Adam Gadahn, the first American to be charged with treason in more than fifty years, was born in Oregon, grew up in rural California, and converted to Islam at the age of seventeen. He is now twenty-eight. No one who knew him before his religious awakening ever thought that he would join Al Qaeda, and many people who knew him after he did are still perplexed. And yet, in a short time, Gadahn has become one of Osama bin Laden’s senior operatives. (He is believed to be hiding in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan.)

He is a member of Al Qaeda’s “media committee,” and his responsibilities are thought to include those of translator, video producer, and cultural interpreter. Primarily, though, Gadahn is a spokesperson, a role he performs with tremendous conviction. He has addressed the United States in five videos, most of which reach a wide audience on the Internet and, in some form or another, have been discussed on the evening news. Last year, shortly before the fifth anniversary of September 11th, Al Qaeda’s leadership featured Gadahn in a video titled “An Invitation to Islam.” The video began with an introduction from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s main theoretician, who referred to Gadahn tenderly as a brother and as “a perceptive person who wants to lead his people out of darkness into the light.” Zawahiri implored his Western audience to listen to Gadahn, even to follow his example. Al Qaeda had never before given one of its members, let alone an American, an endorsement so intimate and direct.

There is a certain stylistic uniformity to all forms of propaganda, but the personality of the propagandist is never far from the surface. Bin Laden’s murmuring voice belies the contempt in his words. Zawahiri speaks in the confident, rhythmic clauses of a master strategist. Adam Gadahn, though he tries to adopt the composure of a statesman, exudes the zealotry of a convert, and of youth. Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from “The Lord of the Rings.” “The call has gone out,” he proclaimed in one video. “The era of jihad and resistance has dawned in all its glory.” Mostly, though, Gadahn sounds angry. In 2005, with his head wrapped in a black turban and his face covered with a black veil, he warned, “We love nothing better than the heat of battle, the echo of explosions, and slitting the throats of the infidels.” Last July, while discussing civilian casualties in Iraq, he said, “It’s hard to imagine that any compassionate person could see pictures, just pictures, of what the Crusaders did to those children, and not want to go on a shooting spree at the Marines’ housing facilities at Camp Pendleton.” In a feature-length Al Qaeda documentary that was released on the Internet on September 11, 2006, Gadahn referred to the United States as “enemy soil,” and celebrated the September 11th hijackers as “dedicated, strong-willed, highly motivated individuals.”

“An Invitation to Islam” allowed Americans to observe Gadahn at length. For nearly forty-five minutes, he urged the people of the United States to discard their myriad religious and political beliefs, adopt an uncompromising form of Islam, and “join the winning side.” This time, he wore a pristine white robe and a white turban, and he was seated in what appeared to be a modern office; beside him were a flat-screen Compaq computer monitor, a neat row of books, and a full glass of tea. Gadahn has brown eyes, a prominent brow, and thick brown hair. His skin was tanned. A long beard of tight curls puffed outward along the sides of his full cheeks. He is nearly six feet tall, and is thought to weigh more than two hundred pounds. Gadahn cannot keep his body still when he speaks. He points his finger upward, or wields a copy of the Koran, or swipes his hand in front of his chest to dismiss an erroneous idea. “Time is running out,” Gadahn said, waving an arm up and down. “So make the right choice before it’s too late and you meet the dismal fate of thousands before you.”

Adam Gadahn’s nom de guerre is Azzam al-Amriki (Azzam the American). He can fluently recite the Koran in classical Arabic, and, since the late nineteen-nineties, when he joined the jihad, his English has acquired a vaguely Middle Eastern accent. At times, he speaks in what might be called Jihadlish—a peculiar fusion of American vernacular and militant Islamist theory. Gadahn may be the first Al Qaeda operative to lace a religious threat with a reference to Monopoly. (“If you die as an unbeliever in battle against the Muslims, you’re going straight to hell, without passing Go.”) Or to adopt the bluster of a barroom pundit. (“Whoever takes over for Bush probably won’t have the guts to bring the troops home.”) Once, referring to Abu Jahal, an early enemy of Islam known as the Father of Ignorance, Gadahn said, “I can’t forget the day, when, as I was praying a prescribed prayer with one of the brothers in a shopping-center parking lot in suburban America, a man sped by in his sports-utility vehicle shouting from his open window, ‘Worship Jesus, your Lord.’ The gas guzzler, cell phone, and college diploma notwithstanding, one couldn’t help but be reminded of Abu Jahal in the seventh century, abusing the Prophet while he prayed.”

In May, 2004, the F.B.I. announced that Gadahn was wanted for questioning, and in October, 2005, several weeks after he threatened an attack on Los Angeles in a video, the Justice Department indicted him under seal for providing material support to Al Qaeda. Treason was added to that charge in October, 2006, following Zawahiri’s endorsement in “An Invitation to Islam” and Gadahn’s reference to the United States as “enemy soil.” Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who announced the new charge in Washington, stressed that Gadahn had “made a choice” to side with bin Laden. “He chose to join our enemy and to provide it with aid and comfort by acting as a propagandist for Al Qaeda,” McNulty said. “Terrorists create fear and intimidation through extreme violence. They want Americans to live and walk in fear. They want to demoralize us. That’s why propaganda is so important to them, and why facilitating that propaganda is such an egregious crime.” Gadahn’s name was added to the government’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and a million-dollar bounty was offered for information leading to his capture.

Gadahn is the ultimate “homegrown”—a term used by scholars and government officials for Western citizens who are “picking up the sword of the idea,” as one senior F.B.I. official put it, and are willing to attack their own societies, even martyr themselves if required. Most homegrowns are second- or third-generation Muslims, but a few—and perhaps the most puzzling—are converts. Jose Padilla (the so-called Dirty Bomber) and Richard Reid (the so-called Shoe Bomber) are well-known examples. In 2004, Ryan Anderson, a Muslim convert in the Washington Army National Guard, was convicted of attempting to provide Al Qaeda with military intelligence. (During a military sting, Anderson said, “I wish to defect from the United States. I wish to join Al Qaeda, train its members, and conduct terrorist attacks.”) John Walker Lindh, who grew up in Marin County, California, never plotted against America, but he joined and fought for the Taliban.

Homegrowns in the United States are especially rare and are poorly understood; most of the scholarship about them is only a few years old. And yet, because of their cultural literacy, and because of the mobility that their citizenship provides, they are potentially the most dangerous of terrorists. This fear has recently propelled a small number of specialists to search for a pattern behind homegrown radicalization and recruitment. Their research has led them to examine the sociology of cults, the psychology of fanaticism, even the formation of defunct political terror groups like West Germany’s Red Army Faction. Adam Gadahn’s transformation into Azzam al-Amriki may turn out to be a valuable case study in this effort. “The thing that concerns me with Adam Gadahn’s situation is, how did it happen?” Randy Parsons, who ran the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism division in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2006, told me. “How did he convert, not to Islam, because obviously what he is into is not mainstream Islam, but to a particularly virulent, violent, radical view of Islam? How does somebody get to that?”

