The Audacious AsceticADDPMP172
In early 2002, following the fall of the Talban, Osama Bin Laden’s abandoned compound in the Afghan city of Kandahar was ransacked.
Among the finds was a collection of more than 1500 audio cassettes featuring sermons, speeches, songs and candid recordings of Arab-Afghan fighters, recorded between the 1960s up until the 9/11 attacks. The collection served as an audio library for those who gathered under Bin Laden’s roof between 1997 and 2001 - a key era in Al Qaeda’s development and growth.
The tapes eventually made their way to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College in Massachusetts, who asked Flagg Miller - an expert in Arabic literature and culture from the University of California, Davis - to immerse himself in this hotchpotch of sermons, songs and recordings of intimate conversations. He is still the only person to have heard the collection in full.
Through pain-staking detective work Prof Miller has sought to understand what the tapes say about the evolution of Bin Laden, presenting his findings in the book ‘The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal about Al-Qaeda’.
The collection features over 200 speakers, with around 20 tapes featuring Bin Laden himself - among them some rarely-heard speeches.
While the cassette tape is undoubtedly an instrument for proselytising and propaganda, this collection reveals that the people making recordings seemed to find extraordinary pleasure in capturing the ordinary sounds of life - conversations over breakfast; sounds from the battlefield; wedding celebrations and militants singing Islamic anthems.
While sermons and speeches dominate this collection, there are curiosities, too. Among them is a conversation with a genie - or Jinni, in Arabic - who has taken over the body of a man. Speaking through him, he claims to have knowledge of political plots, although Bin Laden is said to have had no time for such superstition.
There’s also a recording of Afghan-Arab fighters - Arabs fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion force - having breakfast at a training camp in late 1980s. This candid conversation reveals the humdrum nature of life on the front line. The conversation is dominated by the yearning for a good meal and the culinary delights of “Mr Hellfire” - a famous chef in Mecca, known for his delicious desserts.
There are also hours of Islamic anthems - songs featuring dramatised battles, and musical messages for aspiring Mujahideen. A key recruitment tool. Western pop music also makes an appearance in the form of Gaston Ghrenassia, who usually performed as Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who first found fame in France, before achieving worldwide success in the 1960s and 70s.