U.S. officials cast doubt early Monday on Pakistani intelligence statements that Karachi officials had arrested a Southern California native, a top propagandist for Al Qaeda who is wanted by the U.S. on treason charges.
U.S. intelligence agencies spent Sunday sorting out conflicting reports on the purported arrest of Adam Gadahn of Riverside. By late Sunday night, U.S. officials said the picture remained unclear.
“In terms of who may have been arrested, the Pakistani rumor mill belched out three very different possibilities in about six hours,” one U.S. official said. “That should tell you something right there. It’s by no means clear who, if anyone, the Pakistanis may have captured.”
Another U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, said early Monday, “There’s no reason to believe that it’s true, and we are highly skeptical.”
The names that surfaced Sunday included Gadahn, Abu Yahya Al-Libi and Abu Yahya Mujahdeen Al-Adam, said to be an Al Qaeda affiliate born in Pennsylvania.
In the last two months, Pakistani security forces have seized several top Afghan Taliban commanders, including the insurgency’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Baradar’s arrest and the capture of other Taliban leaders also occurred in Karachi, which has become a favored sanctuary for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban leaders and militants. Pakistani intelligence sources said Sunday that Gadahn’s arrest took place on the city’s outskirts, on a highway near where Baradar was believed to have been arrested.
Gadahn, 31, is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists and is the first American since the World War II era to be charged with treason. The U.S. government has offered a $1-million reward for information leading to his arrest.
He was indicted in 2006 by a federal grand jury in Orange County for allegedly providing material support to Al Qaeda by appearing in videos on five different occasions between Oct. 27, 2004, and Sept. 11, 2006, with the intent “to betray the United States.”
His latest video was posted on extremist websites Sunday. In it, he urged Muslims serving in the American military to draw inspiration from U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of shooting to death 13 people at the Ft. Hood military base just outside Killeen, Texas, on Nov. 5.
In the video, Gadahn called Hasan “the ideal role model for every repentant Muslim in the armies of the unbelievers and apostate regimes.”
Pakistani sources had said Gadahn was arrested in a pickup truck with a driver Saturday night. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on such issues.
Pakistani police and intelligence agents were said to have collaborated on the arrest after receiving information about the suspect’s whereabouts, but the sources would not say where the information had come from.
Gadahn was raised on a goat farm in southwest Riverside County. As a teenager, he became profoundly influenced by two radical Muslims linked to a mosque in Orange County. By 1995, Gadahn had converted to Islam, and by 1998 he had moved to Pakistan, where he trained in Al Qaeda camps and later met the terrorist network’s leader, Osama bin Laden.
As a teenager, Gadahn prayed at the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque but was barred in 1997 after hitting one of its leaders, according to Muzammil Siddiqi, the organization’s religious director.
“I hope they caught the right person,” Siddiqi said Sunday. “Any success to eliminate the evil of terrorism from the world is welcome news.”
Gadahn’s principal role with Al Qaeda appears to be as a propagandist who can lure other Americans and Westerners into the terrorist network. In some of his videos, he has appeared alongside Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Zawahiri.
In the first video he made, Gadahn appeared with a head scarf masking his face and said he had “joined a movement waging war on America and killing large numbers of Americans.”
He added that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks “notified America that it’s going to have to pay for its crimes, and pay dearly.”
In the video posted on the Internet on Sunday, Gadahn appeared in a white turban and white robe, extolling Hasan as a “trailblazer” that other Muslim servicemen in the U.S. should emulate.
“Nidal Hasan is a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role model who has opened a door, lit a path and shown the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself among the unbelievers,” Gadahn said.
“You shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that military bases are the only high-value targets in America and the West,” he continued. “On the contrary, there are countless other strategic places, institutions and installations which, by striking, the Muslim can do major damage.”
The recent spate of arrests by Pakistani authorities of Afghan Taliban leaders represents a marked philosophical shift by a government that previously had focused its attention primarily on Taliban militants and other homegrown extremists responsible for attacks on Pakistani soil. Before the arrests, many in the Pakistani government viewed the Afghan Taliban as an important hedge against the day when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.
The latest arrest of a key Afghan Taliban figure in Karachi occurred last week, when Pakistani security forces arrested Agha Jan Mohtasim, an Afghan insurgency commander and the Taliban’s finance minister before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Intelligence sources said Jan was arrested in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth neighborhood, a largely Pashtun district. Jan is believed to be a son-in-law of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader.
Staff writers Greg Miller in Washington and Anna Gorman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.