“You are an American. You have joined a movement waging war on America, and killing large numbers of Americans. Don’t you in any way feel that you are betraying your people and country?”
It is October 2004 and a voice off-camera poses the question to a young man hidden behind sunglasses and a checkered scarf. The man answers from behind his disguise that “to side with the unbelievers against Islam and Muslims is one of the acts that nullify one’s Islamic faith.”
“The streets of America shall run red with blood.”
A decade before hundreds of Westerners would flock to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, English-speaking jihadist movements had an awkward, overeager spokesman named Adam Gadahn. By the time he was killed by an American drone strike on a remote region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in January, Gadahn had largely faded from the public imagination. But for years, he was one of the earliest and most prominent examples of a homegrown jihadist and one of the few to join a terrorist group as prominent as al Qaeda overseas.
Born in Oregon and raised on a California goat farm, Gadahn, like many Western-raised jihadists, was a kid who didn’t quite see himself as part of the mainstream, according to a 2007 New Yorker profile. Homeschooled for most of his life, the nerdy, effusive kid was sent to play baseball for socialization. There, others remember, he wasn’t particularly good; he sought out other social outlets in homeschooling organizations that were, for the most part, Christian.
As a teenager, he found other misfits in the death metal scene, throwing himself into research and friendships, to the chagrin of his parents. When he went to live with his grandparents at 16, though, he found he couldn’t get a job easily. Gadahn found a much-needed spirituality in a local mosque, and—like others radicalized across the globe—channeled his extra energy into a purer cause.
At one point, he shipped his death metal CDs to a friend in a large box. When the friend asked why he was giving away his prized possessions, Gadahn replied simply: “Well, I turned Muslim.”
Gadahn’s first trip to Pakistan was in 1997, while his fellow American jihadi-to-be Anwar al-Awlaki was busy getting busted for soliciting prostitutes. The still-green convert Gadahn reportedly fell in with some unsavory characters from a local mosque, an Egyptian and a Palestinian with established connections to international jihad. He briefly returned to the United States, only to move to Pakistan permanently in 1998. Gadahn initially told family members that he was working as a journalist—a premonition, perhaps, of how he would later see his job as a propagandist for al Qaeda’s top leadership. As one of the group’s longest-lived American members, he orchestrated its PR agenda for more than a decade.
Proving his chops to al Qaeda leadership was doubtless a more demanding task than crossing the Turkish border into Syria to join ISIS. Gadahn could reportedly recite the Quran from memory; the 2007 New Yorker profile describes his English as “Jihadlish”—a mix of vernacular and theological insights—spoken with a “vaguely Middle Eastern accent.”
Through Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s close advisers, Gadahn is believed to have come into the inner circle of bin Laden himself. Some of the American’s early work for al Qaeda includes English-language translations of bin Laden’s addresses. Gadahn was one of the group’s primary ways of reaching an English-speaking audience before the launch of the English-language jihadi online magazine Inspire.
The transformation worked: The kid who started out as a Christian metalhead raised on an off-the-grid goat farm had his services personally requested not once but at least twice by bin Laden. The handful of videos he starred in for the organization made international news, not because he was a particularly effective presenter but because Gadahn—now known as Azzam al-Amriki, or Azzam the American—was one of the few to cross the language barrier. After that first appearance, in October 2004, Gadahn felt no need to hide his face.
Although it’s not clear how much of a decision-making role Gadahn had, communications show he was an early advocate of splitting from al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that would later morph into the international terrorist group that would eclipse Gadahn, his mentors, and all of al Qaeda.
Gadahn’s family disappeared as the group receded, too. In early interviews after their son’s rise to infamy, Phil and Jennifer disavowed his radical views—in many ways counter to their own hippie youth, but in others similar, as in attempts to distance themselves from modernity. They grew reluctant to give interviews. After Adam’s initial calls home, Phil Gadahn recalled that his son “just faded.”