Flagg Miller is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis. Miller trained as a linguistic anthropologist, and his latest work, The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida, looks at a cache of videotapes owned by Bin Laden that were discovered in 2002.
Interview: Thomas Roueché
Portrait: Karen Higgins
Thomas Roueché I wanted to ask you a bit about the background of the book, how it came about, how you began working on the archive.
Flagg Miller CNN originally got these tapes, right at the start of 2002. The Taliban fell and US special forces moved into Kandahar in December 2001, a few months after 9/11. CNN was really on the scene and they acquired a number of videotapes that were the first images the world had seen of al-Qaeda’s training camps, and then they also came across audio. Audio they couldn’t use much, but there was a particular collection that was from Bin Laden’s former house, where he’d been from 1997 to 2001. He had a number of guest houses and his primary place that people talk about was at the airport outside of Kandahar – that’s where a lot of the militant training went on. He had a more elite house for top al-Qaeda folks who were going to meet with the Taliban. This house was right across the street from the Taliban’s foreign ministry building. So the Taliban fled town and there was a lot of looting and Bin Laden’s house was sacked, but then an Afghan family came into the house after it had been sacked and found these tapes in a corner, just untouched – a huge stack of these audiotapes. And then they moved them on to a cousin of the family or someone who had an Afghan Pashto pop-song shop, and they were going to use them as blanks to record over – that was the value of the stuff to locals, really. The CNN stringer was a relative of the family or knew them, so he got the tapes immediately. I met him and he talked about how that had all transpired, and he said they hadn’t started recording on them and he got all of them and basically shipped them out to Islamabad, where CNN’s office was. From there they got to an anthropologist colleague of mine at Williams College who was running the Williams Afghan Media Project at the time. And I guess the tapes were offered to the FBI to listen to, and the CIA, and from what I gathered they listened to some of them and then declined stewardship because I guess they were focusing on other kinds of wiretapping stuff and had limited resources, or just felt that these were mostly of historic value. These tapes date back to the late 1960s. The vast majority are not al-Qaeda operatives; they’re clerics and intellectuals who were quite famous in the Middle East. Ninety-nine percent of this stuff is in Arabic, and there are dozens of tapes that are at training camps that do feature Bin Laden. My book focuses on a good 22 of these that nobody has ever published anything about. So that’s how I got involved; my colleague at Williams doesn’t speak any Arabic and my whole training had been in Arabic from Yemen and political Islam and poetry down there, and audiotapes – that was my forte.
TR I’m interested in the role of audiotapes in general. I know from terrorism trials here that tapes have become incredibly important. Was this something specific to movements like al-Qaeda or was this a wider phenomenon in the region?
FM Absolutely. The audiotape is a much wider phenomenon. It’s one of these technologies that’s been vital to social movements, to revolutionaries, to reformers in the Middle East, across the world really, where literacy rates aren’t super high. Also even among literates, where saying certain things is banned from state media, television, print. These tapes were embedded in the world of oral speeches and oral talk and conversation in closed rooms – with groups in private houses or in mosques, those are still very important. So they’re important because of the emotional work that a song can do in bringing out history and memory and poetry, and how that stuff can mobilise emotions. The whole thing about a sermon is listening to it, putting yourself in a relationship with the God that’s brought the preacher through the mosque at a particular point. A lot of those sermons aren’t printed, especially the incendiary ones. So audiotapes are really important for that. The other thing is that because they’re so user-friendly, anyone can make a recording, so they can really be underground and circulate. Abu Musab al-Suri had an interesting note about the audiotape in his memoirs. Nobody knows where he is right now, most people say in a black site somewhere, but he was a Syrian and worked with Bin Laden in these training camps, and he said that all the way up to 2004 he preferred audiotapes over the internet, because once you go onto the internet, your comments, your views, get pulled in to a whole world that is much messier. He preferred not to sell out that way, and he felt that audiotapes were a way he could access the people he wanted to and convey and engage with the discussions he wanted. The reason he changed and went on the internet was when the US put a tag on his head as a wanted man. He said at that point he couldn’t not respond to the global accusation and issues, so he went on the internet. So the tapes work on a lot of different levels.
TR So ultimately this collection would be part of a wider network of people exchanging tapes?
FM So here’s the thing. When I came to these tapes I was listening for Bin Laden. I was also listening for al-Qaeda: when was that idea and term brought up? Because I wanted to say, how did this all arise, and what kind of organisation was this, what kind of network, how did people talk about it. I heard the term “al-Qaeda” used by Bin Laden, used by top militants, but in Arabic it just means a base. Often they’re talking about specific bases, like establishing specific camps, and it wasn’t this larger network, like a global organisation they were rallying behind or defending, as we hear about in the West. So I began to ask, for these specific bases, who’s really in charge, who’s really financing them, what are their real goals? Do they square up with this idea of this Pan-Islamic, caliphate-oriented, anti-American or anti-West machine under Bin Laden? And I found that no, these camps are focused more on supporting Muslim insurgencies within the Islamic world and various regional contexts of struggle. In the Sudan, a lot of those camps are run by Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Those camps are only a few. The CIA’s own records indicate that before 1998 Bin Laden was really not financing many training camps in Afghanistan. There were far more prominent leaders and a lot more wealth pouring into these camps in other ways. So anyway, I listened for that kind of al-Qaeda, a base. In the book I show that there were a lot of people claiming to be base leaders, and Bin Laden was one of them. His own pitch didn’t hold very much weight, because it was to take jihad to the United States. First of all, he doesn’t really verbalise this pitch on any of these tapes, until mid-to late 1993, when he really is becoming a pariah. He’s becoming desperate; he’s losing a lot of his money. The reason he doesn’t verbalise that so explicitly before is because he’s counting on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council support for his donors. He can’t really play that card publicly because it’s so controversial.