Adam Gadahn was raised on a farm in Southern California, near a small, unincorporated settlement in Riverside County called Winchester. The land is hidden among dirt roads and eucalyptus trees in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains. Its forty acres are windswept and dry—suffering from what Steinbeck called “bony soil.” Adam’s mother, Jennifer, is from Pennsylvania. His father, Phil, grew up in nearby Orange County. When the couple settled on the property, more than twenty-five years ago, they decided to raise goats. They built a cabin and strove to be self-sufficient. They had no running water in their home and produced their own electricity, from solar panels. For years, they did not own a telephone. They did not even have a mailing address; they drove to the post office in Winchester for their mail. They hoped that by avoiding the chaotic world of cities and commerce, by living in isolation and austerity, they might discover a fragment of an American Eden.

Like Adam, Phil Gadahn had taken on a new name and identity as a young man. He was born Philip Pearlman, the son of a prosperous Jewish physician and his Protestant wife, in Santa Ana. In the nineteen-sixties, while studying at the University of California at Irvine, Phil was a prominent figure in the local countercultural movement. He wore his hair long, and grew a beard. He edited the student newspaper and encouraged its reporters to tackle issues like free speech. He was passionate about psychedelic rock, played electric guitar, and organized musical “happenings”: improvisational sessions involving a shifting cast of musicians. Joe Sidore, who recorded Phil’s most famous happening, “The Beat of the Earth,” in 1967, described Phil as “just a gentle, peaceful soul. He emoted this charisma. He was so Christ-like—I shouldn’t even say that—he was so gentle. He attracted, and was attracted to, certain kinds of people, and those kinds of people were exactly the same way he was. He never changed his ideals.” Friends recall Pearlman as a lovable contrarian, a perfectionist who was slow to trust others. “His nature is very cautious,” Sidore said. “He’ll kind of look at you from the corner of his eye. ‘Suspicious’ is probably a better word—that’s first and foremost his nature.” (Adam’s parents and other family members have largely refused to speak to the press.)

One day, while walking near the ocean, Pearlman had a religious epiphany. As Adam described it in an essay he wrote after his conversion to Islam, “My father was raised agnostic or atheist, but he became a believer in One God when he picked up a Bible left on the beach.” As Pearlman opened the Bible and began to read it, he became aware of a divine presence. The experience affected him deeply, and he alluded to it in his music. Some of his religious ideas were evident in an album he made in 1975 called “Relatively Clean Rivers.” Pearlman’s lyrics evoke a world that has strayed from divine truth into Babylon-like confusion. He describes a “vast Orwellian wilderness” and the “journey we all must take” within it to achieve “relative perfection in our own special tiny corner of the universe”—a journey not unlike his own.

The beliefs expressed in “Relatively Clean Rivers” were not all personal. Pearlman called for peace in the Middle East (“hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews and melt down weapons into water sprinklers, tractors, shovels, and hoes”), but he seemed to regard the world’s governments as too tainted by avarice and hypocrisy to achieve it. “Too many countries with a head full of gold,” he sang, and he warned that, on a planet plagued by war and famine, “God sent the message down to try to bring us to his side; there’s no place left to run, my friend, there’s no place left to hide.” Several lines from “Relatively Clean Rivers” seem to have held special meaning for him. Rich Haupt, a record collector who became a friend of Pearlman’s in the nineties, recalled a conversation in which Phil quoted a lyric from the album. “You know, Rich,” he said, “ ‘We all throw our money into the streets. Whose face do you see on the coin? Not God’s.’ ”

Several years after Phil and Jennifer married, in the mid-seventies, they changed their surnames to Gadahn. The name refers to the Biblical warrior Gideon—Gid’on, in Hebrew—who, with the aid of trumpets and clay jars, defeated Israel’s enemies. In one Old Testament account, Gideon denounced idolatry and, when he was asked to become king, said, “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.” (In the liner notes to “Relatively Clean Rivers,” Pearlman wrote, “We expect some sort of absolute dictatorship, an absolute monarchy to be exact, with no privileged people or persons whatsoever, except maybe God.”) Pearlman used different first names—Sef, Saif, Seth, or Phil—on different occasions, and adjusted Christianity according to his spiritual needs. In his essay, Adam explained that his father “disregards the Trinity.”

Three years after the recording of “Relatively Clean Rivers,” Phil and Jennifer Gadahn were living in Oregon when Adam, their first child, was born. They gave him the middle name Yahiye, after the Arabic name for John the Baptist, who is believed by Muslims to be a prophet. When Adam was very young, the Gadahns moved to the property in Riverside County. Phil worked as a handyman, and every year he sold about thirty or forty goats at local markets, including some run by Muslims. (Occasionally, Muslims declined to buy the goats, considering them insufficiently halal.) He refused to sell his animals to people who he thought would slaughter them inhumanely.

As a child, Adam was shy, bookish, and by all accounts exceptionally bright. His grandfather would sometimes boast that he could read portions of an encyclopedia by the age of six. The Gadahns homeschooled Adam and his younger siblings, two sisters and a brother, but they also gave them opportunities to make friends. When Adam was twelve or thirteen, he played Little League baseball. Carol Koltuniak, whose son was on the same team, remembered that Gadahn was quiet and easygoing but not a natural athlete. “He definitely didn’t want to be doing what he was doing,” she said. “He was very much a loner.” But he was also persistent. Adam attended every practice and every game, accompanied by his family. “They seemed very happy in their life style,” Koltuniak said. Sometimes they would bring goat cheese and share it with other families in the stands.

Adam also joined several Christian homeschool support groups. (At the time, nearly all such groups in the region were Christian.) He dutifully attended meetings for nearly eight years, until he was about seventeen. Looking back on his experience after his conversion to Islam, he criticized the other children’s “blind dogmatism” and “charismatic wackiness.” By the time he turned fifteen, he had found another way to reach out to people beyond the farm. It was through an obscure musical subculture called death metal.

Death metal is a severe offshoot of heavy metal, a reaction to the superficiality of eighties popular culture. In the early nineties, bands that played death metal considered themselves part of an élite vanguard. They tuned their guitars in unconventional ways, and some, influenced by classical musicians, composed songs that required high degrees of discipline and technical virtuosity to play. Onstage, artists often wore sweatpants to demonstrate their athleticism and lack of pretense; the genre’s signature vocal style is a heavy growling chant. (“We like it when it’s simply rotten,” one musician told me.) It is a subculture in love with its offensiveness, and obsessive about guarding its artistic purity.

