By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Videotaped threats this week of an al Qaeda attack on Los Angeles drew a swift rebuke from city officials on the eve of the fourth anniversary of 9/11. Then they reassured the city that there is “no known specific, credible threat.”
But Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the Southern California native who officials believe delivered the threats, is not just any rogue or loner. He comes with the al Qaeda seal of approval, according to terrorism experts, and his evolution as a radical son of the Islamic jihad is cause for concern for the agency that would first respond to an attack: the LAPD.
The question is, how connected is Gadahn? A veteran terrorism expert and government official said Gadahn has become al Qaeda’s “secret weapon” in the battle to infect America’s collective psyche: “Here’s a guy who can talk to Americans in English. He can indicate that he knows us and our culture. I liken him to Japan’s use of Tokyo Rose in World War II. The national media has brushed this videotape aside, but it has all the markings of bin Laden — the graphics, the cutaways, the level of sophistication — only in English. He’s in the inner circle of the al Qaeda hierarchy, or he wouldn’t have access to these things. This is very clever psy-ops right out of the al Qaeda front office.”
A look at public documents and news reports from around the country further shows that Gadahn is very well connected — more so than the L.A. Times bothered to report Monday on page A24.
“Yesterday, London and Madrid,” Gadahn said on an 11-minute videotape that was delivered to ABC News last Saturday, in which he glorified the “echo of explosions and the slitting of the throats of the infidels.”
“Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Allah willing.”
Such “bombastic pronouncements” are to be expected on the eve of 9/11, replied Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Chief of Police Bill Bratton in a joint statement. Bratton later told City News Service he is surprised no American city has been attacked since 9/11. “It’s relatively easy to attack, whether you machine gun a line of people standing at an event, or a suicide bomber. We’re as concerned with the homegrown terrorist plots as we are with the international terrorist plots,” the chief added, after discussing the recent breakup of a prison-based Islamic cell in Torrance.
Gadahn, 27, appears to represent a little of both. Born Adam Pearlman, the grandson of a prominent Jewish doctor, he was raised on a Riverside goat farm by free-spirited parents. After a brief infatuation with death metal music, he allegedly was recruited by al Qaeda through an Islamic mosque in Orange County and is believed to have been trained by terrorists in Afghanistan. He gained notoriety in May 2004 after then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft listed him along with six others in connection with a suspected plot aimed at disrupting the presidential election. Last October, ABC News broadcast portions of a 75-minute videotape of a man believed to be Gadahn but identifying himself as “Azzam the American.” The FBI is seeking information about his whereabouts. The FBI’s Web site lists both Gadahn and Azzam the American as “armed and dangerous.”
Perhaps the most compelling and least publicized aspect of Gadahn’s evolution — and the one that the Times has all but ignored — is his apparent association with former Orange County residents suspected by the U.S. government to be sleeper-cell operators connected to Osama bin Laden and the “millennium plot” to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and other targets on New Year’s Day 2000. The plot failed when customs agents found Ahmed Ressam, who was carrying a truckload of explosives across the Canadian border.
It was during the early to mid-1990s that Adam Gadahn became “fresh meat” for Khalil Said al-Deek, who was living in Anaheim, and the radical jihadists behind a Garden Grove–based nonprofit religious group called Charity Without Borders, according to Saraah Olson, the wife of the group’s former president, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, Hisham Diab.
In January 2000, APBnews.com reported that Deek, a Palestinian who became an American citizen in 1991, was targeted by the U.S. government as a facilitator of the millennium plot. Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, a journalist and author of four books on the Middle East, had uncovered information about Deek that illustrated his role in bin Laden’s network, “running an underground railroad in the Middle East for terrorists, shuttling them to different countries.” Emerson is known within Beltway circles as beholden to a pro-Israeli, anti-Islam agenda. He also is known as a resourceful and dogged investigator. He has testified before Congress and produced the 1994 PBS documentary Jihad in America. “He’s a pain in the ass,” says a U.S. official based in Washington, D.C., “but he does his homework.”
U.S. officials at the time also said they suspected Deek of providing al Qaeda with forged documents and other resources. Deek was arrested in Peshawar, Pakistan, on December 11, 1999, extradited to Jordan and charged with conspiracy and manufacturing explosives in connection with a foiled plot to attack U.S. and tourist targets in Jordan.
Deek, also known as William Deek and Joseph Adams, was of further interest to U.S. officials for his suspected involvement with Gama ‘a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian group that planned to bomb a Masonic temple in Los Angeles. The group was once led by Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who later masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Deek’s brother, Tawfiq Deek, a chemical engineer and member of the West Coast Islamic Center in Anaheim, told APBnews.com that his brother was a computer scientist with no connection to terrorist activities. In the 1990s, the Deek brothers lived in the same Anaheim apartment building. Tawfiq Deek, who works for the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, later confirmed for APBnews.com that he was an active member of the Islamic Association for Palestine, which the FBI has suspected is a front for the terrorist group Hamas. But he denied any connection to Hamas. Tawfiq Deek did not return calls for comment.
