West coast jihad

As a native Californian, I am willing to accept that Adam Gadahn, the American-born al-Qaeda propagandist who was raised in California, will often be labeled as such by the media. But my Golden State often gets a bad rap when it comes to other high profile characters who have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As a native Californian, I am willing to accept that Adam Gadahn, the American-born al-Qaeda propagandist who was raised in California, will often be labeled as such by the media. But my Golden State often gets a bad rap when it comes to other high profile characters who have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the record, the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh spent his first ten years in Maryland before the family moved to California. And Gary Brooks Faulkner, who carried a sword while hunting for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan's tribal areas, has not been a Californian since he moved to Colorado in 1968. But that factoid did not prevent the Post, al Jazeera, or a slew of other media outlets and blogs from referring to him as a Californian.

Place of birth aside, the most important news about Gadahn's recent screed, Legitimate Demands, Barack's Dilemma, is that very few Americans seem to care about it. Intelligence analysts are no doubt scouring the document for indications of Gadahn's role within al-Qaeda and whether or not his message suggests anything about the group's actual intentions, but as with most al-Qaeda propaganda these days, the public writ large and the Washington policy community have barely noticed.

A rough comparison to be sure, but a one week Google news search for ‘Adam Gadahn' brought up 297 results on June 21, 2010, which is 977 fewer than a search for fellow Californian ‘Adam Lambert' of American Idol fame. Gadahn may or may not speak for Osama bin Laden, but he does not have much in the way of Google juice.

As a native Californian, I am willing to accept that Adam Gadahn, the American-born al-Qaeda propagandist who was raised in California, will often be labeled as such by the media. But my Golden State often gets a bad rap when it comes to other high profile characters who have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the record, the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh spent his first ten years in Maryland before the family moved to California. And Gary Brooks Faulkner, who carried a sword while hunting for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has not been a Californian since he moved to Colorado in 1968. But that factoid did not prevent the Post, al Jazeera, or a slew of other media outlets and blogs from referring to him as a Californian.

Place of birth aside, the most important news about Gadahn’s recent screed, Legitimate Demands, Barack’s Dilemma, is that very few Americans seem to care about it. Intelligence analysts are no doubt scouring the document for indications of Gadahn’s role within al-Qaeda and whether or not his message suggests anything about the group’s actual intentions, but as with most al-Qaeda propaganda these days, the public writ large and the Washington policy community have barely noticed.

A rough comparison to be sure, but a one week Google news search for ‘Adam Gadahn’ brought up 297 results on June 21, 2010, which is 977 fewer than a search for fellow Californian ‘Adam Lambert’ of American Idol fame. Gadahn may or may not speak for Osama bin Laden, but he does not have much in the way of Google juice.

Legitimate Demands, Barack’s Dilemma is typically self-aggrandizing by Gadahn standards and reflects al-Qaeda’s constant effort to be relevant in western political discussions. Gadahn offers the usual bromides urging President Obama to eliminate U.S. influence from "Afghanistan and Zanzibar" (leaving out North Africa and Muslim populations from Pakistan to the Philippines that are often included in such statements) and threatens "a future of misery, insecurity and — ultimately — defeat, should you continue to ravage our countries."

Gadahn reiterates al-Qaeda’s commonly-expressed grievances, a reminder that despite the ideological glue holding al-Qaeda together, it aspires to resolve real world policy questions and in the meantime will use those grievances to recruit. Echoing al-Qaeda complaints since the 1990s, Gadahn demands the U.S:

  1. Withdraw all troops and personnel from "Afghanistan to Zanzibar;"
  2. End "moral and material" support for Israel, including trade of all kinds and tourism;
  3. Discontinue aid of all kinds to "hated regimes" in the Arab and Muslim world;
  4. Stop interfering in the Muslim world, including providing Peace Corps volunteers;
  5. Stop broadcasting into the Muslim world, especially content "designed to destroy faith, minds, morals, and values;"
  6. And, release all prisoners in places like Guantanamo, whether or not they have received a trial.

Gadahn’s recitation of oft-stated grievances and tired threats are less interesting than his attempt to insert al-Qaeda’s core issues into the American political narrative. According to Gadahn, it was not the economy, the health care bill, Martha Coakley’s incompetence, or the Tea Partiers that put Scott Brown’s Senate campaign over the top in Massachusetts, but President Obama’s unwillingness to withdraw troops from the Middle East. Gadahn’s flailing effort to connect al-Qaeda’s demands with American political developments is a cry for attention more than a real demand.

Indeed, the patronizing tone of Gadahn’s entire statement indicates that no matter how sincere his political grievances actually are, he has no expectation that the U.S. will actually adopt his "recommendations." By framing those grievances as part of a conversation on American domestic politics, Gadahn is likely trying to revitalize al-Qaeda itself as a noxious issue in the American political discussion. A variety of jihadi thinkers have argued that the American body politic is inherently fragile and that al-Qaeda’s violence and propaganda should be designed to exploit economic and social vulnerabilities to produce internal turmoil in the United States.  Gadahn’s defiant rhetorical posturing is about inspiring western supporters and using the specter of al-Qaeda to make already difficult political discussions about the future of U.S. involvement in the Mideast even harder.

It is impossible to know how much Gadahn actually cares about the grievances he describes (nor does it matter if he is able to exploit them for recruiting purposes), but it is relatively clear from the tone of this latest statement that he does not want American policymakers discussing these issues calmly or without referring directly to al-Qaeda when they do so. This is why it is a small blessing that in the Battle of the Adams, Lambert, not Gadahn, is obviously winning.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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