Phil Gadahn “wasn’t particularly crazy about it,” Rich Haupt said, but had he been able to look past the dark aesthetic he might have understood his son’s interest in the music. “Death metal is an extremist movement,” Spinoza Ray Prozak, a former death-metal d.j. who knew Adam, told me. “We’re people who don’t like modern society. We think it’s a path to death, doom, destruction, horror; it is part of the moral way we view the universe. A lot of death-metal songs are about disease, especially the kind of disease that strikes from within, incapacitates you, and there is no way to fight it, and you have to wait for it to slowly absorb you. A lot of songs are about paralysis, injury, necrotic diseases.” Where Phil Gadahn in his music focussed on redemption, death metal focussed on decay. Members of the genre generally profess to reject Christianity, but they do so within a religious framework, using the language and imagery of paganism or Satanism, rather than of atheism. Fans who outgrow the music, as most do, often enough become religious.

It’s unclear when Gadahn first encountered death metal, but by 1993 he had decided to learn as much about it as he could. Many of its followers, he found, were cerebral teen-agers like him. They were searching, not so much for a way to release their rage but for an experience that was authentic and powerful. “Where heavy metal gets a lot of the guys who lift weights and punch out beer cans, death metal is a really interesting combination of people, but it’s a lot of just nerd,” Prozak told me. Gadahn bought copies of small alternative magazines that included lists of fans who wanted to trade albums or mix tapes. He wrote to people on the lists, and the envelopes that came back were stuffed with cassettes and slips of paper containing the names and addresses of still more fans who wanted to correspond. “He was probably in contact with, minimum, several hundred people worldwide,” Prozak said. “He took it very seriously. He read up on the music, he researched it as best he could. And he went from a guy who had about ten albums and thought it was neat to a guy who had access to most of the genre.” At the time, the Internet was not yet in widespread use, and the death-metal underground must have seemed both exclusive and far-reaching. More important, its correspondence network made geography irrelevant. It was a world that Gadahn could belong to.

To the teen-agers in the metal underground who got to know Adam Gadahn, he remained an elusive figure. As one friend recalled, he was “a voice on the phone, a couple of tapes in the mail, some letters.” A few of his pen pals remember that he was overly earnest; others said that he was goofy. He talked about social issues, or about the Disney comic books featuring Scrooge McDuck, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie, which he loved. He sometimes kept friends on the telephone for so long that they wondered how he could pay for the call. In all his conversations, Gadahn came across as soft-spoken, polite, highly literate, and passionate. He befriended college students who were years older than he was. “Adam was really intelligent and a really nice guy,” said John E. Brown II, who was a student at the University of Wyoming when Gadahn first wrote to him. Chris Leffler, who had a band in Kentucky called Cataclysm, exchanged several letters with Gadahn and “never realized how young he was.” Jeff Hayden, the guitarist of Timeghoul, a band from Missouri, remembered him as “a personable, comedic young man.”

Gadahn first approached Spinoza Ray Prozak in 1993, after listening to his weekly radio show on KSPC 88.7, the student-run station at Pomona College. Prozak, who asked me to use only his metal name, was an English major, and was reading Nietzsche, William Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft. Gadahn would call in, and the two would chat between track changes. Lovecraft’s gothic horror stories were a source of inspiration for many death-metal bands, and Gadahn seemed to have read all of them more than once. But, if the conversation veered into literary theory, Gadahn could follow that, too. Prozak thought, He’s kind of a deep one.

Prozak remembered that Gadahn mocked death metal’s obsession with the occult: “He said something about his parents having goats, and we always laughed about that because with any satanic imagery you always gotta have a goat.” Gadahn was “a little socially inexperienced, a little withdrawn,” Prozak said. “He was lonely, and I think he also had a sense of tragedy. He was one of those guys where most of his concerns were external. I mean, he knew he was going to survive being alone. He was concerned with where the world was going.” Gadahn was particularly troubled by the urban sprawl surrounding Los Angeles and spreading across Southern California. “You have this city that keeps growing, it’s beset by problems, it’s kinda miserable to live there, but everybody adores it because of the money—there was a lot of that sort of stuff that he talked about,” Prozak said. “He’d be just like ‘You know, this is crazy. We live out here in this area that’s the end of the universe. Most of the people around me are brain-dead, nobody cares about anything that’s going on, we’re wrecking everything that’s good, all the trees are disappearing, everything is being turned into suburbs. I feel like I’m the only one who notices this.’ ”

As Gadahn learned more about the death-metal community, he began to seek out musicians whom he revered, or people who he believed played important roles in the underground, and he became a conduit of death-metal news from such places as South America (“Peru, yeah, they’ve got a growing metal scene down there”), the Baltics (“a cool techno-death band from Lithuania”), and the Far East (“a godly power/thrash band outta Malaysia”). Gadahn also liked to play the role of promoter; he made flyers for Prozak’s radio show and, proud of his artwork, sent them to other people. The flyers were essentially elaborate doodles. (His sketches of zombies and ghouls, more cute than horrific, found their way onto nearly everything he mailed.) One flyer features a hermaphrodite zombie surrounded by the words “I die in excruciating torment—my life fades out of existence—all of this worth nothing.” In a picture he sent as a possible cover design to a zine called Xenocide, he drew four monsters encircling a frightened boy. The boy looks up at the beasts and stabs one with his sharpened tongue.

Gadahn listened to Peter Gabriel, the Allman Brothers, and even Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov, and he often attended the symphony with an aunt, Nancy Pearlman, a journalist and environmental activist. But his focus remained death metal, for which he had developed a discerning ear. In a review for Xenocide of an album by a band called Autopsy, he wrote disapprovingly about “glitches in the engineering that you will notice if you listen through headphones,” but he celebrated the band’s “guttural growlings, repulsive throughout.”

During the summer of 1993, Gadahn decided to try composing his own music, even though he didn’t really know how to play an instrument. (He briefly took guitar lessons and claimed to have learned “pieces by Zeppelin, Mancini, Thorogood, and Ozzy.”) He formed a one-man band called Aphasia; his first recording was an hour long. “The music can be described as an experimental symphonic ambient electronic industrial noise collage, depending upon the listener’s point of view,” Gadahn wrote to a friend. To make it, he used a Casio synthesizer, two-track tape recorders, a cymbal, and his voice. Gadahn advertised Aphasia to his pen pals as “melodic yet musically-removed,” and he found humor in its rawness. He designed an Aphasia logo, and referred to himself as “Noise dork Aphasia.” In the next two years, he released at least five Aphasia recordings, including “Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics” and “Delirium: 7 Hallucinatory Interludes, Op. 2.”

