One day after a Pakistani newspaper reported al Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn may have been killed in the same airstrike that killed al Qaeda leader Abu Laith al Libi, the rumor remains unconfirmed.
Speculation over Gadahn’s presence at the al Qaeda safe house in North Waziristan began on Jan. 29, the day of the airstrike. An unnamed US official denied Gadahn was killed in the strike. But on Feb. 7, The News reported, based on statements from Western sources, that Gadahn was killed in the airstrike.
Gadahn was believed to be en route to the village of Khushali Tari Khel to attend an “an important meeting with other senior al-Qaeda commanders for planning the so-called spring offensive against US and NATO troops in Afghanistan,” The News reported. Two other al Qaeda leaders, Abu Obeida Tawari al Obeid, a Saudi; and Abu Adel al Kuwaiti, were also reported killed in the North Waziristan airstrike.
If Gadahn was indeed killed, al Qaeda has yet to acknowledge it. Al Qaeda has been forthcoming about the death of its leaders in the past, and has taken the opportunity to use their deaths as propaganda and recruiting tools. Less than 48 hours after al Libi was killed, al Qaeda posted an announcement at various jihadi forums.
Several days later, Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan, released a videotape via As Sahab, al Qaeda’s media arm. Yazid extolled al Libi’s sacrifice and vowed to avenge his death. “The men he trained … will not rest until they avenge him and realize his aspirations and hopes, God willing,” Yazid said.
Al Qaeda would have capitalized on Gadahn’s death, given his unique status as an American member of al Qaeda. “I would imagine that if Gadahn got knocked off they would have announced his death just as quickly as they did [Abu Laith al Libi’s death],” said Nick Grace, who closely tracks al Qaeda’s propaganda and activity at jihadi forums. “Having an American become a martyr would be a propaganda coup for them and I imagine that ultimately Gadahn will be more useful for al Qaeda dead than alive.”
Grace noted that Gadahn plays a leading role in al Qaeda’s propaganda apparatus. “He has a leading voice within As Sahab’s management,” Grace said. Gadahn has taken over a significant role in As Sahab since the summer of 2006, and the propaganda has become more “sophisticated” since Gadahn’s direction.
But signs of Gadahn’s absence have been seen with the latest release of the Yazid video, said Grace. Files were not properly uploaded in the correct sequence. “Since taking the reins of as-Sahab, Gadahn instituted standards and practices that have been closely followed over the past year,” Grace noted. “This is the first technical mistake that I have seen them make since the events back in September 2007,” when the Osama bin Laden videotape was improperly handled.
Pakistani jihadis have told NBC News that Gadahn and his travel party have been unheard of since the Jan. 29 airstrike. “All our friends are worried about him but so far we could not make any contact with him,” a jihadi told NBC News. “We had sent two of our friends to Mir Ali to locate him and provide us with details about him.” The same sources said Gadahn was to attend the high-level meeting where al Libi was killed.
While there have been questions about Gadahn’s purpose at such a meeting, his role as a senior media strategist makes his attendance possible. Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s latest “spring offensive” in Afghanistan would require a propaganda component, one that Gadahn would uniquely fill as al Qaeda views him as an expert on the attitude of the American and Western public.
Gadahn, who is better known as Azzam the American or Azzam al Amriki, was born Adam Pearlman and converted to Islam in 1997. It is believed he joined al Qaeda in 2003 and was recruited by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Gadahn appeared in his first al Qaeda video in October 2004, and has been featured in several videos since. In his latest video, titled “An Invitation to Reflection and Repentance,” Gadahn tore up his US passport and called for Americans to join al Qaeda.
He was indicted in a US federal court under charges of treason and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization for making al Qaeda propaganda videos. “By aligning himself with al Qaeda, by moving overseas to be closer to al Qaeda’s base and leadership, and by joining in advocating al Qaeda’s terrorist agenda, an agenda that includes the overthrow of the United States government and the murder of American citizens, Adam Gadahn has committed treason against the United States of America,” said US Attorney Debra Wong Yang. He is the first American to be indicted for treason since 1952.