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Azzam the American {{{
The New Yorker
January 22, 2007
Azzam the American: The Making of an Al Qaeda Homegrown
by Raffi Khatchadourian
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Adam Gadahn, the first American to be charged with treason in more than fifty years, was born in Oregon, grew up in rural California, and converted to Islam at the age of seventeen. He is now twenty-eight. No one who knew him before his religious awakening ever thought that he would join Al Qaeda, and many people who knew him after he did are still perplexed. And yet, in a short time, Gadahn has become one of Osama bin Laden's senior operatives. (He is believed to be hiding in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan.) He is a member of Al Qaeda's "media committee," and his responsibilities are thought to include those of translator, video producer, and cultural interpreter. Primarily, though, Gadahn is a spokesperson, a role he performs with tremendous conviction. He has addressed the United States in five videos, most of which reach a wide audience on the Internet and, in some form or another, have been discussed on the evening news. Last year, shortly before the fifth anniversary of September 11th, Al Qaeda's leadership featured Gadahn in a video titled "An Invitation to Islam." The video began with an introduction from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's main theoretician, who referred to Gadahn tenderly as a brother and as "a perceptive person who wants to lead his people out of darkness into the light." Zawahiri implored his Western audience to listen to Gadahn, even to follow his example. Al Qaeda had never before given one of its members, let alone an American, an endorsement so intimate and direct.
There is a certain stylistic uniformity to all forms of propaganda, but the personality of the propagandist is never far from the surface. Bin Laden's murmuring voice belies the contempt in his words. Zawahiri speaks in the confident, rhythmic clauses of a master strategist. Adam Gadahn, though he tries to adopt the composure of a statesman, exudes the zealotry of a convert, and of youth. Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from "The Lord of the Rings." "The call has gone out," he proclaimed in one video. "The era of jihad and resistance has dawned in all its glory." Mostly, though, Gadahn sounds angry. In 2005, with his head wrapped in a black turban and his face covered with a black veil, he warned, "We love nothing better than the heat of battle, the echo of explosions, and slitting the throats of the infidels." Last July, while discussing civilian casualties in Iraq, he said, "It's hard to imagine that any compassionate person could see pictures, just pictures, of what the Crusaders did to those children, and not want to go on a shooting spree at the Marines' housing facilities at Camp Pendleton." In a feature-length Al Qaeda documentary that was released on the Internet on September 11, 2006, Gadahn referred to the United States as "enemy soil," and celebrated the September 11th hijackers as "dedicated, strong-willed, highly motivated individuals."
"An Invitation to Islam" allowed Americans to observe Gadahn at length. For nearly forty-five minutes, he urged the people of the United States to discard their myriad religious and political beliefs, adopt an uncompromising form of Islam, and "join the winning side." This time, he wore a pristine white robe and a white turban, and he was seated in what appeared to be a modern office; beside him were a flat-screen Compaq computer monitor, a neat row of books, and a full glass of tea. Gadahn has brown eyes, a prominent brow, and thick brown hair. His skin was tanned. A long beard of tight curls puffed outward along the sides of his full cheeks. He is nearly six feet tall, and is thought to weigh more than two hundred pounds. Gadahn cannot keep his body still when he speaks. He points his finger upward, or wields a copy of the Koran, or swipes his hand in front of his chest to dismiss an erroneous idea. "Time is running out," Gadahn said, waving an arm up and down. "So make the right choice before it's too late and you meet the dismal fate of thousands before you."
Adam Gadahn's nom de guerre is Azzam al-Amriki (Azzam the American). He can fluently recite the Koran in classical Arabic, and, since the late nineteen-nineties, when he joined the jihad, his English has acquired a vaguely Middle Eastern accent. At times, he speaks in what might be called Jihadlish---a peculiar fusion of American vernacular and militant Islamist theory. Gadahn may be the first Al Qaeda operative to lace a religious threat with a reference to Monopoly. ("If you die as an unbeliever in battle against the Muslims, you're going straight to hell, without passing Go.") Or to adopt the bluster of a barroom pundit. ("Whoever takes over for Bush probably won't have the guts to bring the troops home.") Once, referring to Abu Jahal, an early enemy of Islam known as the Father of Ignorance, Gadahn said, "I can't forget the day, when, as I was praying a prescribed prayer with one of the brothers in a shopping-center parking lot in suburban America, a man sped by in his sports-utility vehicle shouting from his open window, 'Worship Jesus, your Lord.' The gas guzzler, cell phone, and college diploma notwithstanding, one couldn't help but be reminded of Abu Jahal in the seventh century, abusing the Prophet while he prayed."
