Web designer helps professor present 'Audacious Ascetic' tapes to the world

UC Davis Religious Studies Professor Flagg Miller has written a new book, The Audacious Ascetic, that analyzes more than 1,500 audiotapes that once belonged to the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Anyone who wants to hear excerpts of the tapes can now do so, thanks to a website for the book built by a programmer and web designer in Information and Educational Technology.

Simon Dvorak, part of IET's Academic Technology Services (ATS) unit, designed audaciousascetic.com to include 14 recordings of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda who died during a U.S. raid in 2011.

You can hear bin Laden's voice as you read along with Miller's translation of the passages; the website highlights sections of the translated text as you listen to the words.

"It's fascinating," Dvorak said. "You hear songs and poetry, and sounds in the background. You hear gunshots. You hear guys in a cave, cooking."

For more about Miller's research and the book, see "Bin Laden revealed in The Audacious Ascetic," by Karen Nikos-Rose, associate director of news and media relations for Strategic Communications.

An 'untold story'

Miller asked ATS to create the site and to include the audio. Charlie Turner, who manages academic and research programming for ATS, set up the initial project meeting; coordinated meetings between Miller and Paul Salessi, an ATS student employee who developed an interface so Miller could create time codes to synchronize the audio files with the translations; and arranged for Amazon Web Services to host the website. Dvorak developed the website design, audio player interface, and underlying functions.

"The website offers non-Arabic speakers direct access to bin Laden and others' words in a way that reveals the untold story of al-Qaeda's many struggles beyond U.S. or Western shores," Miller said. "Who knew, for example, that when bin Laden railed against 'infidel occupiers of the Arabian Peninsula' through the early 1990s, he was speaking mostly not about Americans or non-Muslims, but rather about Muslims themselves, including Shi'a, Arab socialists, and others who he perceived to be corrupting his Saudi homeland?

"The website offers listeners a chance to hear how he spoke of such enemies and how the Western 'far enemy' became prime-time material for reasons that were not entirely of bin Laden's own making," Miller said. "Simon has been especially helpful at keeping the site updated with the book's ongoing publicity, and in using the site to respond to new issues and debates that have emerged since its release."

Website design is one of several technological and media services that Academic Technology Services offers to faculty at UC Davis. The services vary from animations and audio/video production to computer classrooms and instructional design.

BBC interview brought site 1,500 visits in one day

The Oxford University Press published The Audacious Ascetic this fall, and the website went live on Sept. 17. The site had attracted about 2,300 visits as of the end of October, with 1,500 visits logged on the day the BBC aired an interview with Miller in September.

The tapes were found in Afghanistan in 2001 after the United States invaded the country following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.