As the world waits for the declassification of documents from Usama bin Ladin’s Abbottabad residence in Pakistan, an earlier archive shedding valuable light on al-Qa`ida’s formation under Bin Ladin is slowly being released. Acquired by the Cable News Network in early 2002 from Bin Ladin’s Kandahar compound, more than 1,500 audiocassettes are being made available to public researchers by Yale University.[1] Dating from the late 1960s through 2000, the vast majority of tapes in this collection are in Arabic and feature lectures, sermons and conversations among more than 200 speakers from across the Islamic world. At least 22 recordings feature Bin Ladin himself, only one of which has been published to date.[2]

After the tapes were reviewed by U.S. intelligence agencies shortly after their acquisition, the collection was sold to the Williams College Afghan Media Project run by American anthropologist David Edwards. This author began cataloguing and archiving the collection in 2003, as soon as the tapes arrived at the college, and is currently writing a book about the figuration of Bin Ladin’s leadership and al-Qa`ida through the archive. The initial results of the findings are presented in this article.

For understanding al-Qa`ida’s emergence as an organization and its intellectual leverage in a more embryonic era of pre-9/11 militant jockeying, the Kandahar audiocassette collection may prove incomparable.

Operations and Propaganda in Context
To date, analysts trying to assess Bin Ladin’s intellectual formation have had to rely on his own public statements, documents of his views or the views of others garnered from scattered locations across the world as well as the internet, and reports about him by those who knew him or others who have spoken with his associates. The value of his Kandahar tape collection derives from its origination inside his personal compound, a building located just across from the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry building. Although he and his family spent most of their time at the Tarnak airport complex outside Kandahar, his city residence and guesthouse was the most important site for retiring and regrouping after meetings with top Taliban officials next door. Other guesthouses in the city were reserved for the rank-and-file. The well-known “Arabic House,” for example, accommodated recruits from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds, some of them English-speaking, as they prepared themselves for courses in weapons training and special operations in camps outside the city. The Foreign Ministry compound was of a higher intellectual order.

In the 2007 volume Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in Al-Qa`ida from 1989-2006, Vahid Brown of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point argued that al-Qa`ida was long marked by two “factions.” One faction consisted of operational specialists such as Abu al-Walid al-Masri and Abu Mus`ab al-Suri, while the other of propagandists such as Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The latter, argued Brown, have presented a more dangerous front given their ability to brand al-Qa`ida as a movement seeking global unity among disparate movements engaged in violent Islamic resistance. Cassettes in the collection offer much material for unpacking the relation between these factions and their changes over time.

With regard to the militant faction, the collection contains at least eight tapes by Abu Mus`ab al-Suri and six by Abu al-Walid al-Masri, most of them lectures on guerrilla warfare and the history of modern Muslim militancy. Other militants include (in addition to Bin Ladin himself), `Abdallah `Azzam (at least 72 tapes found to date), `Abd al-Salam Faraj (three tapes), Abu al-Harith al-Urduni (two tapes), Sayf al-`Adl (one tape), Abu Hafs al-Libi (one tape), Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (one tape), 9/11 hijacker Hamza al-Ghamdi (one tape) as well as several dozen unidentified speakers. On these tapes, strategies and tactics for striking U.S. interests in the Islamic world are formulated explicitly, with special attention to lessons from earlier modern Muslim experiences.

In general, the tapes argue that targeting American and Jewish interests can help win public support by identifying a common enemy, using examples from previous anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Egypt. Syria is mentioned as a valuable lesson for how to cast the interests of ruling elites as “Westernized.” The tapes also suggest that those seeking to expel U.S. soldiers from their homelands need not only review lessons on trenched warfare and pitched combat against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but—in a romantic vein appealing to transnational recruits—they also need to envision themselves as nomadic warriors under the World War I Saudi Shaykh `Abd al-`Aziz ibn Rashid, who might defy state attempts to humiliate them through settlement and subjection. “Mobility,” concluded Abu al-Walid al-Masri on tape #1189, “has long played a key role in Islamic conquests.”

The bulk of this material was recorded in training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, notable among them the al-Faruq camp in Khost and in camps around Kandahar. Dozens of other lectures on militancy, recorded in camps and guesthouses of diverse persuasions, suggest origins in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Somalia, India and Chechnya.

