden’s former neighborhood. CNN turned the tapes over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which eventually deemed them of limited intelligence value. The FBI then passed them along to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. That’s when Miller’s phone rang.
It made sense to call him. 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 arrived, they were dusty, poorly marked, and crammed haphazardly into cardboard boxes. Of the more than 1,500 tapes, 23 feature bin Laden himself; the rest are an assortment of sermons, lectures, and scripted melodramas. They were recorded at weddings, in mosques, and in the backs of taxicabs.
For several years, Miller would fly to Massachusetts and spend days 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 among jihadis. One tape begins with mysterious hissing and popping noises. When he first heard it, Miller imagined militants in a remote outpost fixing a communications balloon or perfecting some as-yet-unknown terrorist weapon.
Turns out, the jihadis are making eggs. They’re having a hard time, too—the kerosene stove is being uncooperative. Here is Miller’s translation:
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