The Audacious Ascetic

What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa'ida

September 2015 9781849044844 472pp
Out of print
September 2015 9781849044677 472pp


In late 2002, over 1500 audiotapes were discovered in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in a house once occupied by Osama bin Laden. The Audacious Ascetic is the first book to explore this extraordinary archive. It details how Islamic cultural, legal, theological and linguistic vocabularies shaped militants’ understandings of Al-Qaeda and, more controversially, challenges the notion that the group’s original adversary was America and the ‘far enemy’. Miller argues that Western security agencies’ ‘management’ of Bin Laden’s growing reputation went awry. When magnified through global media coverage, narratives of al-Qaeda’s coordination were exploited by Osama and his militant supporters.

Focusing on over a dozen previously unpublished speeches by Bin Laden as well as on discussions by top al-Qaeda leaders and Arab-Afghans, Miller chronicles the Saudi radical’s evolving relationship with a host of Muslim insurgencies that found his stripe of asceticism (zuhd) tactically useful, especially when circulated via audiotape. These recordings also reveal militants’ disenchantment when Bin Laden, marginalised through the nineties, began pandering to Western television networks in his attempt to direct heterodox Islamist armed struggles against America. Such audio evidence exposes al-Qaeda’s diminishing coherence before 9-11 and invites scrutiny of dominant narratives of Western law enforcement, intelligence and terrorism analysts.

Table of contents


1. The Message (Al-Risala)
2. Heart Pains
3. Remembering the Lion’s Den
4. The Genie and the Bottle: On Authority and Revelation through Audiotapes 129-65
5. Our Present Reality (Waqiʿuna al-Muʿasir)
6. Dangers and Hopes (Makhatir W-Amal)
7. Taking Gandhi to Jerusalem through Oslo, Norway
8. Dawn Anthems (Anashid al-Fajr)
9. I Have Scorned Those Who Rebuked Me
10. New Bases Near an Ancient House
11. An Intimate Conversation (jalasa)
12. A Pragmatic Base (al-qaʿida)
13. Listen, Plan, and Carry Out “al-Qaʿida”
14. ʿUmar’s Wedding



‘[Miller] does well in contextualising the often heavy-going material with the more interesting details of bin Laden’s life and has undeniably added to our understanding of the man.’ — The Times

‘Selectively transcribed and interpreted … [the tapes] allow us to eavesdrop on Bin Laden during the 1990s as he rallied his followers, first to upbraid Islamic renegades in Saudi Arabia, then to prepare an assault on infidel America.’ — The Guardian

‘The story of how [Bin Laden] came to be the west’s ultimate “ascetic adversary” and how the US expanded its security footprint into the Islamic world, needs to be told. Miller has succeeded.’ — Prospect

‘This is a truly magnificent work. Flagg Miller’s knowledge in Arabic is unrivalled, as is demonstrated brilliantly in every chapter of book. In fact, The Audacious Ascetic almost brings Bin Laden back from the dead. The reader will feel as though he or she is listening in real time to the audio tapes that may have shaped Bin Laden into the jihadi leader that we now know. In addition Miller analyses, from a new perspective, some of Bin Laden’s early — and almost forgotten — speeches which gave a clear picture his aims and strategy. Highly recommended.’ — Camille Tawil, author of Brothers in Arms: Al Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists

‘Flagg Miller is a rare specialist on the Modern Middle East. I know of no other linguistic anthropologist of the Middle East who combines interests in Arabic poetics with Islamic political discourse and relates both to media and mobilisation in the Arab/Muslim world, and especially to Yemen. The Audacious Ascetic is his most extraordinary book to date, exceptional in  the range and depth of its analysis of Osama bin Laden as a modern day ascetic. It should be an outrageous success in framing a figure who remains as murky as he is legendary in the saga of Islamic terrorism.’ — Bruce Lawrence, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion, Duke University, and author of Who is Allah?

The Audacious Ascetic’s contextualisation of difficult and, for most of us, recondite, narratives against the backdrop of Saudi and Yemeni radical discourse makes this volume outstanding. Flagg Miller offers vital clues on how to understand the appeals of movements such as al-Qaeda. It is a challenge to know one’s enemy but Miller accomplishes this task with careful editing and commentary that is both insightful and easy to follow.’ — Dale F. Eickelman, Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations, Dartmouth College; co-author of Muslim Politics 

‘Original, detailed and important. The Audacious Ascetic captures the complex fifteen year discourse between Bin Laden and his audiences about global jihad. Flagg Miller has mined an impressive array of Osama Bin Laden’s 1980s and 1990s speeches and conversations, demonstrating the durability of the ideology appropriated in building Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden’s single-minded focus on jihad against the United States. It is an essential text for those wishing to understand Al-Qaeda’s historic essence and its continuing global relevance.’ — Thomas F. Lynch III, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University

‘A painstakingly researched examination of a “never-before-studied” collection of 1,500 audiotapes detailing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s theoretical and organizational development. … [T]he cache provides an enormously nuanced portrait of the thinking behind [al-Qaida’s] operations. … Moving chronologically in the recordings, Miller gives a multilayered sense of how al-Qaida actually developed. Dense, scholarly, and bizarrely compelling.’ — Kirkus Reviews


Flagg Miller is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, his first book, The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audio-cassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen, examined how Yemenis have used traditional poetry and new media technologies to envision a productive relationship between tribalism and progressive Muslim reform.

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