The Abbottabad Documents: The Quiet Ascent of Adam Gadahn

May 22, 2012

Beyond the obvious starring role played by Usama bin Ladin and the revelation of the consigliere-type position held by Abu `Abd al-Rahman (known as `Atiyya), the breakout personality from the recently declassified documents from Bin Ladin’s Abbottabad compound might well be Adam Gadahn,[1] the California native who for the past 15 years has been progressing up the ranks of al-Qa`ida. Gadahn is mentioned several times in the documents, but it is the 21-page letter he wrote to an unspecified recipient in January 2011 that testifies to the significant role Gadahn played in Bin Ladin’s al-Qa`ida.[2]

Gadahn’s letter received considerable publicity both before and after the release of the Abbottabad documents.[3] Much of this attention, however, focused on the more salacious material Gadahn provided regarding his opinions of various Western media outlets and personalities. Not only does this information provide limited real value, but it is also not exactly revelatory that Gadahn played the role of media adviser—particularly with regard to Western media—within al-Qa`ida. Much more interesting is what he exposed about his own beliefs, his understanding of jihadist ideology, and his role beyond that of media adviser within the organization. This article provides an assessment of Gadahn’s position and impact in al-Qa`ida, and includes a discussion of his trajectory as a propagandist and his emergence as a substantive contributor to debates with senior leadership over key ideological and strategic issues.

Gadahn and His Fellow Americans
Gadahn’s evolving role in al-Qa`ida has been described as translator, video producer, cultural interpreter, and, most prominently, spokesperson.[4] After toiling away for several years off-camera, Gadahn made his onscreen debut (albeit masked) in October 2004, and he soon became a regular in al-Sahab videos. It was in these early videos that Gadahn earned his reputation as a somewhat awkward jihadist propagandist. His aggressively militant language and mannerisms belied his decidedly uninspiring physique, appearance and voice, leading one to question his actual operational credibility. He adapted this persona over time to a more scholarly one, but he was still not perceived as sufficiently inspirational.

The criticism of Gadahn’s oratory skills was only enhanced by the fact that he suffered in comparison with more visually or audibly appealing American jihadist propagandists who came on the scene in the years following Gadahn’s emergence—individuals such as Omar Hammami[5] and Anwar al-`Awlaqi.[6] From a strictly superficial perspective, the direct counterpoint to Gadahn was Hammami, the al-Shabab fighter whose vaguely Che Guevara-esque look and field commander persona was in stark contrast to Gadahn’s nasally lecturing.[7] Yet Hammami is a classic example of style over substance, a fact reinforced by his universally-ridiculed hip-hop songs and his humiliating downfall earlier this year.[8] His March 2012 self-released video expressing his fears for his life at the hands of al-Shabab discredited his brash and confident image.[9]

A more interesting comparison to Gadahn is al-`Awlaqi, who is a fascinating study of the balance between style and substance. It was al-`Awlaqi’s substantive background as an imam in the United States that gave him his initial credibility, and he first acquired a growing following in the Western jihadist community through his words, not his actions. In fact, his “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” which has been called “the single most influential work of jihadist incitement in the English language,”[10] is an audio recording, not a video. Yet style is not limited to appearance, and al-`Awlaqi demonstrated unique oratory skills that proved remarkably compelling to Western audiences, regardless of whether or not he was on camera.

As his stature grew, however, al-`Awlaqi tried to adopt a more operational image than the scholarly one he had portrayed to date (to align with the more operational role he is believed to have assumed), complete with somewhat awkward and unconvincing pictures of him with Kalashnikovs and even a shoulder-fired rocket. Al-`Awlaqi’s efforts to expand beyond the persona with which he was already immensely successful, that of orator and inciter, likely had a role in the timing of his death.

Whereas Hammami’s substance has consistently been questioned,[11] and al-`Awlaqi allowed his style-substance balance to shift, Gadahn appears to have evolved into a role best suited to his capabilities. It is difficult to imagine Gadahn shaming himself in the manner that Hammami did, and his more measured approach and ability to garner the respect of al-Qa`ida’s leadership have likely helped him maintain more longevity than al-`Awlaqi.

What exactly is Gadahn’s role? Gadahn’s early attempts to portray an image to which he may not have been suited caused some observers to dismiss him as a puppet, nothing more than a useful English-speaking tool for al-Qa`ida’s leaders. More keen observers have long acknowledged his technical media production skills and his significant role in managing al-Sahab and serving as the lead Western media adviser for al-Qa`ida, but in recent years he has rarely been seen as a particularly compelling figure worthy of deeper analysis than has already been conducted. The Adam Gadahn that emerges in the Abbottabad documents, however, is one with additional substantive layers worthy of discussion.