The preponderance of the collection features the intellectual heavyweights of Arab Salafist and jihadist movements before 9/11. Offering invaluable insight into the “propagandist” faction of al-Qa`ida, the legacy of such recordings is made complex by the fact that many speakers not only had little or no connection with al-Qa`ida itself, but were in some cases, especially by the late 1990s, outspoken critics of the group and specifically Bin Ladin. From this perspective, the collection formerly housed under Bin Ladin’s roof would have served much as an audio “library” that offered users a diverse range of viewpoints, not all of them coordinated or synonymous with Bin Ladin’s own ideological leadership.

Strains of Religious Inspiration
The intellectual heavyweights in the collection are largely Saudi jurisprudents and religious scholars, many of them from similar educational backgrounds. The top 10 include, in order of frequency, `A’id al-Qarni (80 tapes), Muhammad Bin `Uthaimin (67 tapes), Salman al-`Awda (54 tapes), Muhammad al-Munajjid (27 tapes), Sa`d al-Barik (27 tapes), Safar al-Hawali (25 tapes), Nasir al-`Umar (24 tapes), `Abd al-Rahman al-Dawsari (21 tapes), Sa`id Bin Musaffar al-Qahtani (21 tapes), and `Abdalla al-Hamad (18 tapes). Roughly half of the Saudi legal specialists identified (and 30% of all speakers presently identified) were trained or taught in Riyadh at some point in their lives. As a bastion for the Saudi state’s most prestigious scholars and establishment authorities, many of these figures held scant regard for Bin Ladin’s stripe of jihadism, especially after 1990 when Saudi Chief Jurisprudent `Abd al-`Aziz ibn Baz (nine tapes) defended King Fahd’s decision to host U.S.-led coalition forces in the country in efforts to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

In dialogue as well as in sometimes heated opposition to such figures are prominently featured representatives of the Saudi “awakening” (sahwa) movement that emerged during the 1970s and grew to a crescendo in the early 1990s. They rallied around scholars such as Muhammad Qutb (12 tapes), Safar al-Hawali, `Abd al-Rahman al-Dawsari, Salman al-`Awda, `A’id al-Qarni and Nasir al-`Umar. Sahwa supporters’ challenges to the Saudi religious establishment are well documented in the cassette collection. Their initiatives drew momentum from prominent Saudi reformers at the Islamic University of Medina (representing approximately 15% of identified speakers) even as they broke with the scholastic orientations of leading instructors there such as Abu Bakr al-Jaza’iri (16 tapes) and Muhammad Nasr al-Din al-Albani (16 tapes). In sum, the large proportion of tapes by leading Saudi scholars and intellectuals offers unprecedented insight into the ways Bin Ladin and Arab Afghan militants at the time drew selectively from establishment thought and sought to position their own radicalism in relation to more widely accepted perspectives.

While the contributions of Saudi scholars are substantial, a fuller assessment of the collection’s intellectual legacy requires moving beyond the kingdom itself. Of the top seven speakers most prominently featured, the majority were born outside of Saudi Arabia, in Syria, Kuwait, Palestine and Yemen. All these individuals passed through Saudi Arabia for training or teaching, although none enjoyed long-term employment at the country’s most prestigious universities. Indeed, they either left to return home, incorporating what they had learned into more familiar cultural and political contexts, or, often exiled from their home countries, they used their experiences to strike out for other countries that welcomed their transnational perspectives. Palestinian `Abdallah `Azzam, featured on no fewer than 72 cassettes, taught jurisprudence for five or six years at Jeddah’s King `Abd al-`Aziz University before becoming disillusioned and moving to Pakistan in 1979-1980. His life and contributions to the formation of al-Qa`ida have been well documented; much remains in the cassette collection for those interested in studying the complex legacies of `Azzam’s work.

