If you’re looking to pitch Inspire magazine, al-Qaida’s English-language webzine, you should know there’s been a little bit of editorial turnover.
On Friday morning, Yemeni and U.S. officials announced that al-Qaida preacher Anwar al-Awalaki was killed while traveling through southern Yemen. He wasn’t the only one. The Yemeni government also claims that Samir Khan, the North Carolina man who fled to Yemen to edit Inspire, also died in the strike that killed Awlaki. It’s not exactly the greatest time for al-Qaida’s meager American contingent.
The death of Awlaki, a popular jihadi cleric and contributor to Inspire, alongside Khan deprives the jihadi world of its major English-speaking propagandists. Now the last terrorist left chatting in an American accent is a chubby former metalhead named Adam Gadahn.
For the longest time, if you wanted official al-Qaida propaganda in English, Gadahn’s videos from al-Qaida central in Pakistan were just about your only choice. That changed with the rollout of Inspire, a reworked version of Samir Khan’s former amateur terror fanzine Jihad Recollectionsput out by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In its last issue, the .pdf magazine already showed signs of decline, thinning its pages and relying on nostalgia for its content. With its chief editor and most popular contributor out of the picture, the magazine’s future looks bleak.
That leaves Gadahn again. It’s easy to overestimate Awlaki’s standing in the wider jihadi universe. But for the American and larger English language audience, he was kind of a big deal. Gadahn, however, is no Awlaki.
Awlaki wasn’t the “leader” of AQAP, as he was often mistakenly called. But he certainly had a personal charisma that earned him followers. In his pre-fugitive life, Awlaki’s speaking abilities landed him spots as an imam in Colorado, San Diego and northern Virginia and as a chaplain at George Washington University. His commentaries on the lives of the Prophet’s companions were also popular online, even among those who were unaware of or uninterested in his more radical treatises. All of this came despite Awlaki’s lack of particularly impressive formal training in Islam.
Gadahn’s background as a loner and misfit, by contrast, didn’t prepare him to be a particularly effective jihad-evangelist. He grew up isolated, home-schooled on his parents farm. Before he converted to Islam, he dabbled in the Southern California metal scene. Apparently unable to scrape enough friends together for a group, Gadahn formed a one-man metal band, Aphasia (named after a speech impediment). After his conversion, he ran into problems at his Orange County mosque, sleeping on his job as a security guard there and getting expelled after punching his Imam.
In 1998, Gadahn left the U.S. for Pakistan, eventually joining up with al-Qaida as a translator. He never quite racked up the same kind of fan club as Awlaki later did. A number of those recently arrested for terrorism offenses in the west have reached out to Awlaki for guidance at some point, including Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan and would-be Shabaab member Zachery Chesser. Others have cited his lectures and writing as inspiration following attacks, including Roshonara Choudhry and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
But Gadahn’s been cranking out videos for seven years now. He’s even recently jumped on the bandwagon of encouraging lone-wolf attacks. And still he’s not the object of fanboy affection. Terrorists haven’t cited him as an ideological catalyst for an attack. Is this any way to treat an O.G.?
If al-Qaida or its affiliates want someone who can channel the American idiom after Awlaki, they’re going to have to do better than Gadahn — someone who never fit in much of anywhere.