Adam Gadahn and al-Qaeda’s Rhetorical Strategy
Yesterday, there were conflicting reports about the arrest of American al-Qaeda (AQ) spokesman, Adam Gadahn, in Karachi. Although Pakistani officials claim he was arrested on Sunday, US intelligence sources claimed that they had yet to see any evidence of his capture. The Pakistanis confirmed today that the suspect is not Gadahn, but another AQ-linked US citizen. Nonetheless, due to the recent media interest, it is worth taking a closer look at him.
Gadahn is an interesting player in the war on terror, and his emergence around 2004 represented a shift in AQ’s propaganda aimed at the West. Before this, AQ’s (particularly bin Laden’s) messages addressing the American and European public made little effort to hide the true motivations and intentions of the worldwide jihad. Take, for example, bin Laden’s 2002 open letter to the American people entitled ‘Why We Are Fighting You’. Among other things, he sets out the following reasons:
- The United States’ secularism and rejection of God’s law:
You are a nation who, rather than ruling by the sharia of God in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies
- The use of interest (usury) in the US economic system:
You are a nation that permits usury [interest], which has been forbidden by all the religions. You build your economy and investments on usury. As a result of this, in all their different forms and guises, the Jews have taken control of your economy.
- The immorality and debauchery of Western culture:
Stop your oppression, lies, immorality, and debauchery that has spread among you. We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury.
Following this, AQ soon came to realise the importance of public opinion in influencing the political will of countries to fight ongoing wars. They needed to convince the American and European public that – rather than being driven by a supremacist, neo-fascist ideology – AQ and its allies were in fact nothing more than a reactive force, fighting to right the wrongs of Western imperialist powers.
A marked change in the focus of AQ’s rhetoric seems to have begun in April 2004, after the March 11 Madrid train bombings, when bin Laden released a video addressing the people of Europe which he presented as a peace proposal. European leaders, he claimed, were ignoring the root causes of jihadist terrorism and if, within three months of the broadcast, a European nation guaranteed that it would not carry out attacks on Muslims or involve itself in their affairs, AQ would immediately cease operations against them. In October of the same year, bin Laden released a similar message to the American people, citing UN sanctions against Iraq and US support for Israel in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as motivations for 9/11, and telling them that “we have been fighting you because we are free men who cannot acquiesce in injustice.”
Bin Laden and his various deputies however, could only do so much: they were not fluent in English and had only a cursory understanding of Western culture. In order to properly and effectively convey their new message, they needed a native of the country and culture they were targeting. Cue Adam Gadahn, a media savvy native of California who converted to Islam at the age of 17.
In one of his first appearances, on the 2005 anniversary of 9/11, AQ released a video tailored to appeal to Westerners, and Americans in particular, who were still looking for answers to why they were under attack:
Four years after the blessed raids on New York and Washington, we find the people of the West continuing to speculate about the causes and objectives which lie behind those historic events and subsequent developments. We find them in disagreement over the nature of the people who carry out operations like those on September 11th, March 11th and July 7th, the nature of their motives and the nature of the demands they harbor, if any.
We wish to state at the outset that we see no acceptable excuse for this continuing uncertainty, especially since the mujahedeen have been unambiguous in stating, in stating their methodology, objectives and the reasons for their armed struggle against the crusaders and they have not hidden anything. Rather, it is the Western governments and their… mass media who have chosen to … by disregarding the facts or even intentionally muddying the waters.
He goes on to explain what the West must do in order to ensure its own security:
If they really had your protection in mind, they would have heeded the mujahedeen’s demands for justice and withdrawn from the Muslim world. If they really cared about protecting you, they would have responded positively to Sheik Osama’s proposal for a truce with the European nations, instead of arrogantly dismissing his initiative with the false claim that quote, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists, and that in any case, al Qaeda has no demands to meet.”
Today, you, the people of Europe are paying the price for the arrogance of your leaders. If their goal was your protection, they would not continue to level fabricated allegations against the mujahedeen whenever your overpaid intelligence services fail to prevent an operation on your soil. If your leaders really cared about anything other than protecting their own wealth, status and positions, then they wouldn’t attempt to hide the real reasons for our operations by telling you that we are bloodthirsty sadists, who kill out of mere hatred of freedom and the Western way of life.
As Sheik Osama [bin Laden] has told you repeatedly, your security is dependent on our security. You can’t have one without the other. If you ensure our security, you will have automatically insured you own. You security is not in the hands of Bush or Blair or Musharraf. No, it’s in your hands. And a failure to act on your part will have unpleasant consequence.
Yesterday, London, and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Allah willing. And this time, don’t count on us demonstrating restraint or compassion. We are Muslims. We love peace, but peace on our terms, peace laid down by Islam, not the so-called peace of occupiers and dictators. We love peace, but when the enemy violates that peace or prevents us from achieving it, then we love nothing better than the heat of battle, the echo of explosions and slitting the throats of the infidels.
Compared to bin Laden’s original justifications for declaring war on the US and its allies, Gadahn’s exhortations illustrate a clear change of direction in AQ’s propaganda messages to Westerners. He now plays a crucial role in reaching out to Westerners (Americans in particular) and conveying to them the mistaken idea that AQ is somehow a rational and fair movement that can be reasoned with.
AQ know that the Western mindset is very receptive to themes like peace, fighting injustice and self-determination, and Adam Gadahn has been tasked with using this type of terminology in order to present Western leaders and governments as the aggressors who are responsible for any terror attacks that befall their respective countries. The eventual (and hopefully unattainable) aim of all of this is to sow enough doubt within the population so as to reduce the political will to continue fighting jihadism all around the globe.