Kuwaiti preacher and scholar Ahmad al-Qattan, featured on at least 76 cassettes, is well known in Saudi Arabia, although his oratory also reflects the influences of Sudanese and Egyptian clerics. As with `Azzam, the plight of Palestinians features centrally in many of al-Qattan’s works, and his live sermons across the world regularly fill football stadiums. Yemeni jurisprudent, intellectual and parliamentarian `Abd al-Majid al-Zindani is the sixth figure most prominently represented in the collection. During the 1970s and 1980s, his cassettes and broadcasts decrying communism filled the airwaves across the Arabian Peninsula. Upon abandoning the Muslim Brotherhood to build allies among conservative Salafists in Saudi Arabia, he crafted a broader vision for struggling against communists and other apostates worldwide. Aside from these top featured speakers, other well-known militant theoreticians in the collection include `Umar `Abd al-Rahman (eight tapes) and `Umar bin `Umar “Abu Qatadah” (six tapes).

The highest number of cassettes represented by any speaker are those of a Syrian theologian and legal scholar who, until now, has received no attention by researchers or journalists who have sought to document al-Qa`ida’s ideological tendencies. Shaykh `Abd al-Rahim al-Tahhan’s broad intellectualism and exercised caution in regards to public statements about current affairs may be part of the reason he has been ignored. A more significant reason is that he has not been explicitly mentioned by Bin Ladin in any of his known statements. Trained in the Hanafi legal tradition shared by most Afghans and Pakistanis, al-Tahhan’s penchant for lectures and diverse publications on matters of ritual observance, theology, and ethics gives him currency among Muslims from across the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Such sermons as “Expel the Idolaters from the Arabs’ Peninsula” may have called him to the attention of Bin Ladin, prompting the latter to correspond with him during the mid 1990s when drafting letters to the Saudi monarchy.[3]

The presence of more than 100 cassettes of al-Tahhan in the collection suggests that Bin Ladin was a disciple of the cleric’s many finer points. Known among Muslim Brothers and Saudi-influenced Salafists from the 1970s through early 1990s as a “quietist,” his knack at challenging establishment thought earned him a colorful array of critical designations, including charges that he was a “Sufi,” a “Shi’ite,” a “Wahhabi,” and a takfiri guilty of “excessiveness” (ghuluww). The terms of such controversy are likely to fall beneath the radar of non-specialists; much of the debate, for example, hinges on the concept of true “insight” (ru’ya) and its relation to human faculties of vision. Still, al-Tahhan’s interest to Bin Ladin and many Arab Afghans during and after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan suggests just how much the cassette collection offers to refining the understanding of al-Qa`ida’s intellectual moorings. Even while calling attention to common theological grounds among all Muslims (human vision, for example, proves to be exceptionally reliable for understanding God’s will), only a vanguard of ascetic and righteous scholar-warriors can save Islam from its enemies. As this author has argued elsewhere, the primary enemy, underscored in the majority of other tapes in the collection, is the corrupt Muslim apostate, rather than the Jew, Christian or American.[4]

Bin Ladin’s own cassettes confirm his fairly undisciplined intellectualism. On cassettes from the late 1980s especially, he makes no pretension to credentials as a scholar, instead posing more as a war reporter from the front lines as well as a jihadist recruiter. His persona in this respect would be polished in future years as he conducted interviews with al-Jazira while sitting in front of bookshelves lined with leather-bound volumes. Tapes from 1996 onward, including his famous “Declaration of War against the Americans,” confirm his leadership in representing al-Qa`ida’s anti-American message to world audiences. A host of earlier tapes, however, underscore Bin Ladin’s deep loathing for the Saudi monarchy. Rallying followers to join his fight against materialism and the worshipping of “man-made law” inside the Saudi kingdom, Bin Ladin exhibits strains of Arab ethnic pride and even nationalism that continued to inflect his discourse well up to the 9/11 attacks.

Soundscapes Leading Home
The polyphony of voices in the collection presents the single most challenging aspect of the archive for current understandings of al-Qa`ida’s legacy. If the collection is useful for corroborating what is already known, its greater value lies in unraveling grander narratives with the less glamorous instruments of content analysis and historical contextualization. The challenges of such work are perhaps represented best in extemporaneously recorded material that features in approximately five percent of the collection. These “soundscapes” include conversations in the cramped quarters of moving taxi cabs, classroom lectures and student-teacher interchange at Arab Afghan training camps, interviews with well-known Muslim leaders and intellectuals, recorded telephone conversations, recorded radio broadcasts, collective anthem singing, creative radio-dramas about ordinary Muslims involved in combat, weddings, celebrations before and after combat missions, guest-house poetry competitions and trivia games. These tapes provide invaluable records of the ways people gathering in Kandahar and beyond sought to situate global jihad in relation to everyday life.

Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, this author has devoted much research to date to unpacking the ways in which general jihadist discourses, expressed in discussions about Islamic law, theology, language, ethics and even “al-Qa`ida” itself, are contextualized and given meaning in such everyday settings. While militants, for example, outline the goals and ethics of the operational “base” (al-qa`ida in Arabic) through recourse to scholarly vocabularies in which “the base” is a reference point for Muslim reasoning and discourse, scholars supporting militancy make the opposite move, as noted poignantly in Western analysts’ accounts of `Abdallah `Azzam’s concept of “the rigid base” (al-qa`ida al-sulba).[5] Important clues to audience uptake, qualification or rejection of such rhetoric abound on these more amateur recordings.

Notable in their absence are Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Hafs al-Masri and Abu `Ubayda al-Banjshiri, at least in the recordings this author has been able to review to date. While scholars interested in their legacies may be disappointed, “missing clues” in the collection can prove valuable reminders or correctives to common assumptions about al-Qa`ida and its historical influence in various locations. In the case of al-Zawahiri, his absence confirms what is apparent on the internet: his audio-recorded messages begin surfacing only after 9/11. While indisputably a key militant theoretician for al-Qa`ida’s ranks from the 1980s onward, al-Zawahiri’s ideas were spread far more through the pen, print medium and later the internet than through the tongue. Even during al-Qa`ida’s organizational momentum in the late 1990s, in fact, he appears to have been an infrequent visitor to al-Qa`ida’s training camps in Afghanistan, preferring scholarly isolation instead with associates in Egyptian Islamic Jihad guesthouses. The absence of his voice throws into relief the ways his own ideological and social orientation differed from those of Bin Ladin. The tenor of al-Zawahiri’s pronounced anti-Americanism, so prominent in the accounts of analysts who focus on al-Qa`ida’s official statements to global audiences and especially those distributed on the internet, appears to have been more muted on the ground. If Bin Ladin aspired to lead the campaign to attack the United States, a goal that was especially clear from 1996 onward, the audiocassette medium appears to have been particularly kind to his self-image as al-Qa`ida’s “top gun.”

Documents from the Abbottabad compound may offer analysts the most reliable glimpses into Bin Ladin’s later years as al-Qa`ida’s chief and the extent of his influence on al-Qa`ida’s affiliates. Yet the Kandahar audiocassette collection is central to understanding al-Qa`ida’s emergence as an organization before the 9/11 attacks. For Western security and intelligence analysts especially, the archive seems valuable for what may in the end matter most: insights into the ways that the message of armed jihad against Westerners and Americans gained ideological credibility among Muslims whose primary goal had been achieving radical change within the Islamic world itself.

Dr. Flagg Miller is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Davis. Trained as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, his research focuses on modern Muslim reform and militancy in the Middle East and especially Yemen. His first book was entitled The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen (Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2007).

[1] To access the recordings, visit

[2] The number of audiocassettes mentioned for each speaker in this article is the author’s estimate to date. As Yale University archivists repair damaged tapes that could not be listened to and conduct a more exhaustive survey, these numbers will change. The author should also note that only a few of the tapes are duplicates, and handwriting on cassette cartridges suggest provenance from diverse users. In its prime, the archive was most likely a continuously changing and collaboratively assembled audio-library for those who gathered in Bin Ladin’s house.

[3] To view this letter, see document AFGP-2002-800073, available at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[4] Flagg Miller, “Listen, Plan and Carry Out ‘al-Qa`ida’”: Theological Dissension in Usama Bin Ladin’s Former Audiocassette Collection,” in Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi eds., Contextualising Jihadi Thought (New York: Hurst and Company/Columbia University Press, 2012), pp. 69-97.

[5] Flagg Miller, “Al-Qa`ida as a ‘Pragmatic Base’: Contributions of Area Studies to Sociolinguistics,” Language and Communication 28:4 (2008): pp. 386-408.

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