Flagg Miller has been there. As the book opens, he is in Yemen having a fraught conversation with the leader of an al-Qaeda front at a festival celebrating the end of Ramadan. At one point a disgruntled elder starts waving a Kalashnikov and is duly restrained. The scene is a fitting backdrop to this book, which examines the Osama bin Laden tapes: a selection of 1,500 cassette recordings acquired by US special forces from a house Bin Laden lived in for a time in Afghanistan.
They are mostly what you’d expect from this “super-empowered angry man,” a collection of conspiratorial rantings that Miller painstakingly analyses as they oscillate from the horrific—his desire to slaughter Shia and westerners—to the weird: his pathological loathing of Tabasco sauce. As Miller observes, Bin Laden’s most significant contribution to the 21st century was arguably his ability to take new forms of “market, transportation and communication networks” and use them “to challenge traditional state arrangements.” This is a fancy way of saying that the globalised world allowed him to become history’s deadliest terrorist. The story of how he 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.