A Southern California convert to Islam who has appeared in five incendiary Al Qaeda videos became the first American since the World War II era to be charged with treason, authorities announced Wednesday.
In a federal grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday in Orange County, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, 28, also was charged with providing material support to the terrorist organization, which has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults in New York and Washington, D.C.
"The crime of treason is perhaps the most serious offense for which any person can be tried under our Constitution," Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty said at a Washington news conference to announce the charges. "It is not a crime only against the American people but against America itself."
Gadahn, who is believed to be living in Pakistan, has emerged in recent months as the most significant American involved in radical Islam. Though originally seen as little more than an English translator for Al Qaeda, he began showing up on videotapes for the organization two years ago. His recent video appearances with Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have cemented his reputation as a significant new propagandist for terrorism, U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
The nine-page indictment lists five separate instances, from Oct. 27, 2004, to Sept. 11 of this year, in which Gadahn allegedly gave "aid and comfort to Al Qaeda" by appearing in videos with the intent "to betray the United States."
In the first of those videos, the indictment says, Gadahn acknowledged that he had "joined a movement waging war on America and killing large numbers of Americans." Wrapped in a head scarf that covered everything but his eyes, Gadahn also declared that the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York "notified America that it's going to have to pay for its crimes and pay dearly."
In the most recent videotape, the indictment adds, Gadahn referred to the U.S. as "enemy soil."
Treason, which can carry the death penalty, is the only crime delineated in the U.S. Constitution. Historically, it has been a difficult charge to make stick because the government must present at least two witnesses to the same act of treason, or a courtroom confession, to prove its case.
Largely because of those hurdles, legal experts say, there have been fewer than 40 prosecutions for treason in U.S. history and only a handful of convictions.
The last person charged with treason was Tomoya Kawakita, also a Southern Californian. The Japanese American was found guilty of torturing American prisoners of war who worked at a mining company where he was an interpreter during World War II.
Kawakita was sentenced to death, and the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1952. But a year later, President Eisenhower, responding to appeals from the Japanese government, commuted his sentence to life in prison. In 1963, President Kennedy ordered him freed on the condition that he be deported to Japan and barred from returning.
Gadahn's unabashed and highly public advocacy of enemies of the U.S. make his prosecution unique, however, some terrorism experts said.
"Most people who are arrested for aiding and abetting the enemy tend to do it in secret," said professor Brian Levin, an attorney and director of Cal State San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
"But because [Gadahn] has been so brazen and public in his videotaped statements, it makes it much easier to reach the constitutional requirements for proving treason."
Gadahn's father, Philip, could not be reached for comment at his home in Riverside County, and Gadahn's aunt, Nancy Pearlman, declined to comment.
The indictment, while expected for months, was unsealed less than a month before U.S. elections, in which national security is a major issue. The timing of the charges fueled suspicions that the case was being made public to showcase the government's success in pursuing alleged terrorists.
But McNulty denied political motivations and said authorities acted now for several reasons, including statements on Gadahn's latest videotapes that strengthened the government's case.
FBI counterterrorism officials were aware of Gadahn for years, but his name did not surface publicly until May 2004, when officials announced they considered him armed and dangerous and were seeking information on his whereabouts. They also said they believed he had attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and worked as a translator for several of the organization's leaders, including senior lieutenant Abu Zebeida.
Months after the FBI announced its search for Gadahn, the CIA said it believed he was the menacing, masked figure making threats against the U.S. in an October 2004 Al Qaeda videotape.
In that hourlong tape, released just before the U.S. presidential election, the young man hidden behind the head scarf identified himself as "Azzam the American" and said American "streets will run red with blood."
Gadahn appeared in another video in September 2005, on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In that tape, he appeared undisguised and invoked the name of the most infamous Sept. 11 attacker, Mohammed Atta. He also warned of new attacks in the U.S. and Australia.
"Yesterday, London and Madrid," he said, referring to two cities that had recently been bombed by terrorists. "Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne." In July, Gadahn appeared in a third video that also carried statements from Al-Zawahiri and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In the two most recent videos, broadcast last month, Gadahn urged U.S. soldiers to "escape from the unbelieving Army and join the winning side" and described the Sept. 11 hijackers as "brothers."
"I hope he's caught and brought to justice soon," said Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "He created a lot of anxiety and fear."
A decade ago, Gadahn prayed at the society's mosque. He also worked there as a night guard for several months before being fired for fighting with one of the community's board members.
Now, Siddiqi said, he has been watching Gadahn's videos with dismay.
"All of it is very painful and disturbing," he said. "He has given a very bad name to Islam."