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Bin Laden Tapes Show Jihadis Eat Breakfast, Too

Somewhere, presumably in the mountains of Afghanistan, a group of Islamic militants gather around a balky piece of equipment.

"Air! Air! Air! Give it some air!" a voice yells over a flurry of clatters and clanks. It's not a grenade launcher or an IED they're struggling with; it's a kerosene stove. The men are having a great deal of difficulty cooking breakfast. They proudly dub themselves "engineers of eggs."

The oddly homey scene — and hundreds more like it — comes from a cache of hundreds of audio cassettes found in Kandahar in 2001, just after the American invasion of Afghanistan. Flagg Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis, tells NPR's Guy Raz that he's been studying the tapes for several years now, and they provide a unique glimpse into the life of a jihadi.

"We get sounds in this collection that we've never heard before," he says, "from al-Qaida's top operatives, from run-of-the-mill recruits at these training camps, or average guys who just happened to be nearby."

CNN originally acquired the tapes from a family who found them in a house belonging to Osama bin Laden. CNN turned the tapes over to the FBI, which decided they were only of historical interest and passed them on to scholars like Miller.

The tapes range from professionally produced recruitment efforts and Islamic sermons to homemade tapes recorded in taxis and camp kitchens. One of the most striking recordings comes from the 2000 wedding of one of Osama bin Laden's bodyguards — an event bin Laden himself attended.

That recording begins with an emcee warming up the crowd. He has a formidable task — entertaining a group of men who have come together to fight in the global jihad, but who are also in the mood for a party.

He ribs the groom about looking so stiff, as if he's "balancing a heavy sword on his shoulders." He goes on to joke about how some fighters at one of bin Laden's camps are so grim, they don't know how to laugh. It's not Henny Youngman, but Miller says the recording is a good example of the ways these men integrate jihad with everyday life. It's not the kind of recording we usually hear from jihadists.

"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," Miller says. "A lot of analysis has gone into decoding bin Laden through those speeches.

"What we get on audio cassette," he says, "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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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