A painstakingly researched examination of a “never-before-studied” collection of 1,500 audiotapes detailing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s theoretical and organizational development.
Linguistic anthropologist Miller (Religious Studies/Univ. of California, Davis; The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen, 2007, etc.) has managed to get access to the cache of cassettes first acquired by CNN from bin Laden’s residential compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 2002, then shipped to Williams College, where the author first archived them. The audio library, intended for disciples of bin Laden and made between 1997 and 2001, contains only 24 tapes of bin Laden. The wealth of lectures are by hundreds of different speakers, mostly academic, on the nature of Islamic law and ritual practice, and they even record some seemingly insignificant extemporaneous conversations in kitchens or taxis, over telephone calls, at weddings and celebrations after combat missions. As such, the cache provides an enormously nuanced portrait of the thinking behind the group’s operations. While the West has latched on to bin Laden’s avowed anti-American platform (which emerged after 1996), he styled himself first and foremost “an ascetic warrior dedicated to the global Islamic struggle,” with its apostates being within the Muslim community itself. With daunting thoroughness, Miller reviews bin Laden’s biography, underscoring his adherence to the Islamic reform movement that supported insurgencies in authoritarian regimes within the Muslim world. Expelled from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was often rendered stateless. During this key period, his community of like-minded ascetics used historic examples to preach “a code of ascetic virtues,” which included denouncing the “wealth and palaces of this world” and boycotting American goods. Moving chronologically in the recordings, Miller gives a multilayered sense of how al-Qaida actually developed.
Dense, scholarly, and bizarrely compelling.