Before he was killed in a drone strike, the American jihadist who became a public face for al-Qaeda and spoke of his love for slitting infidels’ throats grew up on a farm in California, where his bohemian parents raised goats and home-schooled their young family.
On Thursday, U.S. officials said that Adam Gadahn, 36, was killed in January along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in a CIA drone strike targeting a suspected gathering of al-Qaeda operatives.
Another U.S. strike that same month killed American Ahmed Farouq, an al-Qaeda operative who was born in Brooklyn but spent most of his life in Pakistan, and two Western hostages: Warren Weinstein, an American aid contractor, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian.
In solemn remarks to reporters, President Obama took responsibility for the unintended deaths of the hostages, whose presence at the target site was not known to the United States when the strike was ordered, American officials said.
Although Obama expressed remorse for the hostages’ deaths, the killing of the two U.S.-born militants also put the White House in an awkward position.
While U.S. intelligence officials had carefully tracked both men’s activities, the administration had not approved an operation to kill either of them, