The Bin Laden Tapes

Four years ago I participated in “Genefest,” a conference in honor of the retirement of Gene Garthwaite, a history professor at Dartmouth College and one of my undergraduate influences. Although I did not follow him into Middle Eastern studies, I was pleased to see him again, and to learn about what his other former students were up to. One of these, Flagg Miller, gave an interesting presentation on the Bin Laden tapes, a cache of audio cassettes acquired in Afghanistan in 2002 and which he had been analyzing. I am pleased to see that his extensive research has borne fruit in the form of a book, entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida (Hurst Publishing, 2015). A VICE News article by the author provides a synopsis:

What I Learned About al Qaeda from Analyzing the ‘Bin Laden’ Tapes

In the months following the Taliban’s evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden’s residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda’s most coherent organizational momentum.

Discovered untouched by a local Afghan family after the rest of the house had been ransacked, the tapes were slated for use as blanks for recording Pashto pop-songs. CNN intervened with a cash-down offer and a different plan.

The FBI first reviewed the collection and declined stewardship. The vast majority of the tapes feature speakers who, although well-known Muslim preachers, reformers, and radicals across the Arabic-speaking world, were not al Qaeda members. Some recordings dated back to the 1960s and were considered to be more of interest to historians than intelligence analysts.

Unable to use the tapes, CNN passed them on to academics, first at Williams College and later Yale University. During those years I was brought on as the archive’s primary researcher. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I had spent many years studying political discourse, Islam, and audiocassette technologies in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

Over 10 years later, my resulting book focuses on key tapes in order to re-examine al Qaeda’s origins, development, and ideology leading up to 9/11. At the center of my study are just over a dozen previously untranslated speeches by Bin Laden dating from the late 1980s through 2001.

What do the tapes reveal about Bin Laden and al Qaeda? Here are several surprising discoveries.

First, Bin Laden was not al Qaeda’s leader at its outset — in fact, the organization sought to marginalize him. The “al Qaeda” frequently evoked in Western intelligence and law-enforcement circles referred originally to a specific training camp in eastern Afghanistan called Al-Faruq. Founded in the late 1980s, the camp was directed largely by Egyptian and North African militants who aimed to overthrow ruling regimes within the Islamic world….

Second, while al Qaeda is typically distinguished from other militant and terrorist groups for its unequivocal focus on attacking the West and the United States, the organization’s chief leaders prioritized multiple enemies, foremost among them authoritarian leaders within the Arab world. Bin Laden’s speeches from as late as 1993 avoid any public mention of directing militant activity toward America, despite the fact that massive US-led coalition forces had been stationed in his homeland for a full three years….

Third, Bin Laden’s first and most notorious “Declaration of War against the United States” in 1996 was neither a declaration nor a call to war. These labels were given to Bin Laden by Western journalists and translators who sought to draw attention to growing Arab anger at the devastating effects of US-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein on Iraq’s people.

Read the whole thing.