Linguistic anthropologist Flagg Miller spent years transcribing the contents of Osama bin Laden’s personal cassette collection. In the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, we reprinted an article on Miller’s work from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s an excerpt:
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.
In this episode of the Utnecast, Utne Reader Editor in Chief David Schimke talks to Flagg Miller about the tapes and what he’s learned from them.
Flagg Miller on Osama bin Laden’s Cassette Collection (18:43)
Or download the podcast at iTunes or the UtneCast blog.