John Brown, Gadahn’s former friend in Wyoming, mailed me an Aphasia tape that he had saved. The cassette’s packaging featured a knife-bearing angel, a photo from the Holocaust of a cadaver being pushed into a crematorium, and a reproduction of the Rylands Papyrus, one of the oldest surviving fragments of the Gospels. (“Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ The Judeans said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.’ ”) I played the tape. The Casio’s drum machine, set to a racing speed, is the foundation for a repetitive cycle of notes that in turn serve as a base for samples of death metal, classical music, and bleating goats. At one point, Gadahn can be heard speaking quickly, with the intonation of a radio talk-show host. Referring to one of death metal’s pioneers, Chuck Schuldiner, who wrote a pro-choice, pro-death-penalty song, Gadahn says, “Not for it myself, kind of against it, in fact. But Chuck thinks it’s a great idea. Well, Chuck, you want to kill people, go ahead and do it. Anyway, no, he’s talking about institutionalized murder. I mean, like, stuff like the death penalty and abortion. I don’t know, abortion seems to be a clear issue to me, so does the death penalty. Not really into the killing-people thing.”

Gadahn rarely discussed life on the farm with his death-metal friends. Once, he mentioned to Brown that he didn’t have access to running water. “It struck me that he wasn’t telling the truth,” Brown told me. “And I’m like ‘What do you do when you need to go to the bathroom?’ And he’s like ‘Go outside.’ And I’m like ‘Really, and do what?’ And he’s like ‘Dig a hole.’ And then he’d laugh.” (The farm had a composting toilet.) The two sometimes chatted about books. Brown suggested that Gadahn read “Firefly,” a horror novel by Piers Anthony about an alien predator that puts people into a sexual trance, sucks out their protoplasm, and kills them with bile. In his next letter to Brown, Gadahn said, “Man, that’s twisted.”

Several times a month, the Gadahn family drove to a public library in the nearby town of Hemet. A librarian there told me that the Gadahns spent a great deal of time browsing in the stacks, or reading. Like other parents, Jennifer and Phil worried about their children watching too much TV. (A relative had given them a battery-operated television.) Adam and his siblings often played outside, among the hundreds of goats that grazed the rolling acres surrounding the cabin. Michael Rowe, a neighbor, remembered seeing them, all four children with long hair. Phil Gadahn eventually gave up goat farming, but he kept some of his animals because their nibbling protected his home from brushfires. When nearby hills turned green with the rains, the farm became carpeted with white wildflowers—the only plant that the goats would not eat.

Sometimes Adam would visit his paternal grandparents, Carl and Agnes Pearlman, in Santa Ana, where he would swim with neighborhood children and family friends. Carl Pearlman was a respected urologist, a patron of the arts, and a board member of the Anti-Defamation League. Agnes was a college teacher. Gadahn also spent time with his aunt Nancy. The two would go on hikes or travel to other parts of the country or overseas. Occasionally, Adam helped Nancy host a radio show on the environment. He also appeared in “Econews,” a series that she produces for cable networks. In one episode, Adam interviews an anthropologist who studies garbage. (One of his questions: “What about the garbage problem at the Grand Canyon?”) Wearing a blue baseball cap and a white T-shirt, he seems to enjoy being in front of the camera.

In June, 1995, when Gadahn was sixteen, he left the farm to live with his grandparents in Santa Ana. He had completed his high-school coursework, and was uncertain what to do next. “I moved in with the intent of finding a job,” he wrote in his essay about his conversion, but it was “easier said than done.” Gadahn found work at a computer store and thought about going to college. At home, he explored the Internet. “My grandmother, a com-puter whiz, is hooked up to America Online and I have been scooting the information superhighway,” he wrote. Gadahn liked to cook, and enjoyed watching cooking shows on TV. He continued to work on Aphasia. His music had become darker and more textured—it sounded like a primordial nebula of noise—but he no longer found it rewarding. By 1995, several record companies had signed death metal’s most prominent bands in an attempt to replicate the commercial success of Metallica, a group that combined various metal subgenres in a way that appealed to mainstream audiences. In the liner notes of an Aphasia tape he made just before he moved, Gadahn decried “commercial death & thrash metal, and the rest of you losers! Die and burn in Hell!!!” That July, he completed another full-length recording and called it “Aesthetic Myopia.”

Gadahn wrote of a yawning emptiness, and he sought ways “to fill that void.” He began scrolling through AOL’s religion folders on the Internet and tuning to Christian programming on the radio. That summer, he attended several Christian lectures and events, including one led by Gregory Koukl, an evangelical talk-show host who argues against religious pluralism. But Gadahn found evangelical Christianity’s “apocalyptic ramblings” to be “paranoid” and hollow. As he later recalled, “I began to look for something else to hold onto.”

During Gadahn’s spiritual wanderings on the Internet, he found “discussions on Islam to be the most intriguing,” he wrote after he converted. Islam’s absolute monotheism appealed to him. “God, not as an anthropomorphic being but as an entity beyond human comprehension, transcendent of man, independent and undivided,” he said. The Koran was “comprehensible to a layman, and there is no papacy or priesthood that is considered infallible in matters of interpretation: all Muslims are free to reflect and interpret the book given a sufficient education.”

Sometime in the fall of 1995, Gadahn found his way to the Islamic Society of Orange County, in Garden Grove. During his first visits to the society’s mosque, he was dressed casually. His hair was still long, and he was clean-shaven. One of the mosque’s employees spoke with him briefly about the faith, and recommended some literature. Gadahn obtained an English translation of the Koran, and, while living at his grandparents’ house, he worked his way through its hundred and fourteen suras, or chapters. He thought of his reading as “personal research,” and when he spoke with his death-metal friends he did not mention it.

One evening in early November, Gadahn discovered a Web site that Jon Konrath, the editor of Xenocide, had created. Gadahn sent Konrath a short email that began, “Ha Ha Ha! I found you!” The two had not been in touch, and Gadahn assumed that Konrath wouldn’t remember him. He wrote, “I am now, as ever, a revolting geek of mass proportions.” Two hours later, Konrath responded, “Hey man. I am here, and of course I remember the stuff you did.” Konrath told Gadahn that he had moved to Seattle and had become less interested in death metal. (“I slowly faded from the scene as the scene itself fragmented and lost some of its momentum.”) Gadahn responded with an evasive note: “Tell me how you like Seattle—I’m thinking of moving there. Sorry about the shortness of this letter—longer one next time!”

