For five years, a lone professor has painstakingly been translating and transcribing more than 1,500 audiocassettes in his personal search for revealing clues about the most wanted terrorist in the world: Usama bin Laden.
Flagg Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis, has been combing through never-before-heard audiotapes that once were in the Al Qaeda leader’s private library.
Al Qaeda terrorists have released numerous audio and video recordings of bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks, but the tapes in Miller's possession offer the first behind-the-scenes access to the terrorist’s private world. They reveal how he developed his anti-American sentiment and the progression of Al Qaeda's military strategy, warfare tactics, recruiting methods and training camps.
"He has a far more raw militant voice than what many people are used to," Miller said in an interview with FOXNews.com. "He talks about the United States being the No. 1 enemy dating back to a time before the first Gulf War. These tapes suggest that anti-Americanism was there earlier than many have thought."
But it may be the more banal conversations — the backroom chit-chat, the everyday gossip and discussion about world events — that are most revealing.
In one instance bin Laden gets into an elaborate comparison of frying eggs and fighting holy war. In the background, breakfast is cooking and the roar of a gas stove can be heard.
Anthropologist David Edwards, head of Williams College's Afghan Media Project, was instrumental in acquiring the tapes and passing them on to Miller. He is one of only a few who are privy to his findings. He said some of the tapes are fascinating and insightful, but others not so much.
"They pretty much taped everything. It seems like bin Laden just hit 'record' and sometimes forgot he was recording," Edwards said.
"It's kind of random. The conversations are hit or miss, kind of like YouTube is today. That's how analog cassette recordings were back in the 1980s."
There are conversations about the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, the deadly American Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, and the setting up of militant base camps. Voices of at least 20 suspected terrorists, either currently in custody or still at large, have been identified so far.
Conversations center on American politics and news from global headlines, such as the cartoons depicting the image of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked worldwide protest and violence after they were published in Denmark in 2005.
Not only does the library contain tapes recorded by bin Laden, there are also recordings of prominent Islamic clerics and scholars that were given to bin Laden as gifts. Miller said he's putting together a "Who's Who" index of the most notable names found within the thousands of tapes.
About 200 speakers from all over the Muslim world appear in bin Laden's cache. Among them, Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Munajjid, who has made headlines for claiming that Mickey Mouse is "one of Satan’s soldiers" and condemned the Beijing Olympics as the "bikini Olympics." Also on the tapes are Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian currently fighting extradition from the United Kingdom to the U.S. on terrorism charges; Omar Abd al-Rahman, the blind sheik who was the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the central figure in the jihad movement who mentored bin Laden and encouraged him to go to Afghanistan.
The tapes were recovered from bin Laden’s compound in 2001, when American forces invaded Afghanistan. When the Taliban fled, they left nearly everything they had behind.
An Afghan boy working for an American television producer found the tapes just before they were about to be destroyed, outside a shop near bin Laden's former home in Kandahar. According to the Los Angeles Times, the FBI listened to the tapes and determined them to be "free of smoking guns," before they were transferred to Edwards’ Afghan Media Project. Edwards then reached out to Miller, who has a background in Arabic language translations. The tapes were later moved to a larger archival facility at Yale University, where they continue to be restored, digitized and catalogued.
After five years of analyzing, translating and transcribing, Miller said he's made it through only about 40 of the 1459 tapes, most of which are in Arabic.
"It's just a daunting, daunting task," he said.
He has just begun to release some of the tapes' contents, though he's saving many of its gems for an upcoming book. He’s presented some of his findings at the Center of Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, and will publish an article in the October issue of the journal Language & Communication.
Some security experts are eagerly awaiting more details of Miller’s findings, saying these tapes could prove crucial in winning the war on terror.
"These are Al Qaeda outtakes, these should be very revealing," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser at the Rand organization, a non-profit policy research center.
"It's not going to tell us what's going to happen a week from Tuesday, but it'll tell us a great deal about the nature of a terrorist foe that we confront and will continue to confront for quite some time," Jenkins said.
He said the United States has focused almost exclusively on trying to obtain operational intelligence from Al Qaeda — such as imminent plans and specific threats — and hasn't spent enough time trying to fully understand the terrorist organization's motivations.
"What they are plotting to do next, that's the first order of business. The second question is how did they decide to do what they did, what acts were excluded, what targets were selected and why," Jenkins said. "This is how we understand their motives and affect their operations."
Experts say there could be some tactical value — that the tapes could provide ammunition for psychological warfare.
"These insights into divisions and schisms and tensions, doubts, debates and extreme statements ... these unedited remarks can potentially be very useful or very embarrassing, just like one of the politicians who forgets that his mike is turned on," Jenkins said. "What we're talking about is a way of eroding the appeal of its group to its own audience."
But some experts doubt that the tapes will be as strategically useful as others suggest. "I don't see anything new or any new insight into bin Laden coming from this, or any new insights into what we're doing," said John Voll, associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown.
"In the current electronic information era there is just so much stuff out there that we don't have the capacity — the FBI doesn't have the capacity, the world of scholarship doesn't have the capacity — to look at," said Voll.
Yet, Voll said, there is academic value that could be gained through Miller's work. "As a historian I think it's marvelous," he said. "But I don't think there's much of anything in the material that would make the FBI say, "Gee, if we'd known this earlier…"
"There is discussion about Al Qaeda military tactics, on how to survive in different areas, on what is wrong with American government," Miller said. "Do these tapes have something new to offer? Are they of sophisticated and practical value? Definitely."