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The New Face of Al-Qaeda By: Robert Spencer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The new face of Islamic terrorism is quite a departure from the spacy half-smile of Osama bin Laden and the dead-eyed glare of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; ever since the latest FBI wanted poster came out, it’s a pudgy, long-haired American kid who appears to be locked in a desperate, losing struggle to grow a beard: Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American convert to Islam.

Just as they did in the cases of Gadahn’s fellow converts to Islamic radicalism (John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” British shoe bomber Richard Reid, and others), Western analysts have rushed to ascribe Gadahn’s involvement with al-Qaeda as a product of his disaffection and alienation, cannily capitalized upon by al-Qaeda operatives to make the boy feel important and give him a place in the world.

Gadahn obligingly supplied the talking heads with plenty of ammunition for this sort of thing in an account of his conversion, apparently self-penned, that is posted on the website of the USC Muslim Students Association. His father was a Muslim, although evidently not a particularly active one, and his mother a Christian. Neither, by his account at least, seems to have made much effort to raise him in either faith, and he says he had some friction with them. For reasons unexplained at one point he tells us that he moved in with his grandparents. “I had become obsessed with demonic Heavy Metal music,” he says, to the extent that he “eschewed personal cleanliness and let my room reach an unbelievable state of disarray."[1] Around that time he discovered Islam by cruising the Internet.

Unfortunately, Gadahn’s conversion story ends before he can tell us how he came to be involved with Islamic terrorists and undergoing training in al-Qaeda camps. But that is the fundamental question that must be answered, and all the talk of rootless, disaffected youth that has filled the airwaves over the last few days doesn’t even come close to answering it.


To be sure, since James Dean and probably earlier, alienated youth have abounded in the United States. Drugs, illegitimacy, and other byproducts of youthful disaffection are proof. But Gadahn is not a rowdy teen gleefully smashing his geeky teacher’s prized record collection in The Blackboard Jungle; he is a member of an organized, worldwide movement determined to commit acts of violence and institute Islamic law. Gadahn could have just as easily become a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon. None of those choices would have landed him in a terrorist training camp and made him the new face of al-Qaeda. It’s obvious why Islamic terrorist groups would want to recruit someone like Adam Gadahn or Richard Reid. For one thing, a non-Arab can enter areas where security measures would prevent an Arab from going (although the PC Left is trying to change that).


Less discussed is the fact that men like Gadahn and Lindh can be recruited at all. The other day I was speaking with a Pakistani Muslim who told me that he knew “a little” Arabic, but didn’t speak or read it fluently. He wasn’t very involved in his religion, and had picked up what he knew of it not from a direct confrontation with its core texts and doctrines, but from cultural habit. But Western converts have no such luxury. They must approach the Qur’an and other Islamic texts without the culturally ingrained ways of understanding them that Muslims pick up in Islamic societies. Thus they come to Islam more or less in a pure, abstract form. The force of any given passage of Qur’an or Hadith, not blunted by culture or familiarity, can be presented by whoever is instructing the convert with any spin the teacher might favor.


Gadahn was apparently a member of Muzammil Siddiqi’s Islamic Society of Orange County — at least until he was expelled after a fight with someone there. Siddiqi, a high-profile self-proclaimed moderate Muslim spokesman, said of Gadahn: “He was becoming very extreme in his ideas and views. He must have disliked something.”[2]


And Siddiqi knows extreme. Kenneth Timmerman has noted that “during an anti-Israel rally outside the White House on Oct. 28, 2000, Siddiqi openly threatened the United States with violence if it continued its support of Israel. ‘America has to learn...if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Please, all Americans. Do you remember that?...If you continue doing injustice, and tolerate injustice, the wrath of God will come.’” Timmerman adds, “Siddiqi also has called for a wider application of Shari'a law in the United States, and in a 1995 speech praised suicide bombers. ‘Those who die on the part of justice are alive, and their place is with the Lord, and they receive the highest position, because this is the highest honor,’ he was quoted as saying by the Kansas City Star on Jan. 28, 1995.”[3]


This is Islamic moderation? Deliver us from the fundamentalists. One such purist, Abu Hamza al-Masri, the one-eyed, hook-handed radical imam who was just arrested in Britain on suspicion of aiding in terrorist acts and trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon, has always presented his teachings as the genuine article: pure Islam. According to a March 2004 report from the BBC, “Pure Islam has claimed the mantle of being the only real Islam as practised at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. It regards the Islam that came from the Indian subcontinent as corrupted and polluted by ‘cultural’ values such as music.” Such a presentation would be especially attractive to people like Gadahn and other Western converts, who are already cut loose from their cultural moorings and uninitiated as yet into Islamic culture.


