Edwards brought Afghan tapes to College in 2003

Over 1400 audio tapes found at Osama bin Laden’s headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2001 made their way to the College in 2003. Dubbed the “Afghan tapes,” they offer insight into the activities of bin Laden and many of his associates during the 1980s and 1990s.

David Edwards, professor of anthropology and sociology, played a crucial role in bringing the tapes to the College. Edwards is involved with the Williams-Afghan Media Project (WAMP), an online database of photographs and videos from an American-funded project to train Afghan journalists that took place from 1986 to 1988.

Edwards said that the tapes were found after the Americans invaded Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, in 2001. American soldiers took the audio tapes from a cassette shop in a local market. CNN originally received the tapes from Afghanistan, but had no use for them due to the large number of them in the collection.

A producer at CNN, who knew of Edwards through WAMP, suggested that he be contacted. The College eventually paid a small amount of money to bring the collection to campus, where they were subsequently cataloged by Edwards and Flagg Miller, a professor at the University of California, Davis, during the summer of 2003.

In the end though, Edwards decided that Williams was not the best place for the tapes. “I felt that the tapes needed to be at a research university,” he said. Yale University was the most interested in housing the tapes, so Edwards helped arrange the transfer to Yale approximately a year and a half ago.

Edwards said that the importance of the tapes is mostly historical. Because the tapes are from so long before the planning of Sept. 11 is thought to have begun, the U.S. government believed that the tapes would not contain useful information.

However, they do provide insight into the evolution and thought processes of bin Laden and his followers, along with an idea of how their radical ideas were circulated. According to a New York Times article printed on Sept. 11, 2008, the tapes “offer a portrait of his [bin Laden’s] gradual transformation from Saudi militant to global threat.”

Indeed, most of the tapes contain sermons, political speeches and even poetry, along with question-and-answer sessions. Bin Laden himself speaks on a number of the tapes. “It seems like often when bin Laden sat down to talk, they just turned on a tape recorder,” Edwards said. He speculated that the tapes may have been used to recruit young men to al-Qaeda training camps.

Edwards and Miller worked together on one tape from 1996 that contained a speech by bin Laden in which he declared jihad – an Arabic word derived from the verb “to strive” that is often taken to mean “holy war” – against America. Edwards said that at the time, the speech had been printed in an Arab exile newspaper in London, but that bin Laden was a relatively obscure figure who few took seriously.

Now that the tapes are at Yale, Edwards has little involvement with the research. He said that he has a set of copies of the most important tapes stored on campus, but because they are audio tapes, he will not put them online to join WAMP at this time.

Miller has released a more complete explanation of his research on the tapes in the Journal of Language and Communication. “I’ve recently published an article about how speakers in the collection differ over their understanding of the concept of al-qa`ida – a ‘rule’ or ‘base’ in Arabic,” he said. His ongoing research, and the future availability of the tapes at Yale, will continue to provide illuminating insights into the formation of bin Laden’s militancy.