Gadahn didn’t write again. A week later, on November 17th, he returned to the Islamic Society and told the imam, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, that he was ready to convert. To accept Islam, one must declare the shahada, an Arabic term that means “bearing witness.” It is a single sentence: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger.” Sitting beneath fluorescent lights in Siddiqi’s small office, Gadahn had trouble saying the words in Arabic, a mosque official who was there told me, so Siddiqi helped him. (When Gadahn filled out a declaration of faith—a one-page form provided by the mosque—he wrote that his father’s name was Sef’udin, an Islamic name meaning “Sword of Faith.”) New Muslims are not obliged to announce themselves publicly, but Gadahn told Siddiqi that he wanted to do so. It was a Friday, the busiest day for prayers, and that afternoon he stood before the Islamic Society’s congregation to proclaim his conversion. The room did not face Mecca, so the worshippers had lined up in diagonal rows. Gadahn felt uplifted. A week later, he wrote, “It feels great to be a Muslim.”

The Islamic Society of Orange County sits at the end of a quiet residential street. It was established in 1976, and for years it housed the only mosque in the area. By the early nineties, competing factions had formed at the society. In 1992, Saddiqi told a local paper that, in Islam, “we do not have a liberal mosque, a conservative mosque. We do not do that. It’s not easy to keep everyone together.” That year, during a challenge to his leadership, twenty supporters broke into the mosque at 2 A.M., changed the locks, and declared by fiat that Siddiqi would remain imam. One congregant told the paper that the dispute “split brother against brother, family member against family member.”

During the nineties, Muslims at the congregation and elsewhere in the United States watched with deep concern as wars broke out in Bosnia and in Chechnya; in both places, Muslims were widely considered to be the victims. In three civil wars—in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan—Islamist parties fought in brutal struggles for power, and in the Middle East the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continued. Islam’s ummah—the community of believers—appeared to be under threat from many directions.

Supporting other Muslims in these conflicts was considered an honorable endeavor, and some people at the mosque spoke openly about doing so. A number of men who attended the mosque invoked the term jihad. When I asked Siddiqi to define “jihad” in its political sense, he said that it means “a struggle for peace and justice, so that you establish peace in the world, you establish justice in the world, and defend your own rights—the right of life, the right of property, the right of dignity and honor and freedom, and the right of your religion. So you defend yourself for that, and you defend other people who are suffering and oppressed. So jihad may take a military action, but it is not always a military action.”

In December, 1992, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a prominent Egyptian cleric and Islamic radical also known as the Blind Sheikh, visited the Islamic Society to lecture about jihad, and Siddiqi sat beside him to translate. Abdel Rahman dismissed nonviolent definitions of jihad as weak. He stressed that a number of unspecified enemies had “united themselves against Muslims” and that fighting them was obligatory. “If you are not going to the jihad, then you are neglecting the rules of Allah,” he said. The opportunities for jihad were virtually everywhere, ranging from apostate Middle Eastern regimes to “those who are taking the wealth of Muslims from petrol or from oil.” As he spoke, a red toolbox, with a slit cut into its lid for donations, was passed around the room. Videotapes of the lecture were later offered for sale at the society’s bookstore.

Several months afterward, Abdel Rahman was indicted for helping to plot the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One of his fatwas, issued from prison in 1998, became central to Al Qaeda’s justification of mass violence. (When I asked J. Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director of the F.B.I.’s Los Angeles division, about Siddiqi’s association with Abdel Rahman, he said, “We have a very strong relationship with Dr. Siddiqi. You do have to put it into the context of back then.” Siddiqi told me that Abdel Rahman “was touring, and some people insisted that he should be there.” Three days after September 11th, at the invitation of the White House, Siddiqi led a prayer at the National Cathedral, and later, in the Oval Office, he handed President George W. Bush a Koran and told him that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with what was in that book.)

In 1995, an act of terrorism hundreds of miles from California affected the Islamic Society’s political atmosphere in an unexpected way. In April, Timothy McVeigh packed a truck with explosives and blew up part of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was charged two days after the bombing, but in that time a theory spread through the media that Muslim extremists were responsible. Angry calls flooded the phone lines at the Islamic Society’s offices. “They threatened to kill our students, blow up our school, rape our women,” Haitham Bundakji, who was then the society’s president, told me. Bundakji set up an interfaith initiative to ease tensions and invited the police to advise the society about security. He had a guardhouse installed on the society’s grounds, and he hired guards to sit in it.

A week after his conversion ceremony, Gadahn wrote “Becoming Muslim,” about his path to Islam, and posted it on the Internet. The essay reflected his new community’s sense of embattlement. Gadahn criticized Americans who unfairly raised fears about the “Islamic Threat.” Muslims, he wrote, “were not the bloodthirsty, barbaric terrorists that the news media and the televangelists paint them to be.”

Gadahn wrote about himself as well. “My first seventeen years have been a bit different than the youth experienced by most Americans,” he said. He discussed his upbringing on the farm, and gave the impression that his father was virtually a Muslim. (“My father is a halal butcher,” he wrote, and emphasized that Phil “once had a number of Muslim friends.”) Gadahn described his move to Santa Ana, his exposure to Islam on the Internet, and his reasons for converting. He deplored his passion for music. “I had become obsessed with demonic Heavy Metal music, something the rest of my family (as I now realize, rightfully so) was not happy with,” he wrote. “My entire life was focused on expanding my music collection. I eschewed personal cleanliness and let my room reach an unbelievable state of disarray. My relationship with my parents became strained, although only intermittently so. I am sorry even as I write this.”

Gadahn said that he would now be “reflecting on the greatness of Allah,” and learning how to perform daily supplications called salat. He prayed at the mosque five times a day. Siddiqi remembered him to be “very quiet, always by himself.” But Gadahn quickly joined a group of men who held an evening discussion group in the prayer hall. The men analyzed passages of the Koran and spoke about the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. Gadahn stopped shaving and cut his hair. He began to wear sandals and dressed in long, Saudi-style robes or in Afghan shalwar kameez.

The discussion group was Gadahn’s first real social environment outside his family, and it was composed of men like him, who yearned for authenticity in their faith. They spoke often about what was and was not haram, or forbidden, in Islam. “Everything was haram to them in the United States,” Zena Zeitoun, a black convert who knew some of the men, told me. “If they saw a girl walking down the street in a short skirt, that’s haram. If they saw you with a beer bottle in your hand, that’s haram. If they saw a man and a woman holding each other, that’s haram. Everything was haram to them.”

Gadahn began to take the group’s prohibitions seriously. “I get this big box in the mail, and it’s all of his CDs, and I had no idea why he sent them,” John Brown told me. More boxes followed, also without explanation. In total, Brown estimated, Gadahn sent him well over a hundred recordings. There was also a videotape of a movie, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”

Not long after the boxes arrived, Gadahn called Brown. He sounded happy, Brown recalled, but it was clear that he had changed. In the past, Gadahn had been playful and ironic. In his letters, he often gave Brown silly fictitious middle names, like Epistaxis—a medical term referring to nosebleeds. Now he was direct:

“Did you get the boxes?”

“Yeah. What’s up with that?”

“Well, I turned Muslim.”