After his arrest in 1999, Khalil Deek remained in custody in Jordan for a year and was released for lack of evidence, according to his Santa Ana attorney, Fred Sayre. “I thought he was an innocent person,” Sayre said on Tuesday. “I still do.” Deek remains at large, but according to Emerson and a Washington-based counterterrorism official who requested anonymity, word has spread through the intelligence community that Deek was killed in Pakistan recently. FBI officials in Los Angeles would not confirm or deny those reports. The report by the 9/11 Commission refers to Deek as an associate of longtime bin Laden ally Abu Zubaydah. It states that Deek before his arrest worked with Afghanistan-based extremists to create an electronic version of the terrorist manual The Encyclopedia of Jihad. The 9/11 report further states that in June 1999 Deek, while based in Pakistan, aided Zubaydah and Palestinian extremist Khadr Abu Hoshar in sending fellow Palestinian Raed Hijazi and several others to Afghanistan for training in the handling of explosives. Hijazi, who has lived in California and Massachusetts, later departed for Jordan. Searches in Jordan at a rented apartment turned up 71 drums of acid, several forged Saudi passports, detonators and Deek’s Encyclopedia, according to the 9/11 report.
Last December, Saraah Olson appeared on ABC’s Primetime Live and described an ordeal in which she claims to have witnessed the recruitment of Adam Gadahn by her husband, Hisham Diab, and his neighbor and business partner, Khalil Deek. In the televised interview, Olson said her husband was visited by bin Laden’s top deputies, including Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik, just three months before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Olson said she helped set up what she described as the bogus Charity Without Borders, which U.S. officials now believe funneled cash to al Qaeda. “I’m not proud of it,” Olson told ABC. “I just knew that I lived in hell and wanted out.” Of Gadahn’s eventual appearance in the Diab home, and the influence of her husband and Deek, she said, “They totally take this really nice guy .?.?. and they start teaching him their belief of Islam, their warped thought process.” Diab fled the country in June 2001. ABC reported that authorities believe he went into hiding with al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
Olson’s story was corroborated at the time by the president of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Haitham “Danny” Bundakji, who told reporters that Diab and others in the al Qaeda cell recruited Gadahn. Bundakji could not be reached for comment. Rita Katz, a terrorism expert with the Site Institute in Washington, D.C., and a former associate of Emerson’s, says Olson’s story has the ring of truth. “I still don’t know if that cell is clean,” says Katz, whose investigation of Khalil Deek on behalf of former White House security adviser Richard Clarke led her to Diab and Charity Without Borders. Katz wrote an entire chapter about Gadahn in her 2003 book Terrorist Hunter, “before we even knew how important he had become.”
Documents from the charity group show Gadahn, Deek and his brother involved with Charity Without Borders. Deek is referenced by his alias, Joseph Adams. Gadahn is listed on the group’s time sheets as a “crew member” in 1998. Documents filed with the IRS list the group’s secretary as “Yehia A. Gahdan.” The group, which gained tax-exempt status in 1995 as a religious organization and received a $75,000 state grant in 1997 to distribute fliers encouraging the recycling of used motor oil, is defunct.
Meantime, Gadahn was expelled from a volunteer position at the Islamic Society of Orange County in 1997 when he assaulted Bundakji. Gadahn pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and served two days in jail. Bundakji told reporters that Gadahn later returned to the mosque wearing a white turban and robes resembling those worn by Osama bin Laden. FBI officials said Gadahn left the country in 1998. His family, which includes a Los Angeles Community College District trustee, has not heard from him in several years.
Besides a 2004 story in The Orange County Register, local press coverage has overlooked the alleged Gadahn-Deek connection. The OC Weekly has explored Deek’s innocence, as asserted by his brother and attorney. Earlier this week, it noted that Deek “has never been officially named on any U.S. government terrorist list.”
Perhaps the fog of the war on terror has hindered some in the media from putting together the more troubling details of Adam Gadahn’s journey. But as Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former counterintelligence chief at the FBI, told a reporter for the Daily Journal in 2001, even the FBI has been “loathe to go inside religious activities” protected by the Constitution in search of vague links to violent extremism.
And even Emerson told the Weekly on Tuesday that he doesn’t see Gadahn as a serious threat. He sees the recent videotape as evidence of Gadahn’s radicalization, but is suspicious of its direct delivery to ABC News, rather than a release to the Internet by an avowed terrorist organization. “I don’t know if he’s a loner or doing PR for the bad guys.”