The Shawal Valley is a remote place, even by the standards of Pakistan's Federally Administrated Tribal Areas. Located along the Shawal River between steep mountain walls just north of the border between South and North Waziristan, it is the last redoubt of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Numerous Pakistani military offensives in the lawless region, most recently in June 2014, have failed to dislodge them, although their ranks have been decimated, a handful of targets at a time, by hundreds of CIA drone strikes.
On Jan. 19, one such strike involving four remote-controlled missiles blew up a compound that the CIA had designated as an al-Qaeda safe house, killing seven suspected militants and injuring four. According to an anonymous Pakistani official who spoke to NBC News shortly after the attack, those killed included "non-Pakistani foreign fighters." It wasn't until April 23 that the White House announced that one of those foreign fighters was none other than the American face of al-Qaeda: Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki or Azzam the American.
Apparently, Gadahn, who had a million-dollar price on his head and was wanted in the U.S. for treason–he was the first American since World War II to achieve that dubious honor–was not the actual target of the attack. CIA officials claim the agency was unaware of his presence at the Shawal Valley compound. They apparently didn't inform President Barack Obama, who did not order the strike, of Gadahn's death until a few weeks ago, when they also let him know about a second missile strike in January at a separate compound in the area. Unlike the strike that killed Gadahn, this attack was, to put it lightly, botched. Although the CIA killed its target, Ahmed Farouq, also inside the building were two Western hostages: Warren Weinstein, an American humanitarian, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker.
Gadahn's death, nearly a decade and a half after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, brings nearly to a close the hunt for al-Qaeda's original core leadership; the only remaining member at large that most Americans have heard of is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the owl-faced Egyptian surgeon who took over command of the terrorist organization after the death of Osama bin Laden.
It's hard to imagine a stranger Islamic terrorist than Gadahn, who was born in Oregon in 1978 to a Protestant-raised mother and born-again Christian father, Philip Pearlman, whose father was a prominent Jewish doctor in Santa Ana who, among other philanthropic work, raised money on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League. Pearlman had grown up in Orange County and, while a student at UC Irvine, founded a psychedelic rock band, Beat of the Earth, which produced an album featuring only two songs. Pearlman changed his name to Gadahn, a variation on the Hebrew name Gideon, after, as with many hippies before him, his quest for enlightenment brought him to religion.
The younger Gadahn grew up on the Riverside goat farm his parents moved to as a way to raise a family without the benefits of modern technology: no electricity save what could be generated from solar panels, no plumbing or running water, and an outhouse. He was home-schooled and participated in regular Christian support-group meetings, had few friends, and left few impressions. At some point, Gadahn developed an interest in death metal, which he later equated with Satan worship. A 1993 letter he wrote to a fellow fan describes the band Sepultura as "poser [sic] fools" and mentions how he discovered a library book with "Slayer" scrawled inside it, which led him to ponder adding on the names of two other bands, Napalm Death and Dismember.
When he completed his home-schooling program at the age of 17, he moved to Santa Ana to live with his grandparents, who introduced him to the Internet via their home-computer portal to America Online. This appears to be how Gadahn first came across writings about Islam. In 1995, his curiosity about the religion brought him to Garden Grove's Islamic Center, where he converted to the religion and met two men who would steer him toward radical Islam and, by extension, the top ranks of al-Qaeda: Hisham Diab, a follower of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "Blind Sheikh" who is currently in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Khalil Deek, a Palestinian software engineer who in 2000 was imprisoned in Jordan for his role in an alleged plot to blow up hotels in that country.
In 2007, Diab's ex-wife, Saraah Olson, told the Weekly that Diab and Deek effectively brainwashed Gadahn into becoming a terrorist. Olson claimed Diab had an angry temper and was abusive to her (a claim backed by Haitham Bundakji, the former president of the Garden Grove mosque), but described Deek as more quiet. "He was very soft-spoken," Olson recalled. "I only heard him raise his voice once, when he was mad at someone in my living room who wouldn't renounce his Christian family." That person, Olson explained, was Gadahn. "Hisham and Khalil were telling him, 'You have to reject the fact that your family is Christian–they all should die.'" When Gadahn responded that his father had actually converted to Christianity from Judaism, "[t]hat just set them off even more," she said.
Both Diab and Deek, whom the Jordanians freed citing a lack of evidence in the bombing case, disappeared in Pakistan roughly a year before the 9/11 attacks. Gadahn traveled to Pakistan as early as 1998, where he studied Arabic and the Koran. He returned to California briefly, but then went back to Pakistan and, as with Diab and Deek (both of whom are now presumed to be dead), entered the tribal areas and literally went underground.
Gadahn didn't resurface until May 2004 in an English-language al-Qaeda propaganda video, in which he called himself "Azzam the American" and, through a scarf covering his face, warned Americans their "streets will run red with blood." He had apparently spent the intervening years laboring as a translator and video producer for the terrorist group, but once he started talking, the videos never stopped. Unmasking himself, he proceeded to deliver rambling lectures, some of them running nearly an hour long, about the merits of radical Islam, leaving one to imagine if anyone other than counterterrorism officials managed to watch them in their entirety.
Before his remote-controlled demise, U.S. officials had once declared Gadahn dead, and the Pakistani government briefly thought it had arrested him at a safe house in Karachi. Those reports turned out to be incorrect, and letters from Gadahn that were found in bin Laden's possession during the raid on his Abbottabad safe house show that he was in contact with al-Qaeda's senior leadership as recently as 2011.
As tame as Gadahn's videos seem in comparison with the sleekly produced videos put out by ISIS, his message was unmistakably evil. "We love nothing better than the heat of battle, the echo of explosions and slitting the throats of the infidels," he warned in one video that almost mentions Orange County. "It's hard to imagine . . . not [to] want to go on a shooting spree at the Marines' housing facilities at Camp Pendleton."