Before Martyrdom, Breakfast

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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:

Speaker A: Give it to him . . . give it more, more, more . . . go, 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.

Miller is 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 these kinds of conversations. We usually hear prepared rants, aggressive posturing, and homicidal threats. These tapes capture men attempting to square their grandiose visions with their humble reality. These are men who have, in some cases, traveled a long way in order to fight for the cause, and here they are struggling with a kerosene stove.

Miller, now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is writing a book about the tapes. He is often asked what they teach us about bin Laden. 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 poetry. In his poems, bin Laden paints himself as a cosmic warrior, transcending time and distance, slaughtering infidels in the ninth century. He’s a good poet, Miller says, though it troubles him that poetry can be a vehicle for such ugly, violent thoughts.

What the tapes don’t reveal is 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.” The tape is not 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 might sound esoteric to Western listeners, but, according to 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. Intelligence agencies have indicated interest, but Miller is concerned that taking money from them would appear to compromise his objectivity and hinder later work.

In the meantime, Miller has hired native Arabic speakers to assist him, though they sometimes dismiss portions as meaningless hubbub, not worth including. It’s those fragments–the asides, the impromptu chatter–that capture Miller’s attention. The tapes now reside at Yale University, though Miller has digital copies on his computer. Sometimes he listens in his car, driving around, Osama bin Laden on the stereo.

Reprinted from The Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 29, 2010), a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for social/cultural coverage and general excellence. Copyright © 2010 TheChronicle of Higher

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