Bin Laden Tapes Show Jihadis Eat Breakfast, Too In 2001, CNN acquired a vast stash of audiotapes from a house in Kandahar that once belonged to Osama bin Laden. The tapes, bin Laden's personal collection, provide a rare glimpse into the minds and lives of al-Qaida militants.
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Bin Laden Tapes Show Jihadis Eat Breakfast, Too

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Bin Laden Tapes Show Jihadis Eat Breakfast, Too

Bin Laden Tapes Show Jihadis Eat Breakfast, Too

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(Soundbite of archival recording)

Mr. ABU HAMZA (Member, al-Qaida): (Foreign language spoken)

GUY RAZ, host:

You're hearing the private recordings of al-Qaida terrorists. This audio comes from a huge cache of cassettes handed over to CNN shortly after the September 11th attacks.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Mr. HAMZA: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of clanking)

RAZ: In this clip, we hear an operative named Abu Hamza. And at first, listen, it seems like he's struggling with a bulky piece of weaponry, trying to figure out how to operate it; except Abu Hamza isnt talking about bombs. He's talking about breakfast. Too be precise, how to cook eggs on a kerosene stove.

This scene and hundreds more were captured on tape by Osama bin Laden and his followers in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

After the FBI decided the material wasnt useful in tracking terrorists, the tapes were made available to scholars, including one named Flagg Miller. He's a professor of religious studies at UC Davis. And he spent several years listening to these tapes. And Flagg Miller is with me.

Welcome to the program.

Professor FLAGG MILLER (Religious Studies, University of California, Davis): Great to be here.

RAZ: Okay, we just heard the sound of a group of Islamic militants, you know, maybe somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan. We dont really know where. They're cooking eggs, not really something we often think about. But I mean, you know, I guess terrorists have to eat breakfast too.

So what did you think when you first heard this tape?

Prof. MILLER: Well, this is part of the magic of the audio cassette - it can be used by anyone, anywhere. And we get sounds in this collection that we have never heard before from al-Qaida's top operatives or average guys who just happened to be nearby.

RAZ: Now, we're going to hear several clips that you brought with you, Professor Miller. But I want to talk about this one for a moment. It was recorded at a wedding; one of Osama bin Laden's bodyguards. Bin Laden was actually there. And this guy that we're about hear, he's a kind of a master of ceremonies. He sort of holds forth.

Let's hear it for a moment.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: Now, Flagg Miller, according to your translation, this guy is ribbing the groom about looking so stiff, as if he's balancing a heavy sword on his shoulders. And then he jokes about how the fighters who come out of one of bin Laden's camps are so grim, they never even laugh at all.

Well, this isnt Henny Youngman but, you know, the guy seems to know his audience.

Prof. MILLER: He does. You know, he's aware that these folks have traveled from around the world for this great combat. They want to hear about the glories of jihad. But he also knows they also are here for to party, basically at a wedding.

And the question is, so how does he wed, you know, with visions of violence with love? And he begins the very simple observation, you know? At typical weddings, grooms are a little nervous. They can be kind of overly serious because this is a big event. And, you know, jihadists have the same kind of serious face. But, in fact, jihadists can laugh.

And he's talking about, you know, theyve come together and theyve got this big mission but they can also join together. They're not the monstrous, vicious, bloodthirsty killers people think they are. They're good and generous people, and so forth.

And it may be a hard sell but this is part of the role he has of making levity of this very, you know, serious combat front.

RAZ: So we've been talking about these weirdly normal moments. But a lot of these recordings are actually calls to violence, including this one which many of the folks listening to our conversation now may have heard.

This is Osama bin Laden's 1996 "A Declaration of War Against America and the Crusaders," and so on.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN (Leader, al-Qaida): (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: Okay, Flagg Miller, you are a scholar, an Arabic speaker. You say there's something here that many, many translators aren't getting at. What is that?

Prof. MILLER: Well, the last third of this very important speech features 12 poems. And most translations of this drop out the last third. People dont know what to make of the poetry. It's been poorly translated, for one, so that makes it difficult.

But, to my mind, this is where he really crafts his vision for himself as a cosmic warrior, who transcends specific places, times; he's able to kind of combat the entirety of the West. And he does it in the last third through poetry. And it's in direct address to William Perry, the former secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration.

And it's this man-to-man combat. And he says, you know, Tomorrow, William, you will discover which young man will confront your brothers, whove been deceived by their own leaders.

RAZ: I mean if I was a literary critic I might say, that sounds like a bunch of self-indulgent claptrap.

Prof. MILLER: This is the role of poetry is to emphasize the kind of bravado, the hubris of the human being in taking on the world. You know, and it's a kind of register that one doesnt find in other speeches but is, nevertheless, I think key to kind of understanding how bin Laden does come to fill the shoes of those he, too, dreams about.

RAZ: Now, CNN acquired these tapes in Kandahar in 2001. They turn them over to the FBI, and the FBI basically decided that they were of historical interest only. That they really couldn't learn anything about terror plots. What do you think we can learn from these tapes? I mean, based on your description, it seems as if the people talking on these tapes believe that what they're doing is perfectly normal and reasonable. What should we glean from what they're saying?

Prof. MILLER: Oftentimes to take bin Laden, for example, the messages, the speeches we get from him have been officially released al-Qaida-sponsored speeches. They're very well crafted and tailored. What we get on audiocassette is a far more impromptu soundscape of these folks in action as human beings trying to patch together what is clearly a kind of fraught argument that is worldwide jihad.

And I think these tapes offer a lot for us to understand what are the intellectual resources these folks come up with to really try to bridge the gaps in their own arguments?

RAZ: That's Flagg Miller. He's a professor of religious studies at UC Davis. And he's now writing a book about those al-Qaida tapes.

Professor Miller, thank you for coming in.

Prof. MILLER: Thank you.

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