Two Americans Become Strategists For Al-Qaida Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki are among a select group of Americans who have joined up with terrorist groups and were elevated to senior positions within them.
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Two Americans Become Al-Qaida Media Strategists

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Two Americans Become Al-Qaida Media Strategists

Two Americans Become Al-Qaida Media Strategists

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This week, we're looking at Americans who've risen to positions of prominence in the world of violent jihad. We've heard about an al-Qaida figure who spent his formative years in Florida; also the North Carolina man behind a glossy magazine for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, and a group in New York that's become a gateway for young Muslims looking to join terrorist groups.


Today, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on two more Americans who helped shape al-Qaida's media strategy.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: There are a lot of different ways of promoting the terrorist message. Consider two of al-Qaida's best known spokesmen. One is Adam Gadahn, a Californian who joined al-Qaida back in the 1990s; and the other is a New Mexico native named Anwar al-Awlaki.

At a recent classified U.S. intelligence conference outside Washington, one analyst compared Gadahn and Awlaki this way.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Hello, I'm a Mac.

Unidentified Man #2: Hello, I'm a PC.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's an Apple ad.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: We have a lot in common these days. We both...

Unidentified Man #2: ...both run Microsoft Office. We share files...

TEMPLE-RASTON: In the ad, the PC is old-fashioned, a little geeky. And the Mac, well, he's supposed to be cool. At that intelligence conference, the analyst digitally tweaked the ad a bit. The faces of the two actors were replaced by faces of Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Adam Gadahn is the PC, and you just need to listen to him a little bit to understand why.

Mr. ADAM GADAHN: Barack, I know that if you slither snake-like into the second year of your reign...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's from a recent Internet message.

Mr. GADAHN: the purported president of change, you are finding your hands full with running the affairs of a declining and besieged empire.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You get the idea. It actually goes on like that for about 40 minutes.

Professor MIA BLOOM (Penn State University): He has this presence where it's very stiff. He has a tendency to point a lot at the viewers. And he has this alienating character.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mia Bloom is a terrorism expert at Penn State University.

Ms. BLOOM: He does not have any of the charisma that Anwar al-Awlaki has.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Compare for yourself. Here's Awlaki.

Mr. ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: There is no compulsion in religion. Why were the battles fought? I think that this is an issue that you need to have to have a clear understanding. This is because, you know, the non-Muslims say that Islam was spread by the sword. So is that true or not? Let's talk about what happened and then you make a judgment.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You make a judgment, he said. This is an audio tape in which he presents himself as an online professor answering questions he says were sent to him. It's a style that's gently persuasive. Tens of thousands - maybe millions - have watched him on the Internet.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy of Terrorism, National Security Council): Unlike Gadahn, Awlaki has religious credentials and I think is viewed as a more mature character.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Juan Zarate. He was the deputy in charge of terrorism at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

Mr. ZARATE: And Gadahn has always been a bit of a - sort of a teenage punk who happened into al-Qaida and was there at its zenith and sort of served a role for al-Qaida, but not very well, frankly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The story of Adam Gadahn is fairly well known. He grew up on a goat farm in Southern California. His parents were hippies, he was homeschooled, he was big into death metal rock and eventually found Islam. He left the U.S. and went on to an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.

Anwar al-Awlaki could not be more different. He came to the U.S. with his father, a Rhodes Scholar who settled in New Mexico. Awlaki got a Bachelor's degree in engineering and a Master's. He was studying for a Ph.D. He was an imam in Virginia and San Diego and moved to Britain shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

British Muslims were so used to having preachers with heavy accents who were dull and bookish that when al-Awlaki came, he was almost a revolution.

Ms. BLOOM: They were just completely enthralled with Awlaki.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Penn State's Mia Bloom.

Ms. BLOOM: And he spoke completely unaccented English, was very charismatic, and I think that that in itself explains part of the difference between Gadahn and Awlaki.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Awlaki didn't start with a radical message. He used to sell popular CDs on the stories of the prophets. It wasn't until he was imprisoned in Yemen in 2004 that his message turned violent, and in the last year it has had real consequences.

He inspired the man accused in the Fort Hood shooting, Major Nidal Hasan. He also allegedly helped train the young Nigerian who tried to detonate a bomb on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. Now counterterrorism officials have to contend with Awlaki and his YouTube audience. His message has given al-Qaida an amazing reach. The group and its affiliates don't have to go in search of recruits anymore. The recruits, inspired by Awlaki, find them.

WERTHEIMER: Dina Temple-Raston joins us now from New York City. Let me ask you. These two Americans both worked on al-Qaida's media strategy. Do you think they bring some uniquely American thing to what they do for al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, clearly one of the advantages they bring to the table is this deep understanding of the American audience, 'cause they actually lived here. Now, Awlaki's gone a step further. This is a guy who is using the democratization of YouTube to get his message out. He has a Facebook page. I mean, this is not the kind of thing that your run-of-the-mill recruit from Yemen can provide.

Another example: Samir Khan, the North Carolina man behind al-Qaida's Inspire magazine, which just published its second issue this week, his online magazine is like Cosmo for jihadis. It has how-to articles and tips. It's incredibly American.

WERTHEIMER: Now, all of the Americans you've profiled this week seem to have taken American qualities and adapted them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, as I was traveling from place to place to report this series, I was struck by the American-ness of these people we focused on. Adnan Shukrijumah, who's thought to be one of the leaders of al-Qaida's overseas terrorist attack unit, I mean apparently when he was in the States he was a real go-getter. And when he got to al-Qaida, he was initially, you know, shunted aside. He had asthma, they didn't think he could be of much use. But he really hustled the position for him. You know, the hustle that's so American, this idea that if you work hard you'll succeed.

And Samir Khan, this editor I was talking about earlier, he actually started a prototype of the magazine in North Carolina, and he hired a lawyer to tell him how far he could go without breaking the law by First Amendment protections, and that's not something that would have happened anywhere but here in the U.S.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think their American-ness makes them more dangerous to the United States?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think it cuts both ways. In one way, yes, because you have people in key positions who are - they've lived in New York and they know the city and they know how things work and how to blend in and that could make, you know, wherever they lived a little bit more vulnerable to attack. But there's a good side to this too.


TEMPLE-RASTON: It's possible that this very American-ness could end up acting as almost a safety valve. Let me give you an example. Remember Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who wanted to blow up a car in Times Square back in May? I've always found it incredibly interesting that he had stashed a getaway car. He had no intention of being a suicide bomber. And I think this gets to this American-ness idea, a sense of life being too important to waste.

We've only seen one American suicide bomber in all this violence over the last couple of years, and he was a Somali-American from Minneapolis and he killed himself in Somalia. And I think there's something about growing up here that makes it hard to go as far as a suicide bombing, or at least that's been the case that we've seen across the board so far.

WERTHEIMER: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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