At the time, Brown was working in a small music shop in Cheyenne owned by his parents, and Gadahn thought that they might be able to sell his collection. Brown told him, “Well, we do guitars and stuff, not CDs, but that’s O.K., you know.” Gadahn admitted that, despite his conversion, he had not been able to give up all his recordings. (A CD by Brown’s band was among the ones he kept.) The two chatted about music for several minutes longer. Brown never heard from Gadahn again.

By the fall of 1996, Gadahn was living with five or six other Muslims in a small apartment a block from the mosque. Zena Zeitoun visited the apartment frequently with her husband, who is Syrian. “It looked like a dungeon,” she said. Most of the men living with Gadahn were from the Middle East. At night, they slept in two cramped bedrooms, on single beds or on mats. The men sat on newspapers scattered on the floor to eat their meals. There was a ratty sofa, and an old TV, which they never used. The only decorations on the walls were Islamic sayings of the Prophet, and a timetable for salat. The windows were covered with sheets and tablecloths. “For every prayer, those men walked to the mosque, and then they came back home,” Zeitoun recalled. They did little else.

Zeitoun remembered Gadahn as “a gentleman” and the only convert in the group. It was hard to get to know him because of the uncompromising religious atmosphere among the men. “They didn’t talk to a woman,” she said. “As a Muslim woman, you have to look down. If you look up, then you’re like a whore.” When in their company, she said, her husband became harshly critical of her American habits. “I didn’t like going there,” she recalled. “It felt creepy.” Zeitoun told me that there were often guests at the apartment, men who would spend a few days there and then leave. “My husband used to say that they’re passing through.”

Gadahn needed money, and not long after he converted he asked Haitham Bundakji if he could work at the Islamic Society. Bundakji had been a witness at Gadahn’s shahada. A stocky man with a goatee and a quick smile, he talks about “building bridges” with other religious groups. He works closely with the local police department, where he is a chaplain, and believes that Muslim Americans should participate more actively in electoral politics. He is a Sunni, born in Jordan, but his wife is Shiite, so he likes to tell people that he is “Sushi.” When he was young, he dabbled in Sufism, but he now holds more conservative religious beliefs. He loves music, but it is a guilty pleasure.

“Adam asked me for a job, and I gave him one as a security guard,” Bundakji told me. Gadahn began working the night shift in the mosque’s guardhouse, often arriving after his evening discussion group disbanded. The men in the group, Bundakji said, were becoming increasingly hostile to the mosque’s leadership and were especially upset about his interfaith efforts. Bundakji’s nickname among non-Muslims is Danny, and sometimes, he told me, the men in the group called him “Danny the Jew.” Gadahn’s relationship with Bundakji grew hostile, too. One night, Bundakji caught him asleep while on duty. “I had a few words with him,” Bundakji recalled. “I said, ‘How could you sleep on the job? Don’t you understand that it’s just like stealing? You expect me to pay you money, but you haven’t earned it.’ ” Gadahn was angry, Bundakji told me, but he didn’t say anything. Bundakji fired him.

Bundakji also barred the discussion group from gathering at the mosque. But Gadahn only drew closer to the men. “He was kind of a naïve guy,” Rafat Qahoush, a nurse who then prayed at the Islamic Society, recalled. “He looked like he didn’t have experience in life. He is kind of a follower. You dictate for him what to do.” Gadahn sought guidance from two men in particular: an Egyptian named Hisham Diab and a Palestinian named Khalil Deek. Both were active in the discussion group, and were known to be militant in their political and religious beliefs. Diab had fought in Bosnia, and Deek’s extremist connections were “well established in the classified intelligence,” a former senior C.I.A. officer told me. According to Qahoush, Deek would often leave the country for months at a time.

In the late nineties, the National Security Council, concerned about possible terrorist attacks around the millennium, asked a team of private terrorism analysts to investigate Deek and Diab’s activities. Rita Katz, who is now the director of the SITE Institute, a nonprofit group that monitors jihadi communiqués on the Internet, led the investigation. (Katz showed me a videotape of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s 1992 lecture at the Islamic Society.) Katz knew that Deek had obtained American citizenship, and she learned from intelligence reports that he had connections to a terrorist cell based in Montreal. (The cell included Ahmed Ressam, who was involved in the millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.) Katz suspected that Deek was working as a coördinator for Al Qaeda groups in the West. She discovered that he had collaborated with Diab in California; the two men had set up a bogus nonprofit group, called Charity Without Borders, in Diab’s name, and Diab had even managed to obtain grants for it from the state. (Gadahn is listed as “crew member” in the charity’s official documents.) Deek and Diab paid the rent on the apartment where Gadahn lived, according to Diab’s ex-wife, and purchased a beat-up Audi for the men to share. Gadahn did not have a license, but he often drove the car on errands.

Diab’s ex-wife is Saraah Olson, and, though her memory is colored by her divorce, she and her son, Ryan, offer the most detailed picture of Gadahn’s radicalization. Olson had met Diab in 1991, while she was working as a secretary at California State University at Dominguez Hills. He had come by her office to pick up some forms, and, a few minutes later, he returned to ask her out. They began dating, and after about a year they married. Ryan, Olson’s son from a previous marriage, was nearly six, and, encouraged by Diab, the two converted to Islam. Ryan adopted the name Bilal and began attending a local Muslim school; Saraah began wearing a hijab and got a job at the Islamic Society. But soon, Olson told me, Diab was attempting to control every aspect of their lives, often through physical abuse. Diab hung blankets over the windows. He prevented Ryan from playing outside, and forced him to study a book of Arabic prayers.

“Hisham was just a hair trigger away from killing someone,” Ryan, who is now a twenty-year-old college student, told me. “I had made it halfway through the book, with no problems. But I mispronounced a couple of words, and Hisham was like ‘Do it again.’ I was like ‘O.K.,’ and I mispronounced them again. And that just set him off, and he came down right on my back with those hands. And I remember a rush of air out of my lungs, and I fell to the floor. I went upstairs—my mom was in the bedroom—and Hisham was just going insane, just spitting vitriol out of his mouth. My mom closed and locked the door. It was like the bullfights in Spain—like one of those bulls charged right through the door, and it collapsed right in front of him. And he just came right through and grabbed my mom, and I don’t remember what happened next except that he dragged her out onto the balcony.” Later, Ryan said, “I hated being Bilal.”

Hisham Diab noticed Adam Gadahn at the Islamic Society and began inviting him to his home. Sometimes, Khalil Deek would be there, too. “Adam would come and eat lunch with Hisham and Khalil, or they would take him out to lunch,” Olson told me. “They treated him like he was their new pet.” She said that the two men referred to Gadahn as their “little rabbit” because “he would run around and do their little things for them all the time, like he would run over to the bank and make the deposit, or he would go over to the post-office box and get the mail.” When the two men told Gadahn to stop wearing jeans, he stopped wearing jeans. They gave him daily religious instruction, Olson said, which often involved memorizing the Koran, and required him to learn at least three prayers in Arabic every week.