Gadahn the Ideologue
While Gadahn’s appeal to Western audiences declined as he became more immersed in al-Qa`ida culture[12] and eclipsed by more extravagant Americans, it appears that he transcended his role as a propagandist to the West. While he is still relied on for his insights into American politics, culture and media, his 21-page letter demonstrated that he is at ease providing commentary and advice on a host of topics far beyond Western media strategy. What influence his advice had on the organization is difficult to discern based on these 17 documents, but the fact that he felt empowered to raise the substantive issues addressed in his letter demonstrates an evolution beyond just media tasks.

Gadahn appears to have carefully crafted a role for himself in the organization, and through competent performance has presumably garnered the respect necessary to expand that role.[13] The documents confirm an understanding of Gadahn as media adviser to al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, with Bin Ladin requesting his services by name twice, first to request that he translate[14] a book by British journalist Robert Fisk, and then to provide input about which U.S. television channels to engage with for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.[15] In his letter, Gadahn completed his assignment, and then provided more wide-ranging thoughts on media strategy for the anniversary.

Gadahn then went a step further and provided an additional 15 pages of commentary and advice on various ideological and strategic issues. He wrote in an assertive and confident manner while maintaining a deferential style, showing an awareness of his rank that has likely served him well over the years.[16] In this commentary, Gadahn provided a scathing critique of what he saw as the unjust and counterproductive activities of certain regional jihadist groups. This critique appeared to align with Bin Ladin’s own concerns that he expressed repeatedly in the Abbottabad letters.[17]

Gadahn provided a sophisticated criticism of al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) and its attack on a Catholic church in Baghdad, pointing out AQI’s lack of understanding of both the strategic context of such an attack at that time and the basic differences between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches. Gadahn identified public denunciation and the breaking of ties between al-Qa`ida and AQI as the only possible solution.[18] This goes beyond what even Bin Ladin advocated in terms of relations with the “affiliates,” which appears to have been maintaining communication but withholding formal franchising.[19]

Equally significant was Gadahn’s discussion of unlawful attacks that resulted in innocent Muslim deaths.[20]  He cited as examples 13 such incidents, six of which targeted mosques, and five of which were explicitly attributed to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organization that, he wrote, has a “black reputation.”[21] Gadahn lamented “the ignorance that prevails amongst the ranks,”[22] and believed the jihadists’ current predicament is due to “punishment by God on us…because of the sins of some of us and the silence of the rest of us.”[23] Based on this assessment, he provided his “humble opinion” to the unidentified recipient of this letter that while “you have done well in what you have done” to handle this issue, secrecy and denial are not the answer.[24] He stated that, “As for exposing our weak spots in front of our enemies to exploit it, these attacks are—I swear—a greater shame and more horrible weak points.”[25]

This may seem like an odd position to take for a man who, two years prior to writing this letter, released a video titled, “The Mujahideen Don’t Target Muslims,” in which he participated in the denials he later criticized. In this video, he stated that “Islam and its Shari`a (forbid) the taking of even one innocent life…(and that) the mujahidin declare themselves innocent of these attacks.” He publicly blamed the attacks on the “more likely culprits,” the CIA, Pakistani intelligence services, and the Blackwater security firm.[26] Two years later, in his private letter, he identified the real culprits and, somewhat admirably, took responsibility for al-Qa`ida’s silence: “The blame—or most of it—is laid on our shoulders. We contributed to that by not clarifying our stand on those forbidden acts in a sufficient way. We also contributed to the continuation of the perpetrators in their acts, by deferring the accusation from the contributors and blaming Blackwater Company instead.”[27]

Given that in several of the incidents Gadahn cited in the letter the TTP publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks, his recommendation to come clean about responsibility is not simply naïve idealism; it is smart political “damage control” given that the denial strategy simply is not plausible.  “Now that the matter is exposed to all, near and far, our silence will be despised by people…as we look in front of all as ‘mute Satans’ (or) in the best of cases as inattentive and not aware of what is happening around us,” he wrote.[28] Gadahn closed his letter by drafting a statement that he suggested be released to address this issue directly. In it, he offered an unequivocal denunciation of these acts, and stated that if anyone proven responsible is connected with al-Qa`ida, the organization will “take the appropriate measures towards them.”[29]

While Gadahn’s assessment is not without its flaws, he was certainly keyed in on the precise issues that seemed to animate Bin Ladin the most in the Abbottabad letters. What impact did his input have? Gadahn’s proposed declaration was never released, although Bin Ladin died only three months after this letter was written so it is impossible to know how he reacted. Bin Ladin’s own thoughts on this topic, however, are instructive. His concern about the killing of Muslims is well documented,[30] but he also appeared to concur with Gadahn’s suggestion to both publicly denounce such acts and publicly take responsibility when mistakes are made. He asked `Atiyya to send guidance to “every amir in the regions” to exercise control over their military actions and not conduct operations that unnecessarily risk Muslim lives. If such an event does occur, he asked “for the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened,” and if they do not, “we [al-Qa`ida] should then assume the responsibility and apologize for what happened.”[31] Based on this document, one would presume that Gadahn’s proposal reached a sympathetic ear.