Moreover, he spent the whole early part of his career fighting the Soviets, and that was a fight the US was also in, on the same kind of side. His prime beef was with Muslims, especially Iranians, like Shia. In his speeches from 1990 to 1993, when US coalition forces are in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf, he’s talking on those tapes about Saudi Arabia under occupation and how Muslims have got to rally and fight, defend their homeland. But who are the occupiers? The occupiers are not the West, the occupiers are actually corrupt Muslims themselves, and they include communists because that’s what he was known for fighting. South Yemen, that was a big thing for him: that was where the communists were, so he was directing energy and resources and money to fight against the South Yemenis. That’s where I had all my experience. But also Shiites. He’s very explicitly anti-Shiite, part of the classic Saudi discourse. He was a Saudi, and he reflected all that. There were also Egyptian Nasserists, people he felt were selling out the kingdom. He’d also tell these stories about the Arabian Quraysh tribe selling out the prophet Mohammed, so a lot of the message was about the Arab rulers themselves betraying their people. The point at which he really begins to take on the US is in 1996 with his famous speech, and at that point Arab rulers sent out at least six assassination teams to try to take him out. That’s not a story often told. Saudis, Libyans, Yemenis – they all worked at various points to do that. They’d stripped him of his wealth, his citizenship. There were a lot of reports in the West right around this time that he was like the Ford Foundation of Islamic terrorism. But those were based on reports from two or three years earlier, and by 1996 he had really lost everything. That was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission, but also congressional researcher Kenneth Katzman. So he was bereft of anywhere to go, and that’s why he turned to the West. His message of taking on the West worked well largely because media was looking for a story that could dramatise the US’s conflict with Saddam in ways that could galvanise public support for the increasing militarisation of the sanctions in Iraq. Bin Laden fitted the bill of identifying a global network – maybe they had weapons of mass destruction, maybe they had all these connections, including with Saddam, and could mobilise state rulers against the West. So his message worked well at that point. I talk about how he basically played to that; I show in the book how he listened very keenly to Western stories. There’s one tape that’s a hidden mic underneath [Guantanamo Bay detainee] Salim Hamdan’s car. It took me months to work out what was going on in this tape. There’s this kind of conversation in this jerky cab somewhere bumbling along the road, and silences for a long time. But then there are these exchanges in Arabic. Ultimately I sent the tape to Bin Laden’s bodyguard in Yemen to get voice recognition. He said it was Salim Hamdan. I began putting it together: I heard some English very briefly, and I realised, OK, this is the ABC Nightline news crew in the car and they’re being driven to an interview with Bin Laden, so I could date exactly when it was: May 1998. Salim Hamdan and Nasser al-Bahri, they’re kind of probing the Arabic-speaking Nightline news guy, Tarek Hamdi, about what message do they really want here. They tell them they think he is the world’s most wanted man – in fact, the US has just issued an arrest warrant for him. Salim’s like, “Really, what for?” They say they’re not sure; they’re coming up with evidence. But in fact no arrest warrant had been issued from the US for Bin Laden at that point. Arrest warrants had been issued by Arab leaders, but not by the US. The news was prompting Bin Laden to think of how he could present himself as the US’s prime enemy, where he had so many other enemies that he was clearly on their maps.
For Arab speakers he was obviously an outlier against Arab rulers. But I talk about how that tape shows how Bin Laden carefully crafted his image in order to become the worst nightmare, to represent himself so that when asked, he would claim involvement with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, with the 1995 Saudi National Guard bombing, with the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings. None of which there’s any evidence for, or none was brought to court to show that he was involved in any way. But these were things that the Western media had seen and that ABC and NBC were saying, “Are you involved?” So my book’s not only about Bin Laden and his life, but it’s about the Bin Laden story and the creation of the Bin Laden story in a way that Bin Laden was himself a subject to, and listening to and negotiating and exploiting.
TR Is audio still important for these movements today?
FM Very. You can look at sermons going on – Soundcloud now, for example, gives you little snippets. If you do searches for Bin Laden or other figures on Soundcloud, there’s stuff being uploaded that’s just audio that you can’t find in print. But for technologies, the audio cassette in Yemen and elsewhere remains vibrant, but in places like contemporary Syria with ISIS, there’s so much focus on the internet, because that’s what the West has, that’s the medium. Anybody who’s lived life in these places, you know that electricity goes down all the time, that people’s access to computers and internet is constantly being interrupted. So these kinds of oral exchanges, whether they’re in mosques, the conversations, or being passed around on other kinds of media technologies, phones, cell phones – that stuff is all really the life of this movement, but it’s hard for people to access, because it’s in Arabic for one thing, and that’s huge, it makes an immense amount of difference. And then the other is that these technologies are very decentralised and they don’t find easy uptake into digital visual media. I wish I had more specific examples of how tapes are being used, or other kinds of audio transmissions, but Soundcloud is kind of what I’ve seen as an interesting place to kind of hear.
YouTube, now that I think about it, is another interesting forum for uploading user-generated audio. There are millions of speech events on YouTube from Syria, for example, from the start of the civil war starting in 2011. Many of these are local sermons from particular mosques. Graphic data of these speeches are often missing, so that the audio is emphasised, or else simple still images are uploaded to accompany the audio, though they have little to do with the original event. §
The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida (Hurst, 2015), is out now.