Author’s note: It now looks like the subject of this column, the “top al-Qaeda commander” arrested in Pakistan, is not Adam Gadahn: CBS News is reporting that the original story was “false.” Instead, the man arrested has been tentatively identified as Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al-Adam – also an American, this time from Pennsylvania, who is said to be “close to Osama bin Laden.”
Oh, but don’t worry, “it is still the arrest of an important Taliban militant,” a Pakistani security official assures us – and he’s an American. So, who is this guy? Stay tuned for updates.
In the meantime, this column about Gadahn is still timely, as his recent videos – and murky history – give us some insight into someone who certainly qualifies as the oddest of al-Qaeda’s pantheon of terrorist leaders.
If it’s confirmed, the reported arrest of Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. "Azzam the American," al-Qaeda’s top propagandist – and an American citizen – is going to present the Obama administration with more problems in a sensitive area: its botching of the question of how to deal with captives in the "war on terrorism," especially high-ranking terrorist operatives. The constantly shifting plans for the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo quagmire, and now this.
The news of Gadahn’s capture is barely an hour old as I write this, and already the blogs are raising the question of whether he should be put to death. Under normal circumstances, having already been indicted and charged with treason by a federal grand jury in central California, his trial – if the Pakistanis hand him over, that is – would probably take place somewhere in this vicinity. But with this administration, and this Justice Department, who knows? They have been all over the map on this question, and at this point nothing would surprise me.
You’ll recall Hillary Clinton’s disastrous sojourn to Pakistan, where she insulted her hosts by practically accusing the authorities of hiding top al-Qaeda figures. By the time we’re done with the saga of Adam Gadahn, however, I’ll bet she and her confreres in the administration – especially in the Justice Department – will wish the Pakistanis had let this one go. That’s because "Azzam" presents a real legal, political, and strategic problem for President Obama. Legally, Gadahn has a right to a trial in open court, but we aren’t dealing with just any old defendant in this case. Gadahn has been functioning as al-Qaeda’s chief propagandist since at least 2004, when the first of several videos featuring him appeared. Articulate, informed, and prolific, Gadahn’s commentaries present a clear uncompromising picture of Osama bin Laden’s view of the world. Putting him on trial in an American courtroom will give Gadahn the spotlight he’s always wanted, a perfect opportunity to play out his ideological and personal drama on the world stage.
Having capitulated to the Bush regime’s lawless agenda in practically every other respect, will the Obama-ites now throw in the towel completely, deem him an “unprivileged enemy belligerent,” and charge him in front of a military commission, where the whole deal can be carried out in semi-secret? Not that I know the answer to that: I’m just askin’….
What we’re going to be hit with, rather shortly, is a slew of psycho-babbling "cultural" commentary, riffing on the alleged "emptiness" of the poor boy’s early life – raised on a goat ranch by his hippie-Christian-"off-the-grid" father – and then parked with his paternal grandfather, Carl Pearlman, a prominent urologist and member of the Anti-Defamation League board of directors, in Santa Ana, California. His grandmother, Agnes Branch Pearlman, editor of the Christian Family Chronicles, was a genealogist.
From heavy metal to Islam was a strange road to travel, but Gadahn took it: he signed up as a Muslim at a southern California mosque, and fell in with a radical faction of younger types who disdained the head of the mosque as a phony Muslim. Gadahn got into some sort of contretemps with the moderate imam, physically assaulted him, and was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to community work. He never did his time, however, and instead went off to Pakistan, where he married an Afghan, became a father – and showed up, years later, in his new guise as "Azzam the American," chief propagandist for al-Qaeda.
In the kind of coincidence that would get a fiction author in trouble, Gadahn was arrested just as his latest video – a diatribe aimed at American Muslims, praising Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan, and urging the devout to take up arms against the US – hit the Internet. A dramatic end to a dramatic saga – but there are several aspects of this narrative that don’t make a whole lot of sense.
To begin with, one of two radical Muslims who recruited Gadahn – Khalil Deek, also an American citizen – has a very murky history. Aside from showing up at the Islamic Society mosque where Gadahn first turned to Islam, Deek was picked up in Pakistan in 1999, and extradited to Jordan, where he was wanted for planning the bombing of tourist hotels. His arrest was hailed by US officials and Deek was described as a top al-Qaeda leader, whose job it was to encrypt al-Qaeda communications and run jihadists from Pakistan into Afghanistan. In spite of his status as an American citizen, US embassy officials in Amman ignored his case – and failed to intervene when he was inexplicably released after being held for 17 months. Jordanian officials lamely attributed his release to a lack of evidence, although he had supposedly cooperated in deciphering some captured al-Qaeda documents.
In May, 2001, Deek showed up at the American consulate in Peshawar. As the Orange County Weekly reported in 2004:
"That would have been a perfect opportunity for U.S. authorities to question Deek about his involvement with al-Qaeda. Instead, family members say, Deek was told to fill out an application and come back later. ‘They didn’t even allow him to come into the building,’ one of Deek’s relatives said in a recent interview. ‘They told him to fill out an application for a visa and come back in four to six months.’
"That was four months before Sept. 11. Since then, the family member said, ‘We have lost all contact with him and don’t know where he is.’"
His Wikipedia entry claims there are "reports" that he was killed, and speculates that the killers may have been al-Qaeda, who may have been a little pissed off that he had deciphered those documents while in jail – or it may have been the Pakistanis. In any case, the extreme murkiness of his exact status and whereabouts is ample cause to examine a bit more closely his link to Gadahn.
According to several accounts of Gadahn’s conversion and recruitment to al-Qaeda, both he and Deek worked for "Charity Without Borders," an al-Qaeda front group that sent money to overseas jihadists. This outfit was headed up by Hisham Diab, an immigrant from Egypt and a naturalized US citizen. Diab’s fate – and even his exact identity – are even murkier than the circumstances surrounding Deek.
In any case, he and Deek were "perfectionists" at forging phony passports, and supposedly were in the process of making one for Osama bin Laden when Diab’s wife accidentally washed Osama’s photo which Diab had put in the pocket of his dirty clothes. In June, 2001, he disappeared into Afghanistan, leaving his American wife and former associates (some of whom are still living in the US) behind.
What is interesting is how the US authorities have shown next to no interest in questioning Deek, Diab, or anyone else connected with al-Qaeda’s southern California cell. Yet these are the people who recruited Gadahn – himself an awfully odd figure, whose sudden evolution from a nice Jewish boy into Osama bin Laden’s Goebbels is just a little hard to take. As the Orange County Weekly put it:
"If Khalil Deek is such a dangerous man, why have U.S. officials passed up at least three opportunities to interrogate the former Anaheim resident?
When we speak of al-Qaeda, we are talking about a mystery wrapped in an enigma and shrouded in a veil of murk. Shifting identities, faked deaths, and sudden "resurrections" are the "norm" for this crowd, and especially when we trace the path taken by Gadahn, the truth seems to fade farther into the distance the more we pursue the connection. It took Diab’s wife years to interest the FBI in her story – even after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which her husband was directly involved in. The mastermind of that bombing, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheik," had been a guest in her home. She called the FBI – and they hung up on her! "We’re not interested in this," the woman who answered the phone told her.
To investigate the shadows that surround "Azzam the American" is to slide down the rabbit hole with Alice: you wind up in an alternate universe where nothing is quite what it seems. I don’t know about you, but something about this whole fantastic narrative smells to high heaven. Whether we’ll ever get to the bottom of it remains to be seen, but the upcoming trial of Adam Gadahn – if indeed it is upcoming – may provide some real clues at last.