On May 20, 2015, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified numerous documents found at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and published them on a specially designated website. The release garnered widespread media attention. Most of the media highlights centered on the many books found on bin Laden’s bookshelf, on the fact that many of them were about U.S. Middle East policy, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and that a number were by leftist thinkers.
More specifically, some of the more notable books included: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins; Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer; Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum; and Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies by Noam Chomsky, as well as mainstream books including Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward.
Media speculation that bin Laden had actually read all the books on his bookshelf is most likely incorrect, as U.S. government officials believe that his knowledge of English was very basic.
Additionally, some of the materials found in the compound that did not receive media attention included Issue 10 of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) English-language Inspire magazine, with an “exclusive” article by Adam Gadahn, and a video titled “Omar Won’t Let his Al-Qaeda Brother Adam Gadahn (Azzam the American) Ruin His Life.”
Also found but largely overlooked were various instructional manuals for video and audio recording software, including Adobe Encore, a DVD-authoring software tool for professional video producers; Adobe Media Recorder, a live audio and video capture software and media encoder that streams audio and video in real time to other Adobe software; Adobe Premiere video editing software; The Art of Digital Video, long regarded as the ultimate reference guide for digital video production; Astarte DVD Export software; Knoll Light Factory, a visual effects program that manufactures 3D lens flares for motion graphics; Surcode for Dolby Digital, which can be used to convert sound files to Dolby Digital AC-3 Standard; and Ultimatte, a GPU-accelerated plugin for Final Cut Pro and Motion, used for graphics rendering in digital videos.
Why would Osama bin Laden be interested in these books and software, in audio and video equipment manuals, or in the video about Adam Gadahn’s brother? Perhaps they belonged to Gadahn himself – possibly indicating that Gadahn and bin Laden were in closer contact than previously thought. We have already learned from the 2012 Abbottabad documents that there was regular bin Laden-Gadahn correspondence, and that Gadahn frequently provided bin Laden with media advice and advised him on aspects of American culture.
The manuals were likely used by those who produced Al-Qaeda’s videos following 9/11; it is even likelier that they were used by Gadahn himself. An article that included a 92-page interview with Gadahn, published posthumously in a special June 25, 2015 issue of the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) English-language magazine Resurgence, made it clear that Gadahn was “a one-man media team: script-writing, recording, translating, dubbing, editing, and producing speeches and documentaries on his own.” The article added, “His ability to improvise and make the best of available resources was remarkable.”
The following report, which includes excerpts from this author’s upcoming book American Traitor: The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda’s U.S.-Born Leader Adam Gadahn, explores the background of Adam Gadahn’s media work and his experiences as a child, as taught by his aunt, the LA-based activist and environmentalist Nancy Pearlman, and, later, his work as a translator, first for the Taliban and then for Al-Qaeda in Waziristan prior to 9/11. His most important legacy would be his contribution to the development of Al-Sahab, Al-Qaeda’s media division, and in particular its anti-American propaganda efforts, as well as his influence on Al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
The report will also detail Al-Sahab releases from the past decade, which show Gadahn’s influence as Al-Qaeda’s interpreter of American culture – for which he was indicted for treason by the U.S. in 2005 – as well as his use, in Al-Qaeda video productions over the past decade, of many of the books now known to have been on bin Laden’s bookshelf.
This month marks the first anniversary of Adam Gadahn’s death; on April 23, 2015, the U.S. government announced that he, along with American Al-Qaeda member Ahmad Farooq, American aid worker Warren Weinstein, and Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto had been killed in a series of U.S. drone strikes in January 2015. Gadahn’s family has issued no statement on his death, and the government has released no additional information.
Eventually, Al-Qaeda released a formal statement; AQIS confirmed his “martyrdom” when it published the lengthy Gadahn interview in Resurgence, stating: “We offer our congratulations to the Muslim Ummah on Adam Yahiye Gadhan (may Allah have mercy on him) attaining the ultimate success that each one of us aspires to achieve; we would like to emphasize that his martyrdom has once again demonstrated the difference between our leadership and the leadership of the enemies of Islam.”
Since Gadahn’s death, Al-Sahab has had only a few releases, and these have consisted primarily of audio recordings, mostly by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in addition to a few other minor releases. Gadahn’s death has significantly impacted, and impeded, Al-Qaeda’s media efforts, bringing them nearly to a standstill. It is thought that no one has picked up the mantle, and his loss has had a devastating effect on the group’s outreach, public relations, and more.
The Rise Of Adam Gadahn – Al-Qaeda Translator, Interpreter Of U.S. Culture, And Cyber Jihad Pioneer
During the early to mid-1990s, the teenage Gadahn worked for his aunt Nancy Pearlman’s radio and television production company in Los Angeles. In a 2004 interview with Inside Edition, Pearlman stated that Adam had learned about television production working with her on her Econews television program: “I encouraged him to help on my TV show. I encouraged him to help on my radio show, and had him co-host with me a few times.”
In 1998, after moving to Pakistan, Gadahn began publishing articles in an English-language Taliban propaganda magazine. By 2001, he had made his way to Al-Qaeda’s Al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan. While at Al-Farouq, he served as a translator for members of the Majlis Al-Shura – bin Laden’s governing council – and translated U.S. military manuals into Arabic for circulation among the mujahideen.
By the time he was 25, Gadahn had attended Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and served as an Al-Qaeda translator. The agency also said he had been associated with senior Al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan. “He is known to have performed translations… as part of the services he has provided to Al-Qaeda,” a spokesman for the FBI said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials told the Los Angeles Times in 2009: “[No one] has had a more astounding trajectory into Al-Qaeda’s inner circle than Gadahn. From journeying to Pakistan to meeting with Osama and later self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Gadahn quickly established himself as an American entrusted by Al-Qaeda’s leadership.” But in recent years, his efforts with Al-Sahab had been surpassed by other online jihadi groups, most notably the Islamic State (ISIS). He had supported shifting Al-Qaeda’s online efforts to modern technologies and social media outlets. In an interview with Inspire Magazine in March 2013, he told readers that Al-Qaeda and its online sympathizers need to “make every effort to reach out to Muslims… through new media like Facebook and Twitter…”
Adam Gadahn on his computer, Al-Sahab video, January 6, 2008