“Adam turned very, very quickly,” Olson told me. “He absorbed it all. At first, he would come into the house, and if I would be making tea he would say, ‘Thank you, sister,’ very loudly into the kitchen. But he never, ever said anything again to me after Hisham told him, ‘You never thank them. That’s their duty.’ ” Deek and Diab often talked about politics. “They would be every day in our living room—Khalil and Hisham—saying, ‘You have to kill the kufar, the nonbeliever. You can’t associate with them,’ ” she said. According to Olson, America was a bastion of sin to Deek and Diab, and they liked to say that its “streets will run red with blood.” At the mosque, they regarded Haitham Bundakji with animosity, Olson told me. “Hisham and Khalil hated Danny. They’d say, ‘He’s a weak Muslim, he’s friends with Jews, he goes to Baptist churches, he hangs out with the police department—he’s just an awful Muslim.’ They truly hated him. Just the mention of his name could put Hisham over the boiling point.” (Intelligence officials believe that Deek is dead; Diab’s whereabouts are unknown.)

On May 9, 1997, Gadahn attended midday prayers at the Islamic Society, as he always did. Before leaving his apartment, he put on sandals, a T-shirt, and tan slacks and slipped a traditional white robe over his clothes. Every Friday, the congregation held a swap meet after prayers to raise money for the society. Gadahn brought a number of hats and perfumes that he hoped to sell for his own profit. Just before the service, he dumped his items in front of the mosque’s entrance and wandered away.

As the call to prayer began, Haitham Bundakji noticed Gadahn’s scattered belongings. He had already asked Gadahn not to sell his wares on the Islamic Society’s grounds. Bundakji collected the hats and perfumes, put them in his office, and went into the mosque to pray. When he returned, Gadahn was waiting in his office. Bundakji could tell that he was enraged.

“Where is Siddiqi?” Gadahn demanded.

“You should show proper respect to the leaders of the society,” Bundakji replied. He corrected Gadahn: “That’s Doctor Siddiqi.”

Gadahn punched Bundakji in the face, just above one eye, and, as the two scuffled, several men standing in a nearby hallway rushed to pull Gadahn away. Within minutes, a police officer named Bill Allison had arrived and arrested Gadahn. Once Gadahn had been cuffed and taken to the station, his anger subsided. “He was respectful to me,” Allison recalled. “But obviously he had strong opinions toward the society.” Gadahn was fingerprinted and booked, and, in June, at his court hearing, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to two days in jail and forty hours of community service. Court documents show that he received credit for the jail time but that he ignored the community service. Another warrant was issued for his arrest. It is still active; the bond is for seventy-five hundred dollars.

Several months after his arrest, Gadahn made his first trip to Pakistan. He told his family that he would be travelling with friends. According to Olson, Deek and Diab paid for the trip with money from their nonprofit group, Charity Without Borders. (Gadahn told family members that he paid for the trip with his savings.) Gadahn returned to California the following spring, suffering from a waterborne illness. He was sixty pounds lighter, but his beard had filled out, and he was sunburned. Carl Pearlman, Gadahn’s grandfather, supervised his medical care. A few months later, however, Pearlman died, and after his funeral Gadahn returned to Pakistan. Occasionally, he wrote or called home, but for the most part, as Phil Gadahn later recalled, “He just faded.”

Much of what is known about Gadahn’s activities in Pakistan comes from intelligence reports that are difficult to verify. He told his parents that he was working in the country as a journalist—a euphemism, it seems, for his early propaganda and translation work for Al Qaeda. For a time, he was in Karachi. He was also in Peshawar, a way station for mujahideen seeking to cross into Afghanistan. Deek, who had moved to the city as well, was close with one of bin Laden’s top operatives there, Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian. In Peshawar, Deek shared a bank account with Zubaydah and worked on a CD-ROM version of the “Encyclopedia of Jihad,” a compilation of military manuals that spanned nearly a dozen volumes. American intelligence officials had been investi-gating Deek and Zubaydah’s activities since at least the late eighties, but Gadahn was still only a peripheral figure; a C.I.A. case officer based in Peshawar at the time told me that Gadahn “didn’t come up on my net at all.”

Zubaydah’s primary responsibility was to arrange transportation for people from Pakistan to Al Qaeda camps just inside Afghanistan. He maintained guest houses in two neighborhoods in Peshawar, Hayatabad and University Town, and recruits would be shuttled from the houses, over the Khyber Pass, to a military and religious training facility called Khaldan. Graduates of Khaldan then advanced to more specialized camps. Thousands of men passed through this network, and keeping track of security and logistics was a complex task involving a team of people. Zubaydah, who had a closely cropped beard and wore large glasses, was a commanding manager, but he also exhibited odd behavior. Omar Nasiri, a former spy for European intelligence agencies who met Zubaydah in the nineties on his way to Khaldan, told me that Zubaydah shuffled around his home in near-total darkness, carrying a gas lantern from room to room. He barely spoke and would often communicate by pointing.

According to the F.B.I., Gadahn was among the recruits who “associated” with Zubaydah. An American intelligence official told me that Gadahn eventually made his way through Zubaydah’s network to a camp in Afghanistan called Al Faruq, where he “served as a translator for members of the majlis al-shura”—bin Laden’s governing council. “He was translating Al Qaeda military manuals from Arabic to English so they could be circulated,” the official said. At the time, English was commonly used by jihadi groups that were from non-Arab countries, and manuals in English were thought to be especially useful for jihadis who were working in Pakistan and Southeast Asia. “Gadahn wasn’t the only one, but he was apparently the head of that particular idea,” the intelligence official said. “He wasn’t a made man, but he was meeting people who were.” As Gadahn gained the trust of senior members of Al Qaeda, he began to hear talk of a “major attack” against the United States; but, he later recalled in a video, he thought that it would take place “in the Islamic region, like the Arabian Peninsula,” rather than on American soil.

Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist, told me that in November, 2001, he saw Gadahn at an Al Qaeda safe house in Kabul, where he appeared to be working as a low-level functionary. “He was wearing the local shalwar kameez and a commando jacket,” Mir said. “Some of the boys who were there said he was a very good cook.” About thirty men were living in the house. Gadahn prepared meals and hot water for the washroom and performed some administrative duties. As he went about his chores, Mir recalled, Gadahn would try to crack jokes in broken Pashto. “Somebody laughed,” he told me. “But many people didn’t understand what he was saying, including myself.” Three months later, Gadahn called his parents for the last time. His mother later told the F.B.I. that Gadahn spoke with an accent, and, when she had asked him about it, he said that he hadn’t spoken English in eight months.

