Adam Yahiye Gadahn was 17 years old when he walked into the Islamic Society of Orange County and asked for permission to worship there. The farm kid who grew up in a home with Christian roots declared himself a Muslim, ready to immerse himself in his new religion.
But his devotion eventually spiraled into trouble — and an arrest.
Gadahn, who was named Wednesday as one of seven suspected al-Qaida operatives sought by the FBI, was later expelled from the mosque after attacking an employee. Records show he pleaded guilty to assault and battery charges in June 1997 and was sentenced to two days in jail and 40 hours of community service.
“He was becoming very extreme in his ideas and views,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, the society’s religious director. “He must have disliked something.”
Gadahn’s alleged journey from student of Islam to suspected terrorist startled his brother, Omar Gadahn, 17, who first heard the FBI’s announcement on the news.
“I don’t believe it, but I don’t know. Anything is possible,” he said at the family home in Santa Ana. His brother “wanted to follow what he believed and that’s what he did.”
Asked about allegations that his brother might be conspiring to act against the United States, the teen said he’d never heard his brother say anything against the country.
According to the FBI, Gadahn, 25, attended al-Qaida training camps and served as an al-Qaida translator. The agency said he is being sought for “possible terrorist threats against the United States.” He also goes by the names Adam Pearlman and Abu Suhayb Al-Amriki.
Omar Gadahn, a college student, said he hasn’t seen his brother in about five years. His mother last spoke to him by phone in March 2001. At that time he was in Pakistan, working at a newspaper, and his wife was about to have a child.
The man’s father, Phillip Gadahn, said he didn’t think his son had been a part of a terrorist organization. He told KCAL-TV that FBI agents told him his son was not wanted and no arrest warrant had been issued for his son’s arrest.
“I knew he’d been out of the country, and I thought he was settling down,” he told KCAL-TV. “I didn’t imagine he was involved in anything. ... I’m not sure the FBI really thinks that.”
FBI officials in Los Angeles said Adam Gadahn was last known to be in Southern California in 1997 or 1998.
Gadahn was home-schooled at the family farm in Riverside County. He did not attend college. Omar said the family was a “more or less Christian household, but no one was particularly religious.”
'He made his own choice'
Omar said he doesn’t know why his brother converted to Islam. But a statement attributed to Adam Gadahn on several Muslim-related Web sites said he “gradually realized I could not be a Christian.”
“Having been around Muslims in my formative years, I knew well that they were not the bloodthirsty, barbaric terrorists that the news media and the televangelists paint them to be,” the statement said. “It was really a natural progression.”
Gadahn’s aunt, Nancy Pearlman, described her nephew as inquisitive and quick to learn languages. He read about several religions, she said, noting his mother’s family is Catholic and he had a Jewish grandfather on his father’s side.
“He was raised to be religious, to believe in a God,” Pearlman said outside her Los Angeles home. “He made his own choice. We all make our own choices in life.”
“There was no indication he was involved with terrorists at all,” Pearlman added. “He was never fanatical. I never saw it in him.”