Two years ago, no one knew quite what to make of Adam Gadahn.
While many in the U.S. intelligence community saw the angry Muslim convert from Orange County as dangerous, plenty of counterterrorism officials viewed the pudgy 25-year-old as a bit player on the world stage of jihadists.
Though the young man who has appeared on four Al Qaeda videotapes and now calls himself Azzam the American is still not deemed part of Al Qaeda’s operational command, recent interviews with counterterrorism officials suggest that Gadahn has gone from a valuable translator to an invaluable propagandist for the international terrorist network.
“It is not some masked guy with a rifle saying, ‘Death to America,’ ” one senior U.S. law enforcement official said. “It is an American. And his target audience is the U.S.”
Gadahn’s newfound stature is underscored by a sealed federal indictment in Los Angeles that, law enforcement sources say, will charge him with supporting terrorism. It also comes as new details are surfacing about his time in Orange County and connections to extremists.
The new attention to Gadahn reflects his ascent in one of the world’s most impenetrable terrorist groups. Indeed, although a handful of Americans have been convicted or still face charges of conspiring as terrorists, none has had a more astounding trajectory into Al Qaeda’s inner circle than Gadahn.
From journeying to Pakistan to meeting with Osama bin Laden and later self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Gadahn quickly established himself as an American entrusted by Al Qaeda’s leadership, counterterrorism officials say. Two of the four videotapes in which he has appeared also featured Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
“Increasingly, the stature of his statements shows that he not only has credibility as an information operative for Al Qaeda ... but if you look at it through the lens of Al Qaeda spreading its message, then he is absolutely an instrumental player,” said another counterterrorism official who has watched Gadahn’s ascent for years.
“I mean, he is now making statements with Al-Zawahiri, who is the No. 2 and the tactician. And [Gadahn] is right there with him at critical periods of time,” said the official, who like others in government spoke on condition of anonymity because of the anticipated criminal case against Gadahn.
The grandson of a Jewish doctor, the young man was raised as Adam Pearlman on a goat farm in the hills of southwestern Riverside County by parents who had eclectic religious tastes and shunned the modern world.
At 14, his spiritual journey took him to the Islamic Center of Orange County, where he fell under the influence of two radical Muslims, Khalil Deek and Hisham Diab, both naturalized U.S. citizens.
Diab, an Egyptian, owned an accounting business, and Deek, a Palestinian, repaired computers. They lived in upstairs apartments across from each other in a complex near Little Gaza, a stretch of Arab-owned shops, restaurants and other businesses on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim.
“Deek and Diab met him at the mosque and [Diab] brought him home like a lost dog,” said Saraah Olson, who was married to Diab at the time but divorced him in 1996. “He was hungry and [Diab] asked me to give him something to eat. That’s how it began, innocently enough. Then they begin teaching the kid their version of Islam.”
Haitham “Danny” Bundakji, president of the Islamic Society of Orange County, said Diab and Gadahn had extremist views that caused him to bar them from the mosque. “They believed that Muslims like me who reached out to Christians and Jews are infidels. They had a warped interpretation of Islam,” Bundakji said.
Friends and family members said Diab and Deek were followers of radical cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called blind sheikh who is now serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Diab and Deek hosted Abdel Rahman in their apartments during his lecture tours of Orange County mosques in 1992 and 1993. Olson said she cooked dinner for the Egyptian sheikh. A relative of Deek, who asked not to be identified, said Abdel Rahman stayed in Deek’s apartment for two days during one visit.
Olson said Gadahn never met the radical cleric, but she said he too was a follower. According to Olson, Abdel Rahman would call Diab and others in Orange County from prison on Sunday afternoon to deliver fiery sermons that were recorded.
In 1995, the year Gadahn converted to Islam, Diab formed Charity Without Borders, which according to state records was founded to “provide an education and humanitarian aid to poor and needy people in USA and in other countries.”
The nonprofit’s records list Diab as its chief financial officer. In April 1999, Gadahn was added as the charity’s secretary. His name is spelled “Gaden” on the form, which also has a phony Santa Ana address for him.
Olson said the $150,000 raised by Charity Without Borders was sent to extremist groups in the Middle East. Deek’s relative said he wrote a proposal for the charity that led to one $50,000 grant from the state of California, which he said was supposed to be used for an oil recycling awareness program directed at minority communities.
Two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, California’s Department of Justice shut down Charity Without Borders and began an investigation.
U.S. terrorism officials believe that Deek and Gadahn traveled separately to Pakistan in 1998. According to the 9/11 Commission report, by early 1999 Deek was living in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The commission report also said Deek was a close associate in Pakistan of Abu Zubeida, now held at the military’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility and identified by the CIA as a senior aide to Osama bin Laden.
Deek’s relative who spoke to The Times said Jordanian officials told the family that Deek had a joint bank account with Zubeida in Peshawar.
The senior U.S. law enforcement official said it was Deek who sent Gadahn to Pakistan, where he meet Zubeida. From there, the official said, Gadahn found his way into Al Qaeda’s training camps and, ultimately, introductions to its Al Qaeda’s leadership.
“Bin Laden was particularly interested in meeting American converts,” the official said.
In December 1999, Deek was extradited to Jordan, where he was charged with involvement in the millennium plot to bomb tourist hotels in that country.
Two years later, the charges against him were dropped. He returned to Pakistan in May 2001, the official said.
That same year, Diab left the U.S., according to Olson, his ex-wife, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Three years later, in May 2004, the Justice Department and FBI first identified Gadahn as an alleged extremist and Al Qaeda member. Then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said he was an associate of Zubeida.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said that although Gadahn has clearly become a “key communicator” for Al Qaeda in the two years since, his effectiveness in reaching and radicalizing other Westerners remains to be seen.
“There is no question he is an articulate communicator,” said Jenkins. “The question is whether there is a significant audience for that significant message.”
The first Gadahn videotape surfaced in October 2004, months after Ashcroft revealed his Al Qaeda affiliation. At the time, U.S. officials didn’t even know for sure that he was the menacing, masked figure making threats against the U.S., although the CIA said he was the most likely suspect.
In that hourlong tape, released just before the U.S. presidential election, a young man hidden behind a head scarf identified himself as “Azzam the American” and said American “streets will run with blood.”
Gadahn appeared in another video in September 2005, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In that tape, he invoked the name of the most infamous Sept. 11 attacker, Mohammed Atta, and warned of new attacks in the U.S. and Australia.
“Yesterday, London and Madrid,” he said, referring to two cities then recently bombed by terrorists. “Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne.... “
Then, this year, Gadahn appeared in the two videotapes also featuring Zawahiri.
Now, even those who once doubted Gadahn’s importance say they and others were wrong in rejecting the possibility that an American could play a key role for Al Qaeda.
“That,” the counterterrorism official said, “was the wrong assumption.”