'New Yorker' Writer Could Win With First Piece

The National Magazine Awards are announced Thursday. Nominees include Raffi Khatchadourian, a New Yorker writer who discusses his story on Adam Gadahn, an American-born al-Qaeda operative.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

There are no red carpets, no entertainment news camera crews, no annoying woman asking, what are you wearing? But they are prestigious prizes for career-making work. It's the National Magazine Awards, sponsored by the American Society of Magazine Editors. They're being given out tonight. One of the nominees for best profile-writing is up for the very first magazine piece he ever wrote.

The piece is called "Azzam the American." It's a profile of Adam Gadahn, a kid who grew up in America and is now an al-Qaeda spokesman. The writer of that piece, Raffi Khatchadourian, stopped by our studio to talk about trying to trace Gadahn's journey from California kid to one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists.

Tell me about his upbringing and his parents. Where does he come from?

Mr. RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN (Journalist, The New Yorker): Yeah, so he grew up in Riverside County, California. I think, actually, he was born in Oregon. His parents lived on a farm. It's been widely reported that they subsisted off of raising goats, but one of the things that I actually learned while working on the piece is that it's only partly the case.

I mean, it seemed to fit a nice narrative that they lived such an isolated lifestyle, but in fact, they were slightly more integrated into their community than one would expect. Adam's father, Phil Gadahn, was a handyman and they were really well-respected in their community. At the same time, they chose to home school their children. Adam has a younger brother and two other siblings. And so Adam spent most of his early teenage years on the farm.

PESCA: And home schooling meant Christian schooling, at that time, I think you reported.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: It's not entirely certain what their faith was, although they did seem to have certain spiritual beliefs, and Adam's father did seem to have a connection to Christianity. Exactly how they were schooled at home, I can't say.

But for the - for reasons of wanting to socialize their children, they did enroll them in groups that were designed to bring home-schooled children together. And at that time, as I understand it, in that community, the only ones that were in existence, really, were Christian groups, so...

PESCA: And as far as - I mean, you just said that there's a lot of misreporting out there. If you look up Adam Gadahn on Wikipedia, the first words are "Adam Gadahn, born Adam Pearlman," and that's not the case, you were saying.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: No, that's wrong.

PESCA: That's wrong. But his father was Phil Pearlman before he became - before he changed his name. So one of Adam's earliest identities, maybe, was trying on different identities, was he got really into death metal.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: That's right.

PESCA: And you know, what was - if we met, how old was Adam then? And if we met him then, what would he - from your reporting, what would he be like? And aside from just being into this kind of music, what was his mindset?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Death metal was really a reaction to other sort of musical currents that were happening at the time in the world of metal and, I guess, alternative music. It was very much about finding a certain kind of authenticity in music and he latched onto that. And one of the interesting features is that the death-metal subculture, which was worldwide, was built around a network of pen pals and exchanging music through mail.

And Adam Gadahn made use of this, as a teenager, to build relationships with people all around the world. He not only called in to the local college DJ and had long conversations with him, but actually wrote to bands that he began to appreciate and built relationships with them, trading music, trading news, and it kind of, you know, began - this was before the Internet, and it became a way, I imagine, that he connected himself to a broader world.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

I would imagine, Raffi, as you go about reporting this story - I mean, a lot of what we do as journalists, you try to make sense of things. So you start out with, OK, this is who this man is now. Let me go back and try to figure out, are there any signs? Is there anything that makes sense that you could say - point to and say aha?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: I try - I can't imagine that whatever occurred with Adam Gadahn was so simple, and so I tried not to find one-to-one correlations. I just tried to look at each phase of his life and put it into context with what was happening at the time. I mean, I had to educate myself about this subculture and figure out what it meant.

And I mean, again, what was interesting about some of the things that sort of already had been floating around with the death metal was angry and, you know, people were saying that this had something to do with, you know, him - a release of some kind of anger that prefigured the anger that one sees in the videos of al-Qaeda. And I don't know. I didn't really find that to be the case, and I decided that I would just look at what each phase of his life meant unto itself.

And I mean, you mentioned, actually, you know, the reporting of it. One of the things that made it difficult was that Adam Gadahn didn't go to a conventional school and didn't have conventional social networks. And as journalists, we often will go to those places right away and, you know, just figure out, well, who knew whom? And how did they - you know, we want to build a profile of this person.