In May, 2004, the F.B.I. announced that Gadahn was wanted for questioning, and in October, 2005, several weeks after he threatened an attack on Los Angeles in a video, the Justice Department indicted him under seal for providing material support to Al Qaeda. Treason was added to that charge in October, 2006, following Zawahiri's endorsement in "An Invitation to Islam" and Gadahn's reference to the United States as "enemy soil." Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who announced the new charge in Washington, stressed that Gadahn had "made a choice" to side with bin Laden. "He chose to join our enemy and to provide it with aid and comfort by acting as a propagandist for Al Qaeda," McNulty said. "Terrorists create fear and intimidation through extreme violence. They want Americans to live and walk in fear. They want to demoralize us. That's why propaganda is so important to them, and why facilitating that propaganda is such an egregious crime." Gadahn's name was added to the government's list of most-wanted terrorists, and a million-dollar bounty was offered for information leading to his capture.
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Gadahn is the ultimate "homegrown"---a term used by scholars and government officials for Western citizens who are "picking up the sword of the idea," as one senior F.B.I. official put it, and are willing to attack their own societies, even martyr themselves if required. Most homegrowns are second- or third-generation Muslims, but a few---and perhaps the most puzzling---are converts. Jose Padilla (the so-called Dirty Bomber) and Richard Reid (the so-called Shoe Bomber) are well-known examples. In 2004, Ryan Anderson, a Muslim convert in the Washington Army National Guard, was convicted of attempting to provide Al Qaeda with military intelligence. (During a military sting, Anderson said, "I wish to defect from the United States. I wish to join Al Qaeda, train its members, and conduct terrorist attacks.") John Walker Lindh, who grew up in Marin County, California, never plotted against America, but he joined and fought for the Taliban.
Homegrowns in the United States are especially rare and are poorly understood; most of the scholarship about them is only a few years old. And yet, because of their cultural literacy, and because of the mobility that their citizenship provides, they are potentially the most dangerous of terrorists. This fear has recently propelled a small number of specialists to search for a pattern behind homegrown radicalization and recruitment. Their research has led them to examine the sociology of cults, the psychology of fanaticism, even the formation of defunct political terror groups like West Germany's Red Army Faction. Adam Gadahn's transformation into Azzam al-Amriki may turn out to be a valuable case study in this effort. "The thing that concerns me with Adam Gadahn's situation is, how did it happen?" Randy Parsons, who ran the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism division in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2006, told me. "How did he convert, not to Islam, because obviously what he is into is not mainstream Islam, but to a particularly virulent, violent, radical view of Islam? How does somebody get to that?"
Adam Gadahn was raised on a farm in Southern California, near a small, unincorporated settlement in Riverside County called Winchester. The land is hidden among dirt roads and eucalyptus trees in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. Its forty acres are windswept and dry---suffering from what Steinbeck called "bony soil." Adam's mother, Jennifer, is from Pennsylvania. His father, Phil, grew up in nearby Orange County. When the couple settled on the property, more than twenty-five years ago, they decided to raise goats. They built a cabin and strove to be self-sufficient. They had no running water in their home and produced their own electricity, from solar panels. For years, they did not own a telephone. They did not even have a mailing address; they drove to the post office in Winchester for their mail. They hoped that by avoiding the chaotic world of cities and commerce, by living in isolation and austerity, they might discover a fragment of an American Eden.
