The world’s foremost terrorist is an avid music listener, a stickler for grammar and has a great appreciation for poetry.
Yes, this is the same Osama bin Laden who orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Flagg Miller, an assistant professor of religious studies at UCD, has spent five years studying over 1,500 audio cassettes taken from bin Laden’s home in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Miller discovered bin Laden’s taste for the aesthetic among other revelations about the man behind the terrorist actions.
“Some of the tapes that I’m most interested in are recordings of teachers at training camps – where they’re not just learning how to fire weapons and to be terrorists, but they’re trying to teach them about Muslim philosophy, history, theology, language, etc,” Miller said.
Bin Laden gained an international following after the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Africa. When people started showing up at his training camps who weren’t well educated, didn’t speak properly and didn’t know the precepts of Islam well, the terrorist leader made their scholarly development a priority, Miller said.
“So this movement, Al Qaeda, is as much intellectual as it is militant,” Miller said of the teaching material. “All of this was designed in my mind, to teach these recruits how to go back to their home countries and represent this struggle in Afghanistan, and put that field [terrorism] in the best possible light.”
The journey began for Miller in 2003 – when he got a phone call from a colleague at Williams College in Massachusetts who was running the Afghan Media Project and probed his interest.
Miller had been focusing his research at the time on audio cassettes in Yemen – bin Laden’s ancestral homeland – and said it just “made sense” for him to delve into the collection.
CNN acquired the tapes in 2001, aired a few, and turned them over to the government, which found them threat-free and sent them to Williams.
The more than 1,500 tapes feature over 200 speakers – dating back to the 1960s, according to a San Jose Mercury News article. Bin Laden’s voice appears on just 20.
Consistently amazing to Miller was the amount of creative material – song and poetry – on the tapes.
“It’s surprising, because the Taliban, as we’d been reading, is very much against public song and was cracking down on recording studios and cassette shops and things like that – but its presence on his tapes suggests bin Laden and other leaders were listening to music that they weren’t able to publicly,” he said.
A summary article of Miller’s work will appear in the October issue of Language and Communication. He previewed the piece, which talks about the concept of al Qaeda and how it’s debated among the speakers throughout bin Laden’s tapes, at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin on Sept. 18.
“Interestingly, none of the speakers talk about Al Qaeda as a worldwide militant organization under bin Laden’s lead, which it became known as post-2001,” Miller said. “But the concept is actually a much broader, more flexible term for understanding Islamic law and language.”
Suad Joseph, a professor in the department of anthropology and a colleague of Miller in the Middle East/South Asian Studies program, praised his etiquette.
“He’s a very serious and careful scholar who takes his scholarship seriously,” she said. “He’s one I think is always very cautious about the questions that he asks, carefully analyzes data and is precise about the answers that he finds.”
In addition to bringing recognition to UCD’s department of religious studies, the five years and 1,500 tapes were rewarding to Miller, too.
“Everything I listen to, for me, is part of a bigger picture, to which the outlines are slowly emerging, and it’s just thrilling to be putting the parts in place – every time I listen to a tape I learn something new.”
Miller developed his expertise in Islam and its media studying Arabic at Dartmouth and Oxford, and earning a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan. He has also translated Guantanamo detainee poetry and helped produce a book that came out last year.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Sept. 25, 2008.