American Al Qaeda Mouthpiece Goes Out With a Whimper

Adam Gadahn was an unrepentant, devoted Al Qaeda terrorist who longed to slaughter American women and children en masse.

He was pure evil. And in a sick sense, he was also an originator.

Gadahn, who Obama administration officials now say was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan earlier this year, was the first American citizen to assume a prominent public role in the global jihadist movement, rising in the ranks to become “Azzam the American,” Al Qaeda’s chief English-language propagandist. He was also reportedly in regular contact with Osama Bin Laden.

Raised on a goat farm by hippie parents in southern California, Gadahn–who was a devoted fan of extreme death metal music as a teenager living with his Jewish (yes, Jewish) grandparents–embarked on a path that has become all too familiar today: troubled Westerner discovers Islam online, converts, becomes radicalized and travels to an overseas hotspot to wage jihad (or, in other cases, stays home to plot domestic attacks). ISIS, which has drawn thousands of Westerners to its ranks and has strategically used English speakers in its propaganda videos, can certainly relate to Gadahn’s “career” trajectory.

The scant media coverage that greeted the announcement this week of Gadahn’s death marked a stunning turn of events. There was a time, from 2004 to 2010, when Gadahn was one of the world’s most recognizable terrorists. During that period, his videotaped tirades–which received heavy media coverage upon their release and were dissected line-by-line by terrorism analysts for relevance and meaning–were the main avenue by which Al Qaeda communicated its message to a Western, English-speaking audience. His fall from relevance in recent years tells us two things:

1) ISIS has thoroughly eclipsed Al Qaeda as the world’s premiere Islamic terrorist movement, especially in the eyes of young jihadists, a number of whom probably never even heard of Gadahn before journeying to the Islamic State. ISIS’s combination of cutting edge social media and propaganda prowess, combined with its audacious violence, huge territorial gains and declaration of a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, has made it a global phenomenon unlike any other in the modern history of radical Islam.

Al Qaeda and its franchises remain an extremely formidable force on many levels (see Yemen and Idlib province in Syria, for starters), but ISIS’s astounding, headline-grabbing success, brutality and multimedia presence have bred massive attraction and overshadowed AQ on every front–including in Gadahn’s realm, propaganda and messaging.

2) Gadahn was simply a poor propagandist in the Age of ISIS. Although his message was pure Al Qaeda and undoubtedly endorsed by the organization’s hierarchy, his style and formal delivery were awkward and unappealing to a millennial generation of jihadists that has become accustomed to ISIS using hip-hop slang, Hollywood movie references, slick production values and biting sarcasm in a 24/7 social media onslaught. Although he was only 36 years old at the time of his death, Gadahn had become outdated.

More importantly Gadahn lacked “street cred” in the jihadist world–bringing neither religious authority nor any known battlefield experience to the table, unlike, say, Anwar al Awlaki (a respected imam in radical Islamist circles, including among the American Islamist network, and an operational figure for Al Qaeda in Yemen) or Bin Laden (who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

At the end of the day, Adam Gadahn will not be missed: by jihadists or those who are battling the jihad around the world.