Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a little-known convert to Islam from California who was accused by top U.S. law enforcement officials yesterday of being an associate of al Qaeda, grew up on a remote goat ranch in Southern California and has never shown signs of extremism, his family said.

After Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced that authorities want to question him, Gadahn's aunt, Nancy Pearlman, said she cannot conceive he is involved in extremism.

"He is not scary, but he is a decent, loving person," said Pearlman, an environmental activist and trustee of the Los Angeles County College District.

But a starkly different portrait emerges from law enforcement authorities. Mueller said Gadahn, 25, became an associate in Pakistan of one of al Qaeda's top operatives, Abu Zubaida, who is now in U.S. custody. Gadahn also attended al Qaeda or Taliban training camps in Afghanistan and translated documents between Arabic and English for al Qaeda, Mueller said.

A government official said Gadahn went to Afghanistan in 1998. Pearlman said he moved to Pakistan to be married and has been in periodic contact by telephone with relatives.

The son of a Muslim butcher in a remote part of California's Riverside County, Gadahn grew up in an interfaith family that practiced no particular religion, according to a 1995 essay on a Muslim Web site that bears Gadahn's name. He was home-schooled and learned to despise the pro-Israel ideas of conservative Christians who are prominent in the home-schooling movement, the essay says.

As a teenager, after years of adolescent searching and an obsession with "demonic" heavy metal rock music, he started reading about Islam online, he said in the essay. "Having been around Muslims," he wrote, "I knew well they were not the bloodthirsty, barbaric terrorists that the news media and televangelists paint them to be." In 1995 he converted to Islam at a mosque in Orange County.

Three years later he worked for a California nonprofit called Charity Without Borders, which recycled motor oil and received state funding, according to records filed with the state that were unearthed by the Site Institute, a Washington counterterrorism research group.

One of the officials of that charity was Khalil Deek, who used the name Joseph Adams, according to the California records and Site. Deek, a close associate of Zubaida, was detained for 17 months in Jordan on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks before being released in 2001. U.S. officials have continued investigating Deek's whereabouts, a fact that is made clear since both his names recently have appeared on U.S. terrorist lookout lists.

Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.