As the 19th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s founding nears later in 2007, Western analysts have accumulated an enormous body of primary-source material upon which to base judgments, assessments and predictions. While it is a truism to say that al-Qaeda is a “learning organization”—in the sense that it studies failed operations and adapts—it is not often enough remembered that al-Qaeda is also an organization that devotes large amounts of time and resources to teaching, informing and warning. Needless to say, much of this latter activity is directed to the Muslim world, but not since the United States confronted Ho Chi Minh and General Giap during the Vietnam conflict have they had a foe as eager as al-Qaeda to educate them about its motivations, war aims and intentions. Indeed, al-Qaeda has taken the passion of the North Vietnamese to inform and warn a step further by recruiting a U.S. citizen to serve as an English-speaking, Islamist mentor for the American audience.
The American Adam Gadahn—now known as Azzam al-Amriki (Azzam the American)—has emerged as the third most important spokesman among al-Qaeda leaders, following Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri . While officially only a member of al-Qaeda’s media committee, Gadahn has joined bin Laden as the only other al-Qaeda member who has devoted entire statements to directly addressing the U.S. president and American citizens. To be sure, al-Zawahiri has ridiculed the president and talked to Americans, urging conversion and warning of coming attacks, but for the most part these statements have been in the context of regional issues—such as Iraq—for which he is the group’s lead spokesman. Gadahn, therefore, is at the core of al-Qaeda’s most important U.S.-oriented communication projects—although this does not necessarily mean he is fully involved in military operations—and seems to serve as the speaker responsible for ensuring that there is no way Americans can misunderstand what bin Laden is talking about. Speaking in the idiom of American English, and often using contemporary slang, Gadahn is the sledge that drives home the spike of bin Laden’s messages for Americans.
In this role, Gadahn’s May 29 videotape entitled “Legitimate Demands” constitutes a rare and perhaps singular item in the immense corpus of al-Qaeda’s statements, interviews, essays, sermons and editorials . At the most basic level, it completes what appears to have been Gadahn’s assignment to amplify bin Laden’s effort to satisfy his post-9/11 critics by ensuring that Americans were—according to the Prophet Muhammad’s guidance—offered the chance to convert to Islam and warned about coming attacks well before they occurred. Bin Laden both offered conversion and warned Americans multiple times between Spring 2002 and Summer 2006, and Gadahn focused on clarifying bin Laden’s conversion offer in a lengthy September 2006 video called “An Invitation to Islam” . Gadahn’s words in the conversion video were shorn of most of the Quranic references common to bin Laden’s rhetoric and were spoken in the American vernacular.
Gadahn’s May 29 “Legitimate Demands” amplifies and clarifies bin Laden’s multiple warnings to the American people about future attacks . It is unique in the al-Qaeda archive in its almost complete lack of Islamic terminology and allusions, as well as in its frank, almost brutal directness. In the video, Gadahn not only reemphasizes the threats bin Laden already has made, but in essence says that time is up for Americans to consider his boss’s words and implicitly warns an attack in the United States is near.
Gadahn first deftly turns the idiomatic phrasing of some U.S. leaders’ rhetoric back on them, describing Washington’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan as “your empire of evil,” and asserting that al-Qaeda is not calling “for negotiations. We don’t negotiate with baby-killers and war criminals like you! No, these are legitimate demands that must be met”—a clear play on the White House spokesperson’s 2005 response to bin Laden’s truce offer: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business.” Gadahn then denounces the “futile, farcical maneuvers [on Iraq] on Capitol Hill,” adding that, “You may or may not be aware of it, but today…things aren’t going to well for your Crusader coalition [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. In fact, things are going really badly…In other words, you’re losing on all fronts and losing big time” .
The core of Gadhan’s presentation is focused on bin Laden’s traditional positions, but his words are phrased in a manner that adds up to the most maximalist set of demands al-Qaeda has ever issued regarding what the U.S. president and Americans must do to avoid being attacked again domestically. Bin Laden’s use of inference, ambiguity and a patient, in-sorrow-not-anger tone is gone. In their place, Gadahn substitutes—and we must assume with the consent of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri—implacable demands that al-Qaeda knows cannot and will not be met, and which are reminiscent of those presented to Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 when Vienna intended war, not a settlement.
