Two Americans Become Al-Qaida Media Strategists
Thursday, October 14, 2010
There are a lot of different ways of promoting the terrorist message, but few people have been as successful at doing so as Americans Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki.
Gadahn is a Californian who joined al-Qaida back in the late 1990s. He's the plump, sometimes pedantic, star of al-Qaida's earliest videos. Awlaki is a New Mexico native of Yemeni descent who has, in recent months, become the bane of counterterrorism officials' existence.
What is important about both men is that they are among a select group of Americans who have joined up with terrorist groups and were elevated to senior positions within them. Both Gadahn and Awlaki now provide al-Qaida with insider's knowledge of the United States — and that has helped al-Qaida and its affiliates develop a very sophisticated media strategy targeting possible American recruits.
The Different Approaches Of Gadahn And Awlaki
At a recent classified U.S. intelligence conference outside Washington, one analyst used a famous television commercial to explain not just the difference between Gadahn and Awlaki, but the evolution of al-Qaida's media operation.
As the commercial started on the screen at the front of the auditorium, the voices were immediately familiar: "Hi, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC," it began. The audience burst out laughing. There was even a smattering of applause. The analyst had replaced the faces of the actors with the faces of Gadahn and Awlaki.
In the original ad, the PC is old-fashioned and a little geeky. The Mac is low-energy cool. Gadahn's face was on the body of PC. And Awlaki was the Mac. You just need to listen to them to understand why.
"Barack, I know that as you slither snakelike into the second year of your reign," Gadahn said in a recent videotape addressing President Obama, "as a purported president of change you are finding your hands full with running the affairs of a declining and besieged empire…"
Gadahn goes on in the same vein for about 40 minutes. One analyst said Gadahn isn't just a stodgy PC; he sounds like a character out of The Lord of the Rings. Mia Bloom, a terrorism expert at Penn State University, agrees.
"He has this presence where it is very stiff," she says. "He has the tendency to point a lot at the viewers and has this alienating character. He apparently is modeling himself after al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And he has never been a very engaging speaker."
As Bloom sees it, Gadahn doesn't have any of Awlaki's charisma. Awlaki comes off as someone who might be your favorite professor. He is soft-spoken and at least seems to be asking his listeners to think for themselves.
"If there is no compulsion in religion, why were battles fought?" he said in one recent audio posting. "I think that this is an issue that you need to have a clear understanding. The non-Muslims say that Islam was spread by the sword ... is that true or not? Let's talk about what happened and then you can make a judgment."
Awlaki's style is gently persuasive — like Osama bin Laden. Tens of thousands, maybe millions, have watched his lectures on the Internet.
"Unlike Gadahn, Awlaki has religious credentials and I think is viewed as a more mature character," says Juan Zarate, a former deputy at the National Security Council during the Bush administration. "Adam Gadahn was always a teenage punk who happened to be there for al-Qaida at its zenith. He served a role, but not very well, frankly."
The story of Adam Gadahn is fairly well known. He grew up on a goat farm in Southern California. His parents were hippies. He was home-schooled, big into death metal rock, and eventually found Islam.
Haitham Bundakji was a witness to Gadahn's conversion at the Islamic Society of Orange County in the late 1990s. He was also a witness to Gadahn's radicalization a short time later. "It didn't take long before he had started spending time with the wrong kind of people at the mosque," Bundakji says. There were a handful of angry, particularly devout Muslims at the mosque who immediately befriended Gadahn. "He came to the mosque by himself and he didn't have family who were Muslim, so he was all alone."
Gadahn spent most of his days hanging around the Islamic center. He performed the five daily prayers there. He found odd jobs to do. Bundakji says these young men, a bit older than Gadahn — in their 20s and 30s — took advantage of the new convert. They turned Gadahn against Bundakji, whom they saw as too progressive.
Bundakji says that back in 1997, Gadahn actually attacked him. Gadahn was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. He pleaded guilty and Bundakji barred him from the mosque for a time. By 1998, Gadahn and the other young men in his clique had drifted away from the mosque. A short time later, he left the U.S. and went to an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.
Awlaki An Instant Phenomenon
Awlaki could not be more different. He came to the U.S. with his father, a Rhodes scholar who settled in New Mexico. Awlaki got a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's, and was studying for a Ph.D. He was an imam in Virginia and San Diego and moved to Britain shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He became an instant phenomenon there. British Muslims were so used to having preachers with heavy accents who were dull and bookish that when Awlaki came, he was almost a revelation.
"They were just completely enthralled with Awlaki," says Penn State's Bloom. "Awlaki, who spoke completely unaccented English, was very charismatic and I think that in itself explains part of the difference between Gadahn and Awlaki."
Awlaki didn't start with a radical message. He used to sell popular CDs with the stories of the prophets — they were almost like Dr. Seuss stories for young Muslims, and he developed quite a following.
It wasn't until he was imprisoned in Yemen in 2004 that his message got darker. And in just the past year, it has had real consequences. He inspired the man accused in the Fort Hood shooting, Maj. Nidal Hasan. He also allegedly helped train the young Nigerian who tried to detonate a bomb on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. U.S. intelligence officials say they now believe Awlaki is on the operational side of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, and he isn't just a propagandist.
His ability to inspire young Muslims to violence has forced counterterrorism officials to contend with Awlaki's YouTube audience and his keen understanding of how to transmit his message in the Internet age. He has given al-Qaida an amazing reach. Al-Qaida and its affiliates don't have to go in search of recruits anymore — the recruits, inspired by Awlaki, find them.
Bringing An Understanding Of America
That's just one of the reasons why counterterrorism officials are worried. Clearly one of the advantages Americans like Gadahn and Awlaki bring to al-Qaida is a deep understanding of the American audience — a sensibility they developed because they actually lived here.
And it cuts both ways. On the one hand, officials say it is a dangerous development because they now are looking for terrorists who, for example, lived in New York City and know how things work there, and that, in turn, could make it more vulnerable to attack.
But officials say there could be a good side to that, too. They are trying to understand whether the very American-ness of these people who sign up for violent jihad may mean they have an unconscious brake, that their time in the U.S. has imprinted them in such a way that they are only willing to take the violence so far.
One example is Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who wanted to blow up a car bomb in Times Square in May. Officials think it is telling that he had stashed a getaway car nearby. He seemed to have no intention of being a suicide bomber — although he later told authorities that he intended to keep bombing targets until he was killed by police in the act of doing so.
The question is whether that inclination to not commit suicide has to do with what happens to someone living in the U.S. for a long period time. Do such people develop a sense of life being too important to waste? The first-ever American suicide bomber killed himself only several years ago. He was a Somali-American from Minneapolis named Shirwa Ahmed. He killed himself in a car bombing in Somalia.