Like Adam, Phil Gadahn had taken on a new name and identity as a young man. He was born Philip Pearlman, the son of a prosperous Jewish physician and his Protestant wife, in Santa Ana. In the nineteen-sixties, while studying at the University of California at Irvine, Phil was a prominent figure in the local countercultural movement. He wore his hair long, and grew a beard. He edited the student newspaper and encouraged its reporters to tackle issues like free speech. He was passionate about psychedelic rock, played electric guitar, and organized musical "happenings": improvisational sessions involving a shifting cast of musicians. Joe Sidore, who recorded Phil's most famous happening, "The Beat of the Earth," in 1967, described Phil as "just a gentle, peaceful soul. He emoted this charisma. He was so Christ-like---I shouldn't even say that---he was so gentle. He attracted, and was attracted to, certain kinds of people, and those kinds of people were exactly the same way he was. He never changed his ideals." Friends recall Pearlman as a lovable contrarian, a perfectionist who was slow to trust others. "His nature is very cautious," Sidore said. "He'll kind of look at you from the corner of his eye. 'Suspicious' is probably a better word---that's first and foremost his nature." (Adam's parents and other family members have largely refused to speak to the press.)
One day, while walking near the ocean, Pearlman had a religious epiphany. As Adam described it in an essay he wrote after his conversion to Islam, "My father was raised agnostic or atheist, but he became a believer in One God when he picked up a Bible left on the beach." As Pearlman opened the Bible and began to read it, he became aware of a divine presence. The experience affected him deeply, and he alluded to it in his music. Some of his religious ideas were evident in an album he made in 1975 called "Relatively Clean Rivers." Pearlman's lyrics evoke a world that has strayed from divine truth into Babylon-like confusion. He describes a "vast Orwellian wilderness" and the "journey we all must take" within it to achieve "relative perfection in our own special tiny corner of the universe"---a journey not unlike his own.
The beliefs expressed in "Relatively Clean Rivers" were not all personal. Pearlman called for peace in the Middle East ("hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews and melt down weapons into water sprinklers, tractors, shovels, and hoes"), but he seemed to regard the world's governments as too tainted by avarice and hypocrisy to achieve it. "Too many countries with a head full of gold," he sang, and he warned that, on a planet plagued by war and famine, "God sent the message down to try to bring us to his side; there's no place left to run, my friend, there's no place left to hide." Several lines from "Relatively Clean Rivers" seem to have held special meaning for him. Rich Haupt, a record collector who became a friend of Pearlman's in the nineties, recalled a conversation in which Phil quoted a lyric from the album. "You know, Rich," he said, "'We all throw our money into the streets. Whose face do you see on the coin? Not God's.'"
Several years after Phil and Jennifer married, in the mid-seventies, they changed their surnames to Gadahn. The name refers to the Biblical warrior Gideon---Gid'on, in Hebrew---who, with the aid of trumpets and clay jars, defeated Israel's enemies. In one Old Testament account, Gideon denounced idolatry and, when he was asked to become king, said, "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you." (In the liner notes to "Relatively Clean Rivers," Pearlman wrote, "We expect some sort of absolute dictatorship, an absolute monarchy to be exact, with no privileged people or persons whatsoever, except maybe God.") Pearlman used different first names---Sef, Saif, Seth, or Phil---on different occasions, and adjusted Christianity according to his spiritual needs. In his essay, Adam explained that his father "disregards the Trinity."
Three years after the recording of "Relatively Clean Rivers," Phil and Jennifer Gadahn were living in Oregon when Adam, their first child, was born. They gave him the middle name Yahiye, after the Arabic name for John the Baptist, who is believed by Muslims to be a prophet. When Adam was very young, the Gadahns moved to the property in Riverside County. Phil worked as a handyman, and every year he sold about thirty or forty goats at local markets, including some run by Muslims. (Occasionally, Muslims declined to buy the goats, considering them insufficiently halal.) He refused to sell his animals to people who he thought would slaughter them inhumanely.
As a child, Adam was shy, bookish, and by all accounts exceptionally bright. His grandfather would sometimes boast that he could read portions of an encyclopedia by the age of six. The Gadahns homeschooled Adam and his younger siblings, two sisters and a brother, but they also gave them opportunities to make friends. When Adam was twelve or thirteen, he played Little League baseball. Carol Koltuniak, whose son was on the same team, remembered that Gadahn was quiet and easygoing but not a natural athlete. "He definitely didn't want to be doing what he was doing," she said. "He was very much a loner." But he was also persistent. Adam attended every practice and every game, accompanied by his family. "They seemed very happy in their life style," Koltuniak said. Sometimes they would bring goat cheese and share it with other families in the stands.
