What Did Osama bin Laden Say? #Reviewing The Audacious Ascetic

The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida. Flagg Miller. Oxford University Press, 2015.

The early years of Osama bin Laden as a jihadist and his activities in Afghanistan were not well known to many in the U.S. except for a few CIA and FBI analysts who began tracking a man who abandoned his family fortune to fight the growing U.S. influence in the Islamic Holy Lands.

Strategically, the United States set out on a war against an ideology that most U.S. policymakers did not understand and often they did not listen to the few that had some idea of the emerging threat of al-Qaida.

Dr. Flagg Miller is a linguistic anthropologist who has spent nearly a decade cataloging, translating, and interpreting a treasure trove of over 1,500 audio recordings of bin Laden and other jihadist leaders recorded between 1997 and 2001. The tapes served as an audio library for visitors to bin Laden’s Khaddar home and show the wear and tear of being listened to by his visitors.

The tapes were located in a tape shop and the owner had planned to record over them. They were first obtained by CNN after the al-Qaida’s senior leaders left Afghanistan for Pakistan in the early days of the American invasion. After shipping the tapes to the U.S. from its Khaddar office, CNN first offered the tapes to the CIA for exploitation by U.S. intelligence analysts. In 2003, the tapes were transferred to the Williams College Afghan Media Project and are now located at Yale University, where they have been digitized for further research. Miller began working on the project with the arrival of the tapes from Afghanistan and published the first article on the collection in the Journal of Language and Communication in 2008.

Miller cites the invention of the audio-cassette as a user-friendly communication medium that was cheap, easily disseminated, and difficult to censor in countries with high illiteracy rates. Although most of the tapes were in Arabic, several were recorded in other regional languages such as Bengali, Pashtu, and Urdu.

The tapes were nearly recorded over by the Khaddar shop owner and were not archivally preserved. Photo courtesy Flagg Miller.

Miller intertwines the recordings through the known history of the mujaheddin, focusing on the “concept of al-Qaida.” While many Westerners see the U.S. as the arch enemy and the prime focus of al-Qaida, Miller argues that Arabs and Muslims have been al-Qaida’s “primary enemy and bin Laden’s focus on the American “far enemy” would be comparatively marginal.”

Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri known as the “Architect of Global Jihad” moved from London to fight alongside bin Laden, felt that bin Laden’s emphasis on the West after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa would “distract militants from more important strategic victories that would unite the Islamic community worldwide.”

The splintering of Islam into the Sunni and Shi’a sects, as well as later creation of the Wahhabi conservative group are an area that Miller discusses along with how “Muslim militants and reformers have disagreed with one another over what qawa`id (the foundation or rule book) are and how they are to be applied.”

An interesting discussion which bears on today’s fighting in Syria by the Islamic State, which began as al-Qaida in Iraq and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front (the current al-Qaida franchise in the Levant), is whether the intention of bin Laden was in line with Western thinking that al-Qaida’s “ultimate goals were to drive America out of the Muslim world, to destroy Israel, and to create a jihadist caliphate larger than the Ottoman Empire at its height.” Miller points out that the idea of the caliphate was often dramatically used for non-Muslim audiences while, “speakers exercised more restraint when lobbying for the notion among Muslim activists.”

“For every speech identifying America as a prime target there are dozens of other speeches identifying other more classic enemies of Islam. These include idolaters (mushrikun), ingrates who have rejected God’s mission (kufar), communists, secularist, people electing submission to economic and material orders (jajiliyya), and freemasons…”

The discovery of these tapes is a scholarly windfall for students of al-Qaida and Middle Eastern politics and how the West can counter the continuing threat of Islamic extremist. Miller’s approach to this subject, from the linguistic and anthropological perspective instead of through a political or counter-terrorism lens, provides a balanced portrayal of the threat that the West has met on so many battlefields since 9/11. Miller’s analysis is without the emotional trappings of so many other books and articles on Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida.

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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