Start typing “The Bin Laden Tapes” into google and the all-knowing search engine will offer you “are fake” as an ending. But it turns out that what the sceptical end of the internet are really moaning about are videos produced (or not) by bin Laden in the years post September 11, 2001. What Radio 4 wanted to talk to us about were audio cassettes amassed by al Qaeda but then abandoned when the Taliban fled the Afghan capital city in the face on the incoming US forces.
These cassettes were nearly wiped but a eagle-nosed CNN journalist saved them. If only they could have done the same to missing Dr Who episodes. Instead, the entire collection of some 1,500 tapes found its way to Flagg Miller (that’s the name of an expert in Arabic language and culure) via the Afghan Media Project based in Massachusetts.
Miller has listened to the whole lot and you have to feel some sympathy for him because, frankly, as things to get excited about, time has not been kind. Radio 4 was quite happy letting most of the tapes play in the background, untranslated. When we did get English ‘subtitles’ what we heard was the sort of thing you might expect at a testy Anglican sermon. Most of the ire towards the west, at this time, manifested itself in calls to boycott goods. Like an anti-apartheid protester not picking up South African fruit. The real wrath was directed towards impure Muslims and those already on the Arabian peninsula who were not being suitably devout. And this was interesting to hear. It also gives context, as Miller explains, to al Qaeda’s activities and attitudes towards Muslims which is ongoing today. The foundation of al Qaeda and its proselyting, on these tapes, was about sorting out the Middle East not about destroying the West.
Obviously that changed but the only true reference to the storm to come is on a late tape recorded at a wedding. Bin Laden, clearly talking about America, says we will soon here big news and that we must pray that the mission underway is successful. The clear inference is that he is making reference to the flying, but not landing, lessons his men were undertaking at the time.
Miller has a book out and a key premise of it is that these tapes change entirely our understanding of al Qaeda. From this radio summary I’m not sure. I think they increase our understanding of the sheer scale of enemies al Qaeda and their successors see in the world but it doesn’t particularly alter the view of them as religious fundamentalists of a particularly brutal and terrifying kind. After all, they may have inserted cheery music from an Algerian Jew into one of the cassettes but they also left 1,499 others telling people exactly how to live and what punishments would await them if they fall short.