Debut author Stalinsky offers a profile of an American who became an al-Qaida operative.
Adam Pearlman’s story begins with his upbringing in rural California, where he, along with his siblings, was home-schooled on the family farm. In his teenage years, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of death-metal music, and he channeled his interest into writing reviews of new releases and even recording a solo album under the name Aphasia. At the age of 16, however, his life took an abrupt turn. While staying with his grandparents in Santa Ana, California, in the mid-1990s, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Adam Gadahn. As he explained in an essay at the time, “I discovered that the beliefs and practices of this religion fit my personal theology.” Following his conversion, he fell under the influence of a group of “radical jihadists” in the area, eventually traveling to Pakistan and becoming “Azzam the American.” With this new persona, now bearded and frequently brandishing a weapon, Gadahn would help shape al-Qaida’s propaganda wing, appearing in and producing numerous videos over the years. These videos would get the attention of audiences ranging from would-be terrorists to U.S. government operatives, and they’d eventually lead to charges of treason and death by drone-strike. Stalinsky’s book relies heavily on material from other publications; for example, a January 2007 article from the New Yorker proves indispensable to early chapters. However, it’s at its best when laying bare Gadahn’s message over the years. The author makes frequent use of transcripts of his subject’s videos, effectively offering close commentary on his statements and showing how they reflected political developments in the United States and abroad. For example, he tells of how Gadahn produced annual videos celebrating the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, advised American terrorists to purchase firearms at gun shows, and demanded the United States stop sending Peace Corps volunteers to the Islamic world. Stalinsky’s highlighting of such sentiments, particularly when compared with Gadahn’s innocuous teenage praise of obscure bands like Timeghoul, makes for a truly unnerving examination of a real-life enemy of the state.
An up-close look at one man’s bizarre journey to international notoriety.