Al-Qaida has dramatically increased its media presence over the last year, capped off recently by a flurry of highly polished video and audio messages from fugitive leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. But it is the videotaped rants of a 27-year-old American terrorist named Adam Gadahn that offer the most intriguing clues about the mechanics of al-Qaida’s propaganda machine and the sort of individual the shadowy terror organization is seeking to recruit.
The presence of Gadahn, also known as “Azzam the American,” is the clearest indication of al-Qaida’s effort to reach out beyond the typical profile of a terrorist recruit and make contact with a new breed of operative: native-born Europeans and Americans.
This recruitment can take place directly, as apparently occurred with al-Zawahri and the July 7, 2005, bombers in London. Or it can take place indirectly, with home-grown terrorist cells carrying out their own independent and deadly missions, as was the case with the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid.
In the latter model, potential recruits of all nationalities are inspired by mass distributed al-Qaida video recordings, then progress along the extremist path by studying online training manuals and receiving additional support from al-Qaida facilitators on the Web. The ultimate success of this model for indirect recruitment rests upon the shoulders of those within al-Qaida who are capable of mass communications in the familiar political and social language of the Western world — people like Adam Gadahn.
Gadahn has arguably the most unusual background of any known al-Qaida operative. Raised in Central California on a goat farm, Gadahn later wrote in a diary posted on the Internet that as a teenager he became “obsessed with demonic heavy metal music, something the rest of my family (as I now realize, rightfully so) was not happy with. My entire life was focused on expanding my music collection. I eschewed personal cleanliness and let my room reach an unbelievable state of disarray.”
According to Gadahn, the “turning point” came when he moved farther south to the home of his “computer whiz” grandmother in the city of Santa Ana. Using her America Online account, Gadahn began “scooting the information superhighway” in January 1995, spending many hours searching for information on employment and religion — where he “found discussions on Islam to be the most intriguing.”
Eleven months later, he formally converted to Islam at a ceremony held at the Islamic Society of Orange County, in the Los Angeles suburb of Garden Grove. “It feels great to be a Muslim!” he wrote a week later.
While living in Garden Grove, the young and impressionable convert came into contact with a group of militant Middle Eastern Islamists who shared his passion for technology and the Internet. One of the men linked to Gadahn during this period is Palestinian-American Khalil al-Deek, a computer programmer who reportedly had helped al-Qaida encrypt training manuals and other tracts for distribution over the Internet. He also is believed to have had direct access to terrorist recruiters based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere.
Spreading terrorist dogmaFor an eager and tech-savvy junior recruit like Gadahn, Deek could not have been a better contact and entry point into the organization. When Khalil al-Deek disappeared into the Pakistani Mujahadeen underworld in the late 1990s, Gadahn followed him from California under the pretext of a religious pilgrimage.
Though al-Qaida’s media wing was officially established in the late 1980s, it produced little of note in its first decade of existence. But by 1998, with a renewed anti-American agenda and major terrorist attacks in the works, bin Laden could no longer afford to allow his media wing to languish.
To commemorate al-Qaida’s next “big attack” — a mission targeting a U.S. naval vessel off the coast of Yemen — bin Laden ordered the creation of a full-length propaganda film that would include actual footage of the attack. Though al-Qaida operatives ultimately failed to record footage of what would become a suicide bombing attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the production of the video went ahead as planned.
In early 2001, al-Qaida recruiters in Europe began to distribute an unusual new video from Pakistan titled “The Destruction of the USS Cole,” created by a mysterious entity known as the “As-Sahaab (‘Clouds’) Foundation for Islamic Media.” Not only did As-Sahaab’s first video release contain startling and unprecedented footage of bin Laden, al-Zawahri and al-Qaida’s military training camps in Afghanistan, it was demonstrated that the propaganda arm was capable of producing remarkably high quality video and carefully scripted cinematic effects. Oddly, the nearly two-hour long video was even subtitled in near perfect English. At the time, the notion that an American convert to Islam who was barely 20 years old might be the creative brains behind al-Qaida’s new propaganda studio would have been scoffed at by most observers.
Post-9/11 video productions
As-Sahaab’s technical team again went to work on behalf of al-Qaida in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States, releasing lavishly edited video recordings of bin Laden and the 9/11 suicide hijackers.
In what would become a consistent pattern for As-Sahaab, the videos were first aired in excerpts on Arab satellite television networks and then were later released publicly through mid-level terrorist facilitators (primarily over the Internet). One of the martyrdom videos — featuring Saudi hijacker Abdulaziz al-Omari — featured some sections narrated in English by a youthful-sounding voice (later identified as that of Gadahn).
Speaking on the videotape, Gadahn heaped praise on the “heroic” hijackers for seeking “the destruction of the idol of modern times, America.” In reflection on the life of al-Omari, Gadahn exhorted Muslims of all nationalities, “enough fun and games. Arise and follow the footsteps of these heroes and destroy the remnants of this idol America.”
At the end of the tape, Gadahn boasted further of As-Sahaab’s role in distributing al-Qaida propaganda in what amounted to a terrorist theatrical trailer:
“Among our releases, the will of the martyr Ahmad al-Haznawi, which he wrote before the assaults on New York and Washington. By the grace of Allah, this video has been translated into a number of languages, including English and French. … Also from among our releases is the ‘Destruction of the American Destroyer USS Cole.’”
On the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Gadahn finally emerged from the shadows after being singled out as a wanted “person of interest” by the FBI.
Al-Qaida intermediaries in Pakistan handed various news agencies a video of a bespectacled Gadahn (then identified only as “Azzam the American”) wrapped in a kaffiyeh and clutching an automatic weapon.
‘The streets ... will run red with blood’
In an arrogant and petulant rant, Gadahn assessed his “fellow countrymen” to be “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Awkwardly jabbing into the air with his chubby pale fingers, he insisted, “what took place on September 11 was but the opening salvo of the war against America and … Allah willing, the magnitude and ferocity of what is coming your way will make you forget all about September 11. … Allah willing, the streets of America will run red with blood … casualties will be too many to count, and the next wave of attacks may come at any moment.”
Gadahn continued to threaten in his second video-recorded appearance first released by As-Sahaab in September 2005. Shown sitting in a black mask and turban and again holding a weapon, he swore revenge on his own hometown: “Yesterday, London and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne (Australia, God willing.”
In his most recent video message released last week — the first video in which Gadahn has appeared unmasked – he became even more specific, surging Muslims angered by reported U.S. military abuses in Iraq to “go on a shooting spree at the Marines’ housing facilities at Camp Pendleton.”
While Gadahn’s technical skills are obvious, there is debate among terrorism experts who have watched the As-Sahaab videos featuring Gadahn as to his effectiveness as a recruiter.
His overly theatrical video messages do not have the charismatic appeal as those from veteran commanders like bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any disaffected Americans actually being drawn to al-Qaida by the prospect of working under a pedantic and self-congratulatory Gadahn.
Al-Qaida’s leaders may indeed draw some personal delight from triumphantly parading about their American “asset”—but for the rest of us, it is hardly a pretty picture.
Evan Kohlmann is an NBC terrorism analyst, a consultant to the Nine Eleven Finding Answer(NEFA) Foundation, and founder of the Web site Globalterroralert.com.