Who is the ‘American Al-Qaeda’?
The million dollar question in counter-terrorism circles right now is whether Adam Yahiye Gadahn, “Azzam the American” of al-Qaeda, was captured in Pakistan. Gadahn is a US-born al-Qaeda member who, in his old life, was a death metal fan from a partially Jewish family. As in so many other things, al-Qaeda attracts a strange rabble to their ranks.
It is a literal $1 million question — that is amount of the bounty the United States government has placed on Gadahn’s capture.
The latest information from Pakistani newspapers indicates that the government lied when they said Gadahn was captured:
Some Pakistani officials had said on Sunday that Adam Gadahn, a California-born convert to Islam with a $1 million US bounty on his head, had been arrested on the outskirts of the city of Karachi.
But a senior government official and two security agents said on Monday the suspected al Qaeda operative picked up in Karachi was not Gadahn.
“Our initial impression was that the guy was Adam Gadahn but that information now looks incorrect,” said one security official, who declined to be identified.
The arrested man was believed to be an American who goes by the alias Abu Yahya, the officials said. Gadahn is known to have used a similar alias.
“Probably the name and his origin caused the confusion,” the first official said.
He declined to speculate about the identity of the arrested man except to say he was apparently an American al Qaeda operative.
Both American and Pakistani sources have identified the captured al-Qaeda member more fully as Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al-Adam, a Pennsylvania-born member of al-Qaeda’s operations division who is fair-skinned and speaks both English and Pashto.
The only problem? According to multiple Google searches (and a good chunk of this author’s time), the first references online to an Abu Yahya Mujahdeen al-Adam occured on March 7, with the terrorist’s capture. Given al-Qaeda’s (let’s face it) media savviness throughout all of their respect affiliates, the idea that they kept an American-born member in the field quiet makes no sense. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about a mole being hidden in some far-away city and groomed for a sneak attack in New York or London; we’re talking about a soldier participating on attacks against American soldiers and their Afghan allies deep in the mountains.
Others also think something stinks of weirdness about the information that’s leaked out about “Abu Yahya Mujahdeen” so far. Gregg Carlstrom at the Majlis did some much needed Arabic parsing:
I’ve never heard of the guy. Nor have several counterterrorism analysts I asked tonight. A search for that name, in both Arabic and English, yields nothing (except for today’s news reports).
And the name itself doesn’t make much sense. Mujahideen is a plural noun, something you never see in a name (you would see the singular version, mujahid). And al-Adam doesn’t make much sense as a nisba, the honorific often appended to Arabic names to signify nationality, ethnicity or profession. It’s most likely a transliteration of العدم, which basically means “the nothingness.” Would be quite the existential nisba for a jihadi.
There is, however, a well-known member of al-Qaeda who goes by a very similar monicker. Abu Yahya al-Libi (Abu Yahya the Libyan) is a high-ranking AQ member who escaped from American custody in 2005 and subsequently appeared in a series of propaganda videos. However, al-Libi is, of course, Libyan and unlikely to be mistaken for an American.
So what is going on here? Was Gadahn captured? Was it an unknown American-speaking al-Qaeda member? Was it an Egyptian al-Qaeda member who just happened to have fair skin and fluent English skills?
If this author was a betting man, he’d say that the Pakistani and American authorities are playing their cards close to their chest right now. There’s a lot more to this story than we have heard so far. We will, of course, post more analysis as the facts come in.