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- Leah Farrall: Al-Qaeda’s delayed announcement
- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Zawahiri’s ascension won’t change al-Qaeda’s strategy
- J.M. Berger: Zawahiri’s American court jester
Osama bin Laden liked having Americans in his entourage. Mohammed Loay Bayazid, a former resident of Kansas City, took notes at the meeting in which al-Qaeda was founded. Wadih El-Hage, formerly of Tucson, was one of the terror network's first members and eventually became bin Laden's personal assistant.
Now that Ayman al-Zawahiri has ascended to al-Qaeda's throne, he will likely bring along his own American courtier -- Adam Gadahn, also known as Azzam the American, formerly of Orange County, California.
Gadahn has served as one of al-Qaeda's most visible spokesmen for several years. He joined the terror network in the late 1990s as a translator and low-level aide, later becoming part of its increasingly important media strategy.
Al-Qaeda produced video for years prior to September 11, consisting of lengthy, costly productions that resembled feature films and took about as long to make and distribute.
Intelligence sources and a close look at al-Qaeda content suggest strongly that after 9/11, Gadahn helped steer the organization into the digital era, as it adopted computer production tools to turn around less ambitious projects in a much shorter time frame, while exploiting the Internet to replace and outstrip the old, inefficient videotape distribution system.
At first, Gadahn kept a low profile, narrating English-language propaganda and appearing as a masked interviewer in al-Qaeda's short-lived experiment in news programming, "The Voice of the Caliphate." Today he is believed to be a key player in al-Qaeda's as-Sahab media production company.
But al-Qaeda soon decided that Gadahn could be more even valuable in front of the camera. Zawahiri personally escorted "Azzam the American" to headliner status in September 2006 with the release of a 48-minute video titled "Invitation to Islam."
In an unprecedented personal endorsement, Zawahiri served as emcee for Gadahn's video, appearing in a short introduction to introduce the American by name and encourage attention to his speech, which urged Americans to convert to Islam. Gadahn soon became a staple of al-Qaeda propaganda, appearing as frequently as the group's elite religious and operational leaders.
Like any longtime pet, Gadahn has slowly come to resemble his master. His initial speeches, while often awkward, were still recognizably American. Over time, his rhetoric has become much more like Zawahiri's - hectoring, overlong and off-putting. (One online wag referred to Gadahn as Zawahiri's "Mini-Me.")
Over the last few years, Zawahiri and figures like Abu Yahya al-Libi have served as the public face of al-Qaeda, while the more charismatic bin Laden remained off-camera. Assuming Gadahn's role in as-Sahab matches the intelligence community's assessment, he may have played a role in that subtle programming shift.
Videos discovered during the raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound revealed the al-Qaeda leader had recorded high-quality video versions of several recent communiqués that were released by as-Sahab as audio only. While it's possible as-Sahab deleted the video stream for security reasons, that logic has not deterred other top al-Qaeda leaders. And bin Laden - who dyed his beard and dressed up for filming - clearly intended for his communiqués to be seen.
Zawahiri is now emir of al-Qaeda; if bin Laden was kept to audio releases due to security concerns, we may see Zawahiri follow suit. If Zawahiri continues to issue video messages on a regular basis, it raises the possibility that bin Laden was being subtly marginalized by someone in Zawahiri's camp.
Such speculation aside, Gadahn's star is likely to rise now that Zawahiri has assumed bin Laden's mantle. And he may bring a fellow American along for the ride.
Gadahn was the first member of al-Qaeda Central to spotlight Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Awlaki prominently in an official communiqué, a couple of months after the latter was publicly adopted by the terror network's Yemeni franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In October 2010, Gadahn released a statement refuting the Mardin Conference, a March 2010 effort by mainstream Muslim clerics to undercut al-Qaeda's key theological underpinnings. The message featured a clip of Awlaki lifted from a previously released AQAP video. Gadahn's speech also mirrored an article published by Awlaki just days earlier in AQAP's English-language magazine, Inspire.
At the end of the video, Gadahn endorsed the concept of individual jihad, the idea that al-Qaeda sympathizers should not wait for help from the organization but should instead act as lone wolves. This approach has been championed, if not popularized, by Awlaki, and has captured the imagination of many jihadists despite its decidedly weak results and recent reports that bin Laden was actively opposed to some of AQAP's ideas for implementing the concept.
A little more than two weeks ago, Gadahn appeared in an ambitious new as-Sahab video that represented al-Qaeda Central's strongest endorsement of individual jihad to date. That video also featured previously released clips of Awlaki.
Gadahn's shout-outs to Awlaki are reminiscent of the imprimatur Zawahiri gave to Gadahn back in 2006. If Gadahn's loyalty has earned him a seat in Zawahiri's cabinet, we can expect to hear a lot more about individual jihad and see a lot more of Anwar al-Awlaki in future al-Qaeda communications.
At least until the Navy SEALs come knocking.
J.M. Berger is editor of Intelwire.com and author of the new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.