Azzam The American
The remarkable descent of Adam Gadahn from California farm boy to an Al Qaeda member is described by Raffi Khatchadourian in the New Yorker article, "Azzam the American." Gadahn's story is more pathetic than malicious. However, forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman finds Gadahn's case fits a well-established pattern for radicalization.
Sageman discovered that most Al Qaeda operatives had been radicalized in the West and were from caring, intact families that had solidly middle- or upper-class economic backgrounds. Their families were religious but generally mainstream. The vast majority of the men did not have criminal records or any history of mental disorders. Moreover, there was little evidence of coördinated recruitment, coercion, or brainwashing. Al Qaeda’s leaders waited for aspiring jihadists to come to them—and then accepted only a small percentage. Joining the jihad, Sageman realized, was like trying to get into a highly selective college: many apply, but only a few are accepted.
Perhaps his most unexpected conclusion was that ideology and political grievances played a minimal role during the initial stages of enlistment. “The only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated,” Sageman told the September 11th Commission in 2003, during a debriefing about his research. These lost men would congregate at mosques and find others like them. Eventually, they would move into apartments near their mosques and build friendships around their faith and its obligations. He has called his model the “halal theory of terrorism”—since bonds were often formed while sharing halal meals—or the “bunch of guys” theory. The bunch of guys constituted a closed society that provided a sense of meaning that did not exist in the larger world.
Within the “bunch of guys,” Sageman found, men often became radicalized through a process akin to oneupmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of religious zeal. (Gregory Saathoff, a research psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a consultant to the F.B.I., told me, “We’re seeing in some of the casework that once they get the fever they are white-hot to move forward.”) Generally, the distinction between converts and men with mainstream Islamic backgrounds is less meaningful than it might seem, Sageman said, since “they all become born again.” Many Muslims who accept radical Salafist beliefs consider themselves “reverts.” They typically renounce their former lives and friends—and often their families.
Sageman’s model provides clues to how radicalization unfolds, but it cannot explain why one person embraces extremism and another does not. (As a former senior intelligence analyst told me, “It’s not something you can plot on a graph and study.”) Two of Gadahn’s siblings are in college, and the third is an aesthetician; why was Adam the one to join Al Qaeda? After Gadahn’s indictment for treason, his father told a reporter, “Adam has gone against everything our family believes in.” Indeed, some of Gadahn’s most pointed rhetoric as an Al Qaeda operative appears to be directed toward those who were closest to him. “The way to paradise is not a multi-lane highway,” Gadahn declares in “An Invitation to Islam,” and one can’t help but think that he has in mind his father’s pliant spirituality. Gadahn admonishes those who embraced, “without hesitation, every obscure and foreign religion, philosophy, and ideology,” or who searched for happiness in a “cultist-style withdrawal from the world.” In the video’s final moments, Gadahn turns to the subject of family, and his message is chilling. “Allah warns the parents, siblings, offspring, and other relatives of the Muslim that their relation to him will be of no use to them on the day of judgment, if they have not themselves died as true believers,” he says. “So don’t be complacent, or let the Devil deceive you into thinking that your connections will intercede for you on that terrible day.”