Who Was Adam Gadahn, American Al Qaeda Operative?

President Barack Obama expressed regret Thursday that a U.S. drone strike killed two innocent Al Qaeda-held hostages. Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker, and Dr. Warren Weinstein, a U.S. government aid worker, were killed “accidentally” in a January strike, the president said. Both men had been held captive by the terrorist network for over two years. The White House disclosed separately that two further Americans had been killed, and although those deaths were also accidental, the men were both thought to be Al Qaeda operatives. One of these men has been named as Adam Gadahn, aka “Azzam the American.”

Gadahn, a man whom The Guardian describes as Al Qaeda’s “premier American member,” was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan in January. Gadahn had, for years, been used heavily in the terrorist group’s propaganda — and for obvious reasons. Gadahn's story perfectly fitted the bill: a seemingly true-blue American — a native Californian, grandson of a Jewish doctor — who converted to the extremist cause and became its poster boy. Used as a powerful weapon against his own country, Gadahn was charged with treason and added to the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists. But who was Adam Gadahn?

Something of an enigma, according to the Los Angeles Times: “a suburban kid who somehow found himself in the Middle East as a sworn enemy of the U.S.” Born in 1978 in California, he was raised on a Riverside County ranch before moving to Orange County. His parents reportedly rejected modern technology, and gave their son a varied upbringing, including elements of different religions. Gadahn attended the Islamic Center of Orange County. Then, after attacking an O.C. imam for what Gadahn considered insufficient piety, he joined Al Qaeda.

His radicalization was, according to the LA Times, a result of his increasingly close ties with two members of the Islamic Center: Khalil Deek and Hisham Diab. The latter, an accountant, was an acolyte of Omar Abdel Rahman, the man serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Gadahn and Diab increasingly shared an extremist worldview, considering the Islamic Center’s leaders “infidels” for their interfaith engagements.

Gadahn converted in 1995, joining Diab's group, Charity Without Borders, soon afterwards (ostensibly an aid organization, the group was disbanded by U.S. officials following the 9/11 attacks). Ghadan travelled to Pakistan in 1998, landing up in a terrorist training cell, and began working as an Al Qaeda translator. By 2004, he re-surfaced, appearing on screens across America in a videotape assumed to be produced by Al Qaeda. That year, he was identified as an Al Qaeda affiliate and designated a potential threat to the U.S.

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A nation shocked by 9/11 was horrified at the appearance of a jihadi who was one of their own. “It is not some masked guy with a rifle saying, ‘Death to America,’” a senior U.S. law enforcement official told the LA Times in 2006. “It is an American. And his target audience is the U.S.” That year, Gadahn was indicted (in absentia) by an O.C. federal grand jury, on charges of providing material to support the terrorism network. By the time of bin Laden’s death, the U.S. government was offering a $1 million reward for information leading to Gadahn’s arrest.

The manhunt for Adam Gadahn, 36 at his time of death, has now ended. Including Gadahn, the number of Americans killed by U.S. drone strikes stands at seven, according to NBC, with six of those deaths accidental.

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