Adam also joined several Christian homeschool support groups. (At the time, nearly all such groups in the region were Christian.) He dutifully attended meetings for nearly eight years, until he was about seventeen. Looking back on his experience after his conversion to Islam, he criticized the other children's "blind dogmatism" and "charismatic wackiness." By the time he turned fifteen, he had found another way to reach out to people beyond the farm. It was through an obscure musical subculture called death metal.
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Death metal is a severe offshoot of heavy metal, a reaction to the superficiality of eighties popular culture. In the early nineties, bands that played death metal considered themselves part of an élite vanguard. They tuned their guitars in unconventional ways, and some, influenced by classical musicians, composed songs that required high degrees of discipline and technical virtuosity to play. Onstage, artists often wore sweatpants to demonstrate their athleticism and lack of pretense; the genre's signature vocal style is a heavy growling chant. ("We like it when it's simply rotten," one musician told me.) It is a subculture in love with its offensiveness, and obsessive about guarding its artistic purity.
Phil Gadahn "wasn't particularly crazy about it," Rich Haupt said, but had he been able to look past the dark aesthetic he might have understood his son's interest in the music. "Death metal is an extremist movement," Spinoza Ray Prozak, a former death-metal d.j. who knew Adam, told me. "We're people who don't like modern society. We think it's a path to death, doom, destruction, horror; it is part of the moral way we view the universe. A lot of death-metal songs are about disease, especially the kind of disease that strikes from within, incapacitates you, and there is no way to fight it, and you have to wait for it to slowly absorb you. A lot of songs are about paralysis, injury, necrotic diseases." Where Phil Gadahn in his music focussed on redemption, death metal focussed on decay. Members of the genre generally profess to reject Christianity, but they do so within a religious framework, using the language and imagery of paganism or Satanism, rather than of atheism. Fans who outgrow the music, as most do, often enough become religious.
It's unclear when Gadahn first encountered death metal, but by 1993 he had decided to learn as much about it as he could. Many of its followers, he found, were cerebral teen-agers like him. They were searching, not so much for a way to release their rage but for an experience that was authentic and powerful. "Where heavy metal gets a lot of the guys who lift weights and punch out beer cans, death metal is a really interesting combination of people, but it's a lot of just nerd," Prozak told me. Gadahn bought copies of small alternative magazines that included lists of fans who wanted to trade albums or mix tapes. He wrote to people on the lists, and the envelopes that came back were stuffed with cassettes and slips of paper containing the names and addresses of still more fans who wanted to correspond. "He was probably in contact with, minimum, several hundred people worldwide," Prozak said. "He took it very seriously. He read up on the music, he researched it as best he could. And he went from a guy who had about ten albums and thought it was neat to a guy who had access to most of the genre." At the time, the Internet was not yet in widespread use, and the death-metal underground must have seemed both exclusive and far-reaching. More important, its correspondence network made geography irrelevant. It was a world that Gadahn could belong to.
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To the teen-agers in the metal underground who got to know Adam Gadahn, he remained an elusive figure. As one friend recalled, he was "a voice on the phone, a couple of tapes in the mail, some letters." A few of his pen pals remember that he was overly earnest; others said that he was goofy. He talked about social issues, or about the Disney comic books featuring Scrooge McDuck, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie, which he loved. He sometimes kept friends on the telephone for so long that they wondered how he could pay for the call. In all his conversations, Gadahn came across as soft-spoken, polite, highly literate, and passionate. He befriended college students who were years older than he was. "Adam was really intelligent and a really nice guy," said John E. Brown II, who was a student at the University of Wyoming when Gadahn first wrote to him. Chris Leffler, who had a band in Kentucky called Cataclysm, exchanged several letters with Gadahn and "never realized how young he was." Jeff Hayden, the guitarist of Timeghoul, a band from Missouri, remembered him as "a personable, comedic young man."
Gadahn first approached Spinoza Ray Prozak in 1993, after listening to his weekly radio show on KSPC 88.7, the student-run station at Pomona College. Prozak, who asked me to use only his metal name, was an English major, and was reading Nietzsche, William Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft. Gadahn would call in, and the two would chat between track changes. Lovecraft's gothic horror stories were a source of inspiration for many death-metal bands, and Gadahn seemed to have read all of them more than once. But, if the conversation veered into literary theory, Gadahn could follow that, too. Prozak thought, He's kind of a deep one.
