A Year after Bin Laden's Death, Professor Analyzes His Role in Al-Quaida History
It has been a year since Navy SEALs stormed the compound of al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and killed him, but for University of California, Davis Professor Flagg Miller, the job on bin Laden isn't finished. He still hears his voice.
Miller, an associate professor of religious studies, has been listening to bin Laden and his associates since 2003, translating a collection of more than 1,500 tapes acquired by CNN in 2001 from bin Laden's residence in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Miller was the first academic researcher to study the tapes. He has been lecturing, writing papers and penning a book based on the tapes' contents, working to bring what he says is a hugely misunderstood bin Laden legacy into focus.
"Ten years later and with bin Laden dead, I believe that we are in a better position to reassess the accuracy and legacy of this early wealth of history for our understanding of the movement bin Laden claimed to represent."
Miller explains the history behind al-Qaida leading up to both the 9/11 attacks and bin Laden's death, in a paper published this spring by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, "Re-reading the Origins of al-Qaeda through Osama bin Laden's Former Audiocassette collection." The paper, which was first presented at a conference last fall, is available here.
"After 9/11, we needed a set of narratives to explain how this happened and what to do about it," Miller said. "We in the United States thought we were the prime target, and we were on that day. But al-Qaida had left many other victims in its wake -- both before 9/11 and afterwards."
According to Miller, the U.S. -- in a rush to hold someone accountable -- oversimplified its views of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist organization, based in part on misleading court records, poor translations and an inadequate understanding of al-Qaida's history.
Western intelligence and terrorism experts, together with global media networks, helped fuel bin Ladin's growing reputation in ways that were exploited by Osama and those who supported his militant vision, he argues in his paper.
Miller's primary sources include the tapes as well as military and court documents related to the U.S. government's prosecutions of bin Laden and one of his associates, Enaam Arnaout.
Miller's research suggests that al-Qaida marginalized bin Laden in the early years. By the latter half of the 1990s, however, bin Laden had positioned himself as al-Qaida's leader, an achievement Miller credits to self-marketing and media outreach -- as well as family wealth, social connections among Saudis, an expanding community of Afghan-Arab volunteers, and political alliances forged throughout the 1980s and early '90s.
Bin Laden's anti-American sentiments had also become very much part of his public rhetoric by the late 1990s, Miller found, a departure from his speeches during the 1980s and early '90s, in which he directed his outrage at corrupt Muslims -- not the West.
In the months and years following 9/11, many experts spoke of bin Laden's "intimate involvement with the establishment and development of al-Qaida," Miller notes. But that view exaggerates bin Laden's true role, he argues.
"Given the generalizing and often breezy nature of narratives about bin Laden's role in history, it is important to recognize their inadequacy as records of the past," Miller warns.
A list of UC Davis experts on the death of Osama bin Laden can be found here.
A videotaped interview with Flagg Miller about his research on Osama bin Laden is available here.