The C.I.A. was not aware of the extent of Gadahn’s involvement with Al Qaeda until after September 11th. When analysts at Langley later searched their databases for information about his overseas activities, his name surfaced “several times before 9/11, but only in lists of names that somebody passed to us,” the former senior C.I.A. officer told me. Abu Zubaydah was apprehended in 2002 and the chief planner of the terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in 2003, and both spoke about Gadahn during their interrogations, an intelligence official said. Mohammed said that he had last seen Gadahn in Karachi and that he had asked him to join a plot to blow up gas stations in Maryland, but Gadahn declined, explaining that he had recently married and his wife was pregnant. (In his last call home, Gadahn told his parents that he had married an Afghan refugee.) However, the official added, Gadahn participated in a number of “face-to-face brainstorming sessions” with Mohammed.

Gadahn was encouraged to apply his promotional skills in his work for Al Qaeda. He narrated his first piece of propaganda, an audio translation of a statement by bin Laden, in 2002. By the spring of 2004, Gadahn was officially a wanted man. The F.B.I. announced that it had issued a BOLO—Be On the Lookout—for him, and presumably Gadahn knew he was being sought. (In one video, he mentioned that he listened to the BBC from his mountain hideouts.) That October, he released his first video as Azzam al-Amriki. He wore a checkered scarf over his head and across his face, his eyes were shielded by sunglasses, and a rifle was propped against his shoulder. A voice off camera asked him, “You are an American. You have joined a movement waging war on America, and killing large numbers of Americans. Don’t you in any way feel that you are betraying your people and country?”

Gadahn leaned forward when he spoke, and at times he gesticulated wildly. “First of all,” he replied, “the allegiance and loyalty of a Muslim is to Allah, his messenger, his religion, and his fellow-believers, before anyone and anything else. So if there is a conflict between his religion and his nation and family, then he must choose the religion every time. In fact, to side with the unbelievers against Islam and Muslims is one of the acts that nullify one’s Islamic faith.” Gadahn noted that even Muhammad had fought his own cousins, and said, “So some of the early Muslims fought and killed their closest relatives during battle.” He then launched into a scathing description of American foreign policy. Jabbing his finger at the camera, Gadahn denounced the citizens of the United States: “No, my former countrymen, you are guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty!” He concluded with a warning: “The streets of America shall run red with blood.”

Adam Gadahn’s journey to Al Qaeda may seem idiosyncratic, marked by adolescent loneliness and confusion and religious seeking gone wrong, but it appears to adhere with remarkable precision to a model developed by a forensic psychiatrist and former C.I.A. case officer named Marc Sageman. After September 11th, while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Sageman decided to examine the process of Islamic radicalization in a way that had not been done before: empirically. In his clinical research, he had studied murder, genocide, and ethnic conflict. He had worked for the C.I.A. in Pakistan during the nineteen-eighties, in the effort to push the Soviets from Afghanistan.

As the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, in 2001, Sageman watched with dismay the portrayal of the Islamist movement by the media and within government circles. Few people were talking about jihadists as human beings, which meant that they weren’t trying to understand what motivated them. “I come from medicine, and it’s evidence-based,” Sageman told me. He decided to gather data about Al Qaeda’s members, in order to discern what they had in common. Using trial transcripts and news reports, he assembled biographies of a hundred and seventy-two militants. “By analyzing people individually, I didn’t get very far,” he said. “In groups, they seemed to have similar patterns.”

Sageman discovered that most Al Qaeda operatives had been radicalized in the West and were from caring, intact families that had solidly middle- or upper-class economic backgrounds. Their families were religious but generally mainstream. The vast majority of the men did not have criminal records or any history of mental disorders. Moreover, there was little evidence of coördinated recruitment, coercion, or brainwashing. Al Qaeda’s leaders waited for aspiring jihadists to come to them—and then accepted only a small percentage. Joining the jihad, Sageman realized, was like trying to get into a highly selective college: many apply, but only a few are accepted.

Perhaps his most unexpected conclusion was that ideology and political grievances played a minimal role during the initial stages of enlistment. “The only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated,” Sageman told the September 11th Commission in 2003, during a debriefing about his research. These lost men would congregate at mosques and find others like them. Eventually, they would move into apartments near their mosques and build friendships around their faith and its obligations. He has called his model the “halal theory of terrorism”—since bonds were often formed while sharing halal meals—or the “bunch of guys” theory. The bunch of guys constituted a closed society that provided a sense of meaning that did not exist in the larger world.

Sageman examined scholarship on other revivalist movements and found important parallels. He learned that doctrine played a negligible role for new converts to the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, for example. “Many moved into the Moonie commune because of their attachment to group members while still openly expressing rejection of the Moon ideology,” Sageman wrote in his book, “Understanding Terror Networks,” which was published in 2004. But, once the converts experienced the social benefits of their new community, accepting their friends’ beliefs was much easier. Later, when asked by researchers about their conversion, most Moonies spoke of the irresistible appeal of the church’s religious outlook, and had forgotten their initial skepticism about the faith.

Within the “bunch of guys,” Sageman found, men often became radicalized through a process akin to oneupmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of religious zeal. (Gregory Saathoff, a research psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a consultant to the F.B.I., told me, “We’re seeing in some of the casework that once they get the fever they are white-hot to move forward.”) Generally, the distinction between converts and men with mainstream Islamic backgrounds is less meaningful than it might seem, Sageman said, since “they all become born again.” Many Muslims who accept radical Salafist beliefs consider themselves “reverts.” They typically renounce their former lives and friends—and often their families.

Sageman’s model provides clues to how radicalization unfolds, but it cannot explain why one person embraces extremism and another does not. (As a former senior intelligence analyst told me, “It’s not something you can plot on a graph and study.”) Two of Gadahn’s siblings are in college, and the third is an aesthetician; why was Adam the one to join Al Qaeda? After Gadahn’s indictment for treason, his father told a reporter, “Adam has gone against everything our family believes in.” Indeed, some of Gadahn’s most pointed rhetoric as an Al Qaeda operative appears to be directed toward those who were closest to him. “The way to paradise is not a multi-lane highway,” Gadahn declares in “An Invitation to Islam,” and one can’t help but think that he has in mind his father’s pliant spirituality. Gadahn admonishes those who embraced, “without hesitation, every obscure and foreign religion, philosophy, and ideology,” or who searched for happiness in a “cultist-style withdrawal from the world.” In the video’s final moments, Gadahn turns to the subject of family, and his message is chilling. “Allah warns the parents, siblings, offspring, and other relatives of the Muslim that their relation to him will be of no use to them on the day of judgment, if they have not themselves died as true believers,” he says. “So don’t be complacent, or let the Devil deceive you into thinking that your connections will intercede for you on that terrible day.”

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