Gadahn’s demands on Washington are nothing less than a complete U.S. withdrawal from the Muslim world, warning that a failure to do so “will make you [Americans] forget all about the horrors of September 11th, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Virginia Tech” . He says that “every last one of your [America’s] soldiers, spies, security advisors, trainers, and attaches and so on” must leave the Muslim world “from Afghanistan to Zanzibar.” If a single individual remains, he warns, the United States will be attacked . “Stop all support and aid; military political, economic and otherwise to the 56-plus apostate regimes of the Muslim world and abandon them to their well deserved fate at the hands of the soldiers of Islam,” Gadahn demanded, explaining that if Washington does not “comply in full,” the mujahideen would “deem it sufficient to continue to fight and kill Americans” . On Israel, Gadahn repeated the pattern: “End all support, moral, military, economic, political or otherwise to the bastard state of Israel. And ban your citizens, Zionist Jews, Zionist Christians and the rest from traveling to occupied Palestine or settling there. Even one penny of aid will be considered sufficient justification to continue the fight” .
Gadahn closed by repeating al-Qaeda’s demand that Washington “free all Muslim captives from your prisons, detention facilities and concentration camps,” and expanded the traditional al-Qaeda demand for U.S. non-intervention in the Muslim world’s affairs by adding that U.S. officials must “impose a blanket ban on all broadcasts to our region, especially those designed to alter or destroy the faith, minds, morals and values of our people.” This last comment is worth noting because it goes quite a bit beyond the limited degree of attention and specificity al-Qaeda generally accords to the impact of U.S. culture on Muslims.
Gadahn’s bare-knuckled and supremely confident presentation sharpens and clarifies the message of warning bin Laden has repeatedly delivered to Americans; it is spoken by an American, in modern English, and is studded with contemporary slang and catch-phrases. Gadahn’s words also have a note of finality about them, as if he is saying there will be no more warnings from al-Qaeda, and the choice for Americans is between surrender and domestic attack. Again, this is out of character for the rhetoric of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and it suggests that they ordered Gadahn to make a last-warning to Americans before al-Qaeda attacks inside the United States. The obvious unacceptability of the demands also suggests that al-Qaeda has an attack ready and that nothing short of a U.S. capitulation would deter it. In Gadahn’s words, “the die has been cast” and an era has begun that will see “your end, not ours” .
1. The very best account of Adam Gadahn and the road he traveled to al-Qaeda is Raffi Khatchadourian, “Azzam the American. The Making of an al-Qaeda Homegrown,” New Yorker, January 22.
2. “Legitimate Demands, A Message from Mujahid Brother Adam Yahiye Gadahn (Azzam),” IntelCenter, May 29.
3. “An Invitation to Islam,” IntelCenter, September 2, 2006.
4. See, for example, Osama bin Laden, “Message to the American People,” al-Jazeera, October 30, 2004. Bin Laden’s consistent indictment of the United States has six components, and they are mirrored in Gadahn’s statement: unqualified U.S. support for Israel; the U.S. military and civilian presence on the Arabian Peninsula; the U.S. military presence in Muslim countries; U.S. exploitation of Muslim energy resources; U.S. protection for tyrannical Muslim governments; and U.S. support for Russia, India and China against Muslims.
5. “Legitimate Demands, A Message from Mujahid Brother Adam Yahiye Gadahn (Azzam).”
10. It is worth speculating that Gadahn’s words also have a Machiavellian intent given that they come at a time when the inspirational and instigating power of Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric is increasingly visible around the world in the proliferation of Islamist groups that claim allegiance to bin Laden and his ideas, but have no command-and-control relationship with al-Qaeda. For example, on the weekend of June 2-3, a homegrown, al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group intending to attack Kennedy Airport in New York was broken up by U.S. law enforcement authorities. It may be that Gadahn’s final-straw message reflects al-Qaeda’s realization that it has no control over these homegrown Islamist groups, and that by throwing down the gauntlet now bin Laden’s stature as the leader of the Sunni Islamist movement will grow by analysts associating his inspiration as a motivating force when one of the homegrown groups in the United States or elsewhere is finally successful.