How do we know him, if we don't have access to him? And who can we talk to? And it took some time before I realized that - how extensive Adam Gadahn's death metal, pen-pal network was. And once I began to figure out the way he moved within it and figured out that, aha, it - if I found - if there was a band that he was writing about that he liked, chances are he wrote to that guy.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: And then that bandleader might have said, well, I talked with Adam about this other band, and then I would try and find that other band. And a lot of these bands, actually, don't even exist any longer, so it took some work to find those people. It was very interesting because, you know, that was slowly moving...

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Through his network and basically finding out, you know, again, who he was at that time.

PESCA: So as far as cracking this code, how did you try to pull together the threads to, you know, weave the narrative here?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: I basically drew out a grid and I made a grid for each phase of his life, and some of those phases weren't necessarily overlapping. The people who knew Adam Gadahn as an enthusiastic and young supporter of death metal really had no idea, like, how he was functioning in Pakistan and what he had said or done there.

One of his death-metal friends shared me an email that he had written to him, and it was the last email that he had written. And after looking at the date on the email, I realized that it was literally a week before he had converted to Islam, and that said something. And - but that also gave me a marker, that, you know, there were certain signposts that were very helpful.

MARTIN: And Raffi, were you able to speak with his parents?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Not directly in any real sense, no.

PESCA: The trail, you found that - you found an email. You found us a link that places his life in death metal close to his conversion to Islam. I don't know if you have the exact overlap, but tell me about what you found out about his conversion to Islam.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: There was nothing special about it. He basically was drawn to the faith by following some discussions about it on the Internet. He began attending a mosque in Orange County, took some literature and studied it very carefully and got into it, and not long after, made the decision fairly quickly. And this is, I guess, not too unusual. He converted.

PESCA: When did he become radicalized?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: We can say that, overall, the process seems to have happened very quickly. And we can also say that that also seems to be fairly typical from the literature about - that's out there. That was actually one of the startling things about the research is that when it came time to take what I had learned about Adam Gadahn and measure it against what else we know, it seemed to conform, to some extent, with the pathway that others have taken.

This isn't to say that there is a "type," that there are identifiable characteristics that automatically indicate that someone is susceptible to being a radical Muslim. But there are certain journeys that do have a certain consistency, I guess.

MARTIN: We should point out, this is - this was your first piece for the New Yorker, and now it's being considered for this very prestigious award. I mean, what has this piece meant to you personally?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: I really got into reporting the piece. There were a lot of moving parts to it, and it was the kind of thing that you could really sink yourself into, and it required trying to encourage intelligence officials to talk about things that they don't often speak about openly.

It required trying to get people at the mosque to talk about things that they don't speak about openly, and it required getting Adam's sort of colleagues and family members, to the best that I could, to speak about things that they don't speak about openly. So, while I was working on the piece, it never felt like I had enough material.

PESCA: How long did this take you to report?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Several months.

PESCA: And how'd you get the assignment? You worked at the New Yorker already?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. I was a fact-checker.

PESCA: And I understand that there is a Bryant Park Project connection there. Your writing experience started with someone we know? Or what's the story there?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: I officially got my job at the New Yorker while I was on assignment for Laura Conaway who was then at the Village Voice.

PESCA: And Laura's here. Laura, when this guy came up to you a couple of years ago, did you see a National Magazine Award in his future? Or at least a nomination?

LAURA CONAWAY: Well, it was a lot longer than that, actually. When did you first pitch me, Raffi? Must've been in 2000?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: I think...

CONAWAY: Maybe early 2001?

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Ah, the first thing that I pitched to you, you took right away, but you - there was this caveat, which was - there was - I had walked by a protest and it was like about Mauritanian slaves in New York or something...

CONAWAY: Right. Forgot the Mauritanian slaves.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: And you said, just don't give me a protest piece. So I said, OK, I won't do that, and I used the opportunity to look at that issue in a different way. And then, yeah, I think I did send you some other ideas that were smaller, and then you saw something I'd done somewhere else. And you said, why aren't you pitching me this kind of stuff?

CONAWAY: Yes, yes. I think I remember saying give me something big, and you said, OK...

MARTIN: Well, and then he definitely took your advice and pursued other likewise big projects, because this one was not small, either.

PESCA: Well, good luck with the awards, or - you know, I don't think it's a cliche. It should be just an honor to be nominated, especially over your first magazine piece.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you.

PESCA: All right. Raffi Khatchadourian, who wrote "Azzam the American" for the New Yorker. Thanks a lot, Raffi.

MARTIN: Thanks, Raffi.

Mr. KHATCHADOURIAN: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

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