By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

icon1 of 2view all


It all started when Alan Cullison, covering the war in Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal, needed to replace his damaged laptop computer. He made contact with one of the country's few computer dealers, who in turn led Cullison to a jeweler who had stolen two computers from al Qaeda's former headquarters in Kabul. Cullison bought the computers and had the files on them decoded and translated. The files, which he presents in the cover story of the current Atlantic Monthly (preview/excerpts), give an eerie look at the day-to-day doings of al Qaeda.

One memo complains about how hard it is to work in Afghanistan; a Yemeni visitor to al Qaeda headquarters writes of "the difficulty of calling from this country" and adds that "the road is very bad" between cities." One memo to Osama bin Laden urges him to ease up his public relations campaign, lest he annoy the Taliban and get kicked out of Afghanistan. "I think our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans, and applause," the memo says.

Among the most intriguing of the more than 1,000 files recovered from one of the computers is an apparent appeal to an Islamic scholar for justification of killing innocent civilians. Sent in 1998 to an unknown recipient, it asks, "What is your lawful stand on the killing of civilians, specifically when women and children are included? And please explain the legitimate law concerning those who are deliberately killed." Any qualms about killing innocent victims seems to have disappeared after September 11, when an al Qaeda operative writes that attacks on innocents "are legally legitimate, because they are committed against a country at war with us, and the people in that country are combatants. … The sanctity of women, children, and the elderly is not absolute." Bin Laden even wrote a memo addressed to the American people, saying, "What takes place in America today was caused by the flagrant interference on the part of successive American governments into others' business."

The most mundane memos are among the most revealing, including squabbling over accounting. "Why did you give out loans?" says one memo about an expense sheet. "Didn't I give clear orders to … refer any loan requests to me?" The communication is commonplace, but chilling when you consider the acts that arose from it. Writes Cullison, "At the most basic—that is to say, human—level the work relationships of al-Qaeda's key players were characterized by the same sort of bickering and gossiping and griping about money that one finds in offices everywhere."

Analyzing bin Laden's "Letter to America" (second item here)


From the New Republic:

In the last day of the Baghdad College High School reunion, at a makeshift altar set up in the ballroom of a Sheraton in Framingham, Massachusetts,* Father Thomas Regan, a Jesuit priest, said Mass. The 100 or so Iraqis in attendance were all graduates of B.C. High—an elite, Jesuit-run prep school that turned out grads from 1932 until 1969, when the Jesuits were kicked out by the newly ensconced Baath Party. After Communion, a silver-haired gentleman stood … proceeded to lead the room in an a cappella version of the Baghdad College fight song … No one had forgotten the words.

From the Chicago Tribune:

CHICAGO* - The crazy racket of the "L" trains originates from above. It cascades; it plummets. … The sound tumbles down in meaty sweep, a downward arc of pure pulverizing noise. … At its monstrous zenith the "L" train produces an astonishing sound: part shriek, part roar, part clang, part clatter. It's a headache on wheels. It's not a pretty sound, not by any means. It halts conversations; startles children; causes even those who tread the Loop daily to feel a sharp fingernail of panic scrape the base of the brain. Yet if the trains suddenly were able to run silently—if some technology muffled the mechanical caterwauling—the Loop would be nothing but traffic noise and the occasional accordion solo. It would be just a place name on a map. … It's a nuisance—but it's part of the family.


  1. "The economy" is an election buzzword, but what does it mean? "The Economy is not easily pinned down. It's not a single thing," says the Washington Post. So it was a good idea to take two economic experts from Washington think tanks—one conservative, one liberal—and take a walk with them around the city. Away from their charts and graphs, economic questions come alive. The economists witness a fender bender and talk about its effect on the economy. They walk through a run-down area and talk about skill and opportunity. They stroll through a multilingual food market near Union Station and talk about globalization. In short, they show the necessity of the Post's concluding question: "In any conversation about the economy one must stipulate whose economy you're talking about. The longshoreman's? The trial lawyer's? The recent college graduate's? The chief executive officer's?" Article
    Why business books are so bad, from the Economist
    The economics of hosting conventions, from the New Yorker
    What is a 'weak economy'?
    Literature and economics, from B&C
icon1 of 2view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide