One of the most notorious American-born jihadists has reportedly been killed.
According to a White House announcement, Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn was killed in a drone strike in January. Gadahn was one of core Al Qaeda’s most important English-speaking members, and was the group’s main propaganda mouthpiece for the English-speaking countries that the global jihadist network considers its primary enemy.
At the same time, Gadahn had an atypical background for a violent jihadist.
According to a definitive profile in The New Yorker, Gadahn was born in Oregon to a father steeped in the 1960s counter-cultural movement before a mid-1970s conversion to Christianity. Gadahn was home-schooled while living on a ranch in southern California, and gravitated towards the local death metal scene as a shy and somewhat alienated teenager.
Gadahn was intelligent, but aimless. “By the mid-’90s, Gadahn was a pudgy, long-haired, occasional community college student,” according to a 2005 profile in The New Republic. A conversion to Islam gave his life a degree of focus and purpose that it had previously lacked. But he came under the influence of a group of troublesome, Pakistani religious fundamentalists who began praying at his mosque in Orange County, California in the late 1990s. When the imam banned the troublesome group from the mosque, Gadahn was reportedly “infuriated.”
He moved to Pakistan in 1998, but only showed up in an Al Qaeda propaganda video for the first time in 2002, providing a translation of a statement from Osama bin Laden, according to The New Yorker. In 2004, he released his first video under the name Azzam al-Amriki, in which he promised his former countrymen that “The streets of America shall run red with blood,” according to the New Yorker.
Gadahn proved to be something of a pioneering figure in global jihad. Today, English-language jihadist propaganda isn’t hard to find: there’s Dabiq, ISIS’s glossy English-language magazine, along with Inspire, a similar offering from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Jihadist groups can post English-language videos on a number of worldwide fora and expect to a significant audience.
But as a 2011 Wired profile of Gadahn noted, it wasn’t always that way: for a number of years, “if you wanted official al-Qaida propaganda in English, Gadahn’s videos from al-Qaida central in Pakistan were just about your only choice.”
Gadahn’s death may not have that big of an impact on Al Qaeda operations — much of the group’s core leadership is now based in Yemen. He was a loose end from the US’s fight against an earlier incarnation of the global terror group, whose most dangerous franchises are far from the Pakistani mountains where Gadahn was apparently killed.
But his curious history shows the allure of religious radicalism, and as well as the difficulties of countering or dispelling it altogether.
A home-schooled metalhead from a hippie background ended up as one of the top spokesmen for the most notorious religious terrorist group in the world. Counter-terror policy can prevent people from crossing borders, and can identify and track potential fighters. But Gadahn proves the dangers of even a single oddity, and of the kind of circuitous and counter-intuitive paths to violent radicalism that policy alone may not be able to anticipate or prevent.
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