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On tape

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It’s 2003. University of California, Davis linguistics pro- fessor Flagg Miller receives perhaps the most important delivery of his life from the frontlines of Islamabad, Pakistan. The cargo, priceless in value to the historical record, is packed in nondescript cardboard boxes. After tearing them open, about 1,500 audiocassettes spill over the brims, some damaged from careless storage in damp conditions. They have come a long way from their original home—the dusty streets of Kandahar, Afghanistan. More specifically, they are from the abandoned compound of the Qaeda terrorist network leader, Osama bin Laden.

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An expert in religious studies who is fluent in Arabic, Miller made hundreds of copies of the original tapes with a simple dual-cassette-deck recording machine, a clunky anachronism of pre-CD days. He spent his mornings with headphones glued to his ears, poring over the audio from his home and office. For several dozen tapes, he translated every word meticulously and typed exhaustive notes. After dedicating his primary research to the tapes for the past decade, he can rattle off their contents from memory.

“Tape 1165 has a Muslim genie on it!” Miller told me in an email, describing an Arabic speaker who is possessed by a genie and defends his views amid a crowd of Arab-Afghans in the late 1980s. Tape 164 is an official recording by Al Qaeda’s publicity committee in March 2001, portraying the wedding of one of bin Laden’s bodyguards. They appeared “surprisingly mirthful,” not at all like the “violent monsters they are depicted as in the media,” Miller recalled. And then there was Tape 506, which immediately catapulted bin Laden from relative obscurity to infamy. It documents his 1996 declaration of jihad, Muslim holy war, against the West. The transcript became widely cited and reproduced, but the poetic lilt of his original Arabic speech is lost in the English translation.

Collectively, the tapes, which were eventually gifted to Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives collection in 2008, tell perhaps the most vivid story of Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s inner circle in existence—a story that Yale has helped to broadcast to the world. Since they were first brought to campus, the “bin Laden tapes,” as they have come to be known, have made headlines in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and CNN.

Spanning almost a half century from the 1960s to 2000, the tapes feature over 200 speakers, mostly Muslim clerics from all over the Arab world, opining on everything from the Koran, Islamic jurisprudence, and gender roles to extrem- ism, secularism, and theories of a Christian-Jewish alliance against Islam. About 20 tapes feature bin Laden, who was gunned down by U.S. special naval forces in 2011. David Edwards, director of the Williams College Afghan Media Center who also studied the tapes, told me that they were likely used to recruit young Muslim men to Taliban train- ing camps throughout the Middle East. Some seem as if they were recorded when the camera was accidentally left on, providing an unprecedentedly intimate glimpse into the secret life of Al Qaeda.

Available in digital form to the public, the original tapes are now locked away in Yale’s offsite library shelving facility in Hamden, Conn., along with other special collections for safekeeping, said Daniel Dollar, the director of university collection development. “We’re a good home to unusual materials like these tapes,” Dollar said. But while Yale is finally sealing the physical vault on the tapes over a decade after 9/11, the university is not closing the door to further debate of historical record.

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As it turns out, Miller’s recent findings from the tapes—which will be published in his upcoming book Sounding Out Al Qaeda—suggest the true identity of Al Qaeda may be misconstrued in Western media. His controversial new thesis posits that bin Laden hijacked the original identity of the organization and brought it to international prominence as an anti-Western, anti-American militant group. “I find Al Qaeda mentioned a lot on the tapes, but not in that familiar way,” Miller explained.

Historically, Al Qaeda, which was formed in the late 1980s, crusaded against non-Sunni Muslims and rallied supporters for global jihad to create a new international Is- lamic state. While bin Laden boasted a “courtroom of sup- porters” for leading battles within the Islamic world, Miller said his loyalists began to dwindle after he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 and expelled from the Sudan. He thereafter took a strident stance against the West as a cry for attention, according to Miller. Western journalists begged for a figurehead for the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, for am- munition indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction pointed at Washington D.C.—bin Laden was happy to oblige.

