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Muslim Teen Made Conversion to Fury

His father, Philip, was the son of a prominent surgeon of Jewish ancestry. Raised agnostic, he dabbled in the '60s psychedelic rock scene before embracing Christianity and changing his last name from Pearlman to Gadahn, which is derived from the biblical name Gideon. He and his wife, Jennifer, abandoned city life for a 40-acre ranch in a remote part of Riverside County, where he learned how to slaughter goats according to Muslim strictures so he could sell the meat at an Arabic market.

Adam was the oldest of their four children, all of whom were schooled at home and exposed to his parents' nondenominational Christianity. But in his teens, Adam went through a period of questioning. In a widely circulated essay that he posted on the Internet in the mid-'90s, Gadahn said he was briefly "obsessed" with heavy-metal music and then turned to Christian radio stations looking for answers. But he decided he could not believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity and began exploring Islamic Web sites and discussion groups.

Children attend prayers at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, Calif. Adam Gadahn introduced himself there as Yahya. (Damian Dovarganes -- AP)

"Having been around Muslims in my formative years," he wrote, "I knew well that they were not the bloodthirsty, barbaric terrorists that the news media and the televangelists paint them to be."

While living with his grandparents in suburban Santa Ana, he made his first trip to the nearby mosque in 1995. He introduced himself as Yahya -- the Arabic name for John the Baptist, revered as a great prophet in Islam.

"He was here every day, all day," Bundakji recalled. "He performed the five daily prayers here."

Gadahn even asked Bundakji for a job at the mosque and soon began working as a security guard. It did not last: One night, Bundakji stopped by at 2 a.m. to check on his staff and found Gadahn fast asleep. "So I let him go," he said.

At the time, though, Gadahn was not the center's most troublesome new member. Bundakji, a gregarious man who emigrated to California from Jordan in the late 1960s to attend business school, had grown concerned about a group of seven or eight men who had begun attending prayer services a few years before Gadahn's arrival.

The men -- all in their twenties and thirties, most from Pakistan -- would spend hours at the mosque, praying in a circle and "supposedly studying Islam together," Bundakji said. They wore turbans, long robes and long beards, and they spent a lot of time criticizing other members of the mosque.

"They were very rigid, cruel in talking to people," Bundakji said. "They were radicals, super-orthodox." As mosque chairman, he emerged as a particular target of their wrath. They criticized him for wearing Western clothes, for not wearing a beard, for trying to reach out to local Jewish communities. Seizing on his American nickname, Danny, they circulated fliers around the mosque calling him "Danny the Jew."

Bundakji notes that the mid-1990s were a different era. For all their concerns about the young men, "we didn't think of terrorists or plotting." But the men's attitudes ran sharply counter to the friendly, interfaith face of Islam that Bundakji -- who proudly shows off photos of himself with both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres -- and others at the Islamic Society had worked to promote. So Bundakji tried to disperse them.

"They never really did anything" for the mosque, he said.

By then, the men had drawn Gadahn into their circle. "The anger in his face became like theirs," Bundakji said.

One day in May 1997, Gadahn abruptly stormed into Bundakji's office -- "incited" by the other men, Bundakji believes. "He was screaming and shouting," though Bundakji says he does not know exactly why. And then he slapped the chairman with an open hand.

Gadahn was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault, to which he later pleaded guilty, and was barred from the mosque for several months.

He returned briefly in early 1998. Bundakji said he tried to greet the young man but was rebuffed. And shortly thereafter, Gadahn and the rest of the group drifted away from the mosque.

Three years later, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bundakji says he was visited by FBI agents who showed him photos of potential terrorism suspects. He recognized three of them as the former troublemakers. But he did not see or hear of the young brown-eyed man until this May, when reporters tracked him down to ask about a name he had never heard -- Adam Gadahn. He turned on the television news and recognized the photos as the man he knew as Yahya.

"He can be manipulated very easily to feel good about himself," Bundakji said. "He was pushed to do what you saw on tape."

Staff writer Dan Eggen and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.

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