“This has led,” the BBC report continues, “to a split within the British Muslim community, creating a belief amongst many young people that there is no compromise between Islam and life in the West.” Nor is this view solely the province of a tiny minority of extremists; on the contrary, it is winning the field: “However, moderate Muslims leaders have remained largely silent and have yet to provide a credible alternative.”[4]


Likewise, a young man like Gadahn who gains what he knows about Islam from the internet will find dozens of jihadist websites, many of which feature detailed explications of the Qur’an and Sunnah such that would warm the heart of Osama bin Laden — and precious few, if any, Muslim sites that refute the rigorist interpretation in favor of an Islam that is essentially peaceful. Moderate Muslims in general don’t refute; they just ignore. Not long ago a young Muslim woman told me that she didn’t think it was necessary to respond to radical Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an — it was so ridiculous, she said, that no one with half a brain could possibly take it seriously.


Maybe. But Adam Gadahn (and Johnny Taliban Lindh, and Richard Reid, and Jack Roche, and Jose Padilla, and all the rest) shows that such responses are no longer adequate, if they ever were. Gadahn and the rest were probably recruited by straightforward appeals to numerous passages in the Qur’an and Sunnah. In Islamic history and doctrine violent jihad is founded on numerous verses of the Qur’an — most notably, one known in Islamic theology as the “Verse of the Sword”: “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is forgiving, merciful” (Sura 9:5). Establishing “regular worship” and paying the “poor-due” (zakat) means essentially that they will become Muslim, as these are two of the central responsibilities of every Muslim.


Such verses are not taken “out of context” to justify armed jihad by radical imams such as those who may have taught Gadahn; on the contrary, that’s how they have been understood by Muslims from the beginning of Islam. Said the Muslim Prophet Muhammad: “Allah assigns for a person who participates in (holy battles) in Allah’s Cause and nothing causes him to do so except belief in Allah and in His Messengers, that he will be recompensed by Allah either with a reward, or booty (if he survives) or will be admitted to Paradise (if he is killed in the battle as a martyr).”[5]


One classic manual of Islamic sacred law, which in 1991 gained the approval of Cairo’s prestigious and influential Al-Azhar University as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” is quite specific and detailed about the meaning of jihad. It defines the “greater jihad” as “spiritual warfare against the lower self” and then devotes eleven pages to various aspects of the “lesser jihad” and its aftermath. It defines this jihad as “war against non-Muslims,” noting that the word itself “is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.”[6]


This manual stipulates that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians...until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” The requirement that non-Muslims first be “invited” to enter Islam and then warred against until they either convert or pay the special tax on non-Muslims (jizya), is founded upon the Qur’an: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Sura 9:29).

This verse has been used in Islamic history and jurisprudence to establish three choices for non-Muslims that Muslims are facing in jihad: conversion to Islam, submission under Islamic rule (which involves a carefully delineated second-class citizen status centered around but by no means limited to the jizya tax ), or death. The goal of jihad is thus the incorporation of non-Muslims into Muslim society, either by conversion or submission.


This is the explanation that radical Muslim spokesmen around the world have given, repeatedly and consistently, for what they’re doing: they are not terrorists, they are mujahedin, warriors of jihad. In this they are doing nothing new, but merely carrying on an illustrious tradition: violent jihad is a constant of Islamic history. Calls for jihad went out in the seventh century against the Christians of Egypt and Syria and the other areas of what is now known as the Muslim world. Such calls sounded innumerable times against Europe until 1683.


After that, although jihads became less common (at least in Europe), at no point did Islamic theology reject the doctrine of jihad. It remained part of Islamic thought and practice, to be revived again where possible and necessary. Yet the simple fact that violent jihad remained and remains today a vital component of Islamic theology is today smothered under a fog of political correctness. This plays into the hands of Islamic radicals by making it unnecessary for self-proclaimed moderates to renounce these doctrines, or even to acknowledge their existence. But unless or until a large number of Muslims around the world do so, the call to violent jihad will continue to inspire young people like Adam Gadahn. After all, they want to please their new friends in their new home and do what they have become convinced is the will of Allah.


Thus, whenever someone proclaims that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists (instead of a religion that contains a violent doctrine that sets it at odds with the rest of world and cries out for reform), they are helping to make sure that more and more disaffected youth like Adam Gadahn will end up in radical Muslim training camps — and will eventually carry their struggle back to their infidel homeland.


Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and the author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery Publishing), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter Books).



[1] Yahiye Adam Gadahn, Becoming Muslim.”

[2]American Sought Had ‘97 Arrest, ‘Extreme’ Ideas,” FOXNews, May 27, 2004.

[3] Kenneth R. Timmerman, “Pipes Objects to Fox in the Henhouse,” Insight Magazine, March 19, 2004.

[4] Navid Akhtar, “Fears as young Muslims ‘opt out,’” BBCNews, March 7, 2004.

[5] Muhammed Ibn Ismaiel Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings, translated by Muhammad M. Khan, Darussalam, 1997, vol. 1, book 2, no. 36. The explanatory parenthetical phrases are added by the translators to bring out the sense of the original.

[6] Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller (‘Umdat al-Salik): A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Amana Publications, 1999. Section o9.0.

Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of eight books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, is available now from Regnery Publishing.

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