“The media needed an image, a man who could drama- tize Arab rage for American audiences in a way that could  draw attention,” Miller said of bin Laden. “He became a media sensation, a poster boy, and someone who could get media headlines.” In actuality, Miller said that most of Al Qaeda’s brutality was directed against the Saudi royal fam- ily and other Muslims who allied with infidels—those who do not practice Islam. Only a handful of tapes document bin Laden’s direct Western hatred. Edwards, the Williams Afghan studies expert, agrees that bin Laden was more concerned with the apostasy of Muslims in the Arab world. “Attacking the U.S. became a vehicle to an end, a way of awakening the Muslim world to the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and purifying it,” he said.

Miller has received mixed reactions to his theories, which he characterizes as “against the grain.” Military personnel value him as a “different voice in the room” as part of their continued battle against global terrorism, since he does not bring political bias to the table as a linguistics expert and introduces new nuances into their discussion, he says. “As an anthropologist, I lived with people from the Middle East for years to learn the language,” Miller explained. “It gives me a far more holistic perspective than is typically the concern of other disciplines”—which include international relations and political science studies.

Yale political science professor Andrew March, however, does not find Miller’s revelations shocking. “The Western media, and government spokespersons, are well aware of Al Qaeda’s violence toward fellow Muslims,” said March, whose studies focus on Islamic political philosophy. Draw- ing attention to the numbers of Muslims Al Qaeda has killed has been a crucial quotient in the “war of ideas” the West is waging against violent, extremist factions of Islam.

Nevertheless, Miller hopes his findings will inspire new scholarship that evaluates Al Qaeda through an unbiased lens.

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It is no small miracle the tapes survived to be scrutinized by researchers like Miller and landed in the laps of Yale’s curators. An Afghan CNN freelancer, Khalid Hadi, surrendered the tapes to the news organization’s Islamabad office in 2001, but exactly how they came into his posses- sion remains unclear. Edwards says legend has it that he

bought them from an audiocassette store in Kandahar after Taliban leaders, including bin Laden, fled the area, which resulted in the looting of their homes. The storeowner had no idea where they came from, selling them cheaply to be erased and recorded over.

After the Afghan freelancer saved the tapes, CNN hand- ed them over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which later released them upon finding they did not contain sensitive material. Edwards, who is not fluent in Arabic, enlisted Miller’s aid to dissect the countless hours of audio because he had the language expertise and had previously studied tapes. Edwards also sought out a permanent home for the tapes, which had accumulated damage from years of in- delicate handling. After deliberating among several large research universities that had the necessary resources to preserve the tapes, Edwards settled on Yale because of its world-renowned Middle East studies department and Islam- ic artifacts collection. “Yale was a natural choice,” Edwards said. “I wanted the tapes to be an accessible resource.”

In agreeing to take in the tapes, Yale curators affirmed their “ability to steward the material properly” and make a “long-term commitment to their preservation,” said Dollar, the collections director. Yale has previously turned away gifts if the university does not have the resources to ensure their protection, he added. Oftentimes, alumni bequeath Yale parts of their estates in their wills that the university refuses.

Today, the tapes can be accessed on a secure laptop in the Manuscripts and Archives reading room in Sterling Memorial Library, joining the ranks of other university treasures like the Gutenberg Bible in the Beinecke Rare Books Library and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets in the Babylonian Collection. They are available to students, professors and the pub- lic alike in keeping with the library’s codified collection philosophy, which protects “a rich and unique record of human thought and creativity in a variety of formats, in support of the teaching, research and public missions of the university.”

Some of that rich record of human thought may be memories we wish to forget. Over a decade after the event, 9/11 ceases to feel as if it were yesterday. The ghost of bin Laden no longer haunts Ground Zero where the Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center stands. The bin Laden tapes bring to mind old fears, old enemies. But even in the absence of a threat, the world must look back—and Yale must ensure that it can do so.