Jihadist Forums and Biting the Hand that Feeds
Surprisingly, Gadahn’s letter included a scathing criticism of the jihadist internet forums: “As for the jihadi forums, it is repulsive to most of the Muslims, or closed to them. It also distorts the face of al-Qa`ida, due to what you know of the bigotry, the sharp tone that characterizes most of the participants in these forums.”

Gadahn’s criticism of the forums is fascinating given his prominent role in populating these entities with material (due to his position in al-Sahab). The forums are the primary conduit through which his words reach the ears of his audiences. As to what motivates his disdain, as can be seen from his candid ideological critiques discussed above, inappropriate and counterproductive application of jihadist ideology is a genuine concern for Gadahn, and nowhere is lack of control over the message more an issue than on the internet. Yet is Gadahn’s view reflective of al-Qa`ida leadership more broadly?

Interestingly, Bin Ladin appeared to have some positive comments regarding the forums. He wrote of “the wide-scale spread of jihadist ideology, especially on the internet, and the tremendous number of young people who frequent the jihadist websites—a major achievement for jihad….”[32] While this statement may appear to contradict Gadahn’s, a closer look reveals that Bin Ladin’s praise was limited to the medium of the internet and the potential it has to facilitate engagement with a wide audience. He did not directly comment on the content of the forums, but through various directives he gave to `Atiyya, it appears that he, like Gadahn, was not pleased with the current state of jihadist forum content. He asked `Atiyya and “Shaykh Abu Yahya”[33] to “write some articles and provide advice to those working in the jihad media in general to include the author partisans to the mujahidin on the internet.”[34] One of the topics he wanted addressed is the pitfall of takfir, presumably to tackle his running concern about the killing of Muslims. He also proposed running all the brothers who arrive in Pakistan through “a quick training course that is heavy on ideology,” to ensure they are “distinguished and capable” as recruiters, and then “send (them) to (their) country to conduct specific missions like inciting for jihad over the internet.”[35] He appeared to support jihadist use of the internet to spread the ideology, but wanted concrete steps taken to ensure that those conducting this activity are qualified to do so responsibly.

Gadahn’s Impact
It is not revelatory that Gadahn discussed such topics in this letter. In recent years, he has consistently tackled issues of substance in his public speeches. Yet the level of candor and assertiveness with senior leadership so evident in a letter that was never intended for public eyes is noteworthy. Despite their limitations, this is the value of captured documents when compared with public speeches.[36] The Abbottabad letter suggests that Gadahn grew in confidence over the years, thinking and speaking for himself, including expressing ideological criticisms of the decisions of his superiors. One may debate the precision of his critiques (although it appears they were in line with many of Bin Ladin’s concerns), but the point here is that Gadahn’s willingness to provide them and his superiors’ willingness to allow him to contribute to such internal debates suggests a more substantive role for Gadahn in al-Qa`ida than has been previously acknowledged.

Other questions still remain. If Gadahn’s effectiveness as a propagandist to the West has been in decline,[37] but he is increasingly influential as an al-Qa`ida ideological adviser, what is his broader impact in this role? With the deaths of Bin Ladin and `Atiyya, has Gadahn lost his key patrons and supporters within al-Qa`ida or has Ayman al-Zawahiri also empowered the Californian?[38] Watching how Gadahn’s star rises or falls within today’s al-Qa`ida will provide interesting hints as to the shape and direction of the organization under its new leadership.

Brian Dodwell is the Director of Practitioner Education at the Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Prior to the CTC, Mr. Dodwell served in various capacities in the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

[1] Gadahn also uses the kunya Azzam al-Amriki.

[2] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004.

[3] See, for example, David Ignatius, “How al-Qaeda Tried to Control the Media,” Washington Post, March 20, 2012.

[4] Raffi Khatchadourian, “Azzam the American,” New Yorker, January 22, 2007.

[5] Hammami also uses the kunya Abu Mansoor al-Amriki.

[6] Despite vast differences between the backgrounds, trajectories, and capabilities of these three men, casual observers often mention them in the same breath simply due to their shared status as Americans serving as jihadist propagandists.

[7] Somewhat of a “one-hit wonder,” Hammami’s appearance in the Ambush at Bardale video in March 2009 launched him into stardom in the North American jihadist and counterterrorism communities, although he had made his first appearance two years earlier.