Prozak remembered that Gadahn mocked death metal's obsession with the occult: "He said something about his parents having goats, and we always laughed about that because with any satanic imagery you always gotta have a goat." Gadahn was "a little socially inexperienced, a little withdrawn," Prozak said. "He was lonely, and I think he also had a sense of tragedy. He was one of those guys where most of his concerns were external. I mean, he knew he was going to survive being alone. He was concerned with where the world was going." Gadahn was particularly troubled by the urban sprawl surrounding Los Angeles and spreading across Southern California. "You have this city that keeps growing, it's beset by problems, it's kinda miserable to live there, but everybody adores it because of the money---there was a lot of that sort of stuff that he talked about," Prozak said. "He'd be just like 'You know, this is crazy. We live out here in this area that's the end of the universe. Most of the people around me are brain-dead, nobody cares about anything that's going on, we're wrecking everything that's good, all the trees are disappearing, everything is being turned into suburbs. I feel like I'm the only one who notices this.'"
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As Gadahn learned more about the death-metal community, he began to seek out musicians whom he revered, or people who he believed played important roles in the underground, and he became a conduit of death-metal news from such places as South America ("Peru, yeah, they've got a growing metal scene down there"), the Baltics ("a cool techno-death band from Lithuania"), and the Far East ("a godly power/thrash band outta Malaysia"). Gadahn also liked to play the role of promoter; he made flyers for Prozak's radio show and, proud of his artwork, sent them to other people. The flyers were essentially elaborate doodles. (His sketches of zombies and ghouls, more cute than horrific, found their way onto nearly everything he mailed.) One flyer features a hermaphrodite zombie surrounded by the words "I die in excruciating torment---my life fades out of existence---all of this worth nothing." In a picture he sent as a possible cover design to a zine called Xenocide, he drew four monsters encircling a frightened boy. The boy looks up at the beasts and stabs one with his sharpened tongue.
Gadahn listened to Peter Gabriel, the Allman Brothers, and even Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov, and he often attended the symphony with an aunt, Nancy Pearlman, a journalist and environmental activist. But his focus remained death metal, for which he had developed a discerning ear. In a review for Xenocide of an album by a band called Autopsy, he wrote disapprovingly about "glitches in the engineering that you will notice if you listen through headphones," but he celebrated the band's "guttural growlings, repulsive throughout."
During the summer of 1993, Gadahn decided to try composing his own music, even though he didn't really know how to play an instrument. (He briefly took guitar lessons and claimed to have learned "pieces by Zeppelin, Mancini, Thorogood, and Ozzy.") He formed a one-man band called Aphasia; his first recording was an hour long. "The music can be described as an experimental symphonic ambient electronic industrial noise collage, depending upon the listener's point of view," Gadahn wrote to a friend. To make it, he used a Casio synthesizer, two-track tape recorders, a cymbal, and his voice. Gadahn advertised Aphasia to his pen pals as "melodic yet musically-removed," and he found humor in its rawness. He designed an Aphasia logo, and referred to himself as "Noise dork Aphasia." In the next two years, he released at least five Aphasia recordings, including "Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics" and "Delirium: 7 Hallucinatory Interludes, Op. 2."
John Brown, Gadahn's former friend in Wyoming, mailed me an Aphasia tape that he had saved. The cassette's packaging featured a knife-bearing angel, a photo from the Holocaust of a cadaver being pushed into a crematorium, and a reproduction of the Rylands Papyrus, one of the oldest surviving fragments of the Gospels. ("Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.' The Judeans said to him, 'It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.'") I played the tape. The Casio's drum machine, set to a racing speed, is the foundation for a repetitive cycle of notes that in turn serve as a base for samples of death metal, classical music, and bleating goats. At one point, Gadahn can be heard speaking quickly, with the intonation of a radio talk-show host. Referring to one of death metal's pioneers, Chuck Schuldiner, who wrote a pro-choice, pro-death-penalty song, Gadahn says, "Not for it myself, kind of against it, in fact. But Chuck thinks it's a great idea. Well, Chuck, you want to kill people, go ahead and do it. Anyway, no, he's talking about institutionalized murder. I mean, like, stuff like the death penalty and abortion. I don't know, abortion seems to be a clear issue to me, so does the death penalty. Not really into the killing-people thing."
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