[8] Christopher Anzalone, “The End of a Romance? The Rise and Fall of an American Jihadi: Omar Hammami’s Relationship with Somalia’s al-Shabab,” al-Wasat Blog, March 17, 2012.

[9] Video available at www.jihadology.net/2012/03/16/new-video-message-from-omar-hammami-abu-man%e1%b9%a3ur-al-amriki-urgent-message.

[10] J.M. Berger, “The Enduring Appeal of al-`Awlaqi’s ‘Constants on the Path of Jihad,’” CTC Sentinel 4:10 (2011).

[11] In May 2012, Hammami released a 127-page autobiography. It will be interesting to see if his own writing on his trajectory leads to a reassessment of conventional wisdom regarding Hammami. See http://jihadology.net/2012/05/16/new-book-from-omar-hammami-abu-man%e1%b9%a3ur-al-amriki-the-story-of-an-american-jihadi-part-1/.

[12] For a discussion of the relationship between Western appeal and immersion in jihadist culture, see J.M. Berger, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books Inc, 2011), p. 155.

[13] Although one should not discount the role played by U.S. counterterrorism efforts and the resulting al-Qa`ida leadership attrition in Gadahn’s expanding role.

[14] Of interest regarding Gadahn’s capabilities is that his Arabic has been described as outstanding, demonstrating an impressive vocabulary. Full credit for this observation is reserved for Dr. Nelly Lahoud.

[15] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000015, pp. 7-8.

[16] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004, p. 5. Gadahn criticized Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, but repeatedly pointed out that he has kept his comments internal to the group so as not to create dispute, and then apologized for his “sharp” tone, something he writes he has been trying to fix.

[17] Nelly Lahoud et al., Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012), p. 1.

[18] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004, pp. 5-8. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Lahoud, et al., pp. 27-28.

[19] Lahoud et al., p. 21.

[20] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004, p. 11. He titled this section of his report, “It has Become Unbearable and the Avalanche has Arrived: The Tragedy of Tolerating the Spilling of Blood, Resources and Honor, and our Duty towards this Dangerous Phenomenon.”

[21] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004, p. 13.

[22] Ibid., p. 14.

[23] Ibid., p. 15.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 16. He elaborated that these acts “distort the picture of the pious and loyal mujahidin” and that “regular people” look at the mujahidin and see a group that shies away from music or looking at a foreign woman (issues that “mean very little to the common public”), but has no problem “spilling the blood of scores of people in order to kill one or two who were labeled as enemies.”

[26] Adam Gadahn, “The Mujahideen Don’t Target Muslims,” December 2009.

[27] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000004, p. 16.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 18.

[30] For details on Bin Ladin’s writings regarding the killing of innocent Muslims, see Lahoud et al.

[31] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, pp. 9-10.

[32] Ibid., p. 3.

[33] Presumably Abu Yahya al-Libi.

[34] Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 14.

[35] Ibid., p. 43. Bin Ladin also included a letter he received from “Shaykh Yunis,” presumably Yunis al-Mauritani, who stated that “we are experiencing the most favorable atmosphere in the history of the Islamic nation…[with] a base of youths adopting our teachings…without any efforts on our parts to teach them the faith. They are ready for anything posted for them on the ‘spider web’ (i.e., internet).” But Yunis then cautioned that while this can be a very good thing, they have to guard against the “pitfall” of “inflexibility and narrow-mindedness; and must have concise, written instructions published for all the awakening youths to know our stand.” He then specifically cited narrow-minded material currently being spread on the internet as the reason for his concern. See Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, pp. 46-47.

[36] In that they provide a totally different perspective on both individuals and the organization than found in public statements. For more on both the limitations and the value of captured documents, see Lahoud et al., pp. 6-9.

[37] This is not to suggest that Gadahn is incapable of still having an impact in this sphere. He clearly still understands what appeals to his audience. In his more recent public statements, he has embraced the same call for individual jihad in the West that has made al-`Awlaqi and Inspire magazine so notorious. This despite the fact that this strategy would appear to only exacerbate the concerns both Gadahn and Bin Ladin have regarding ideological deviations and lack of control over the global jihad by the more “responsible” jihadists in “al-Qa`ida central.” These potential conflicts and contradictions are worthy of further analysis, analysis that is beyond the scope and space limitations of this article.

[38] History suggests a positive relationship between Gadahn and al-Zawahiri, who provided a personal introduction and endorsement for Gadahn in the September 2006 video titled “An Invitation to Islam.” The released Abbottabad documents, however, do not support a more current assessment of this relationship due to the lack of al-Zawahiri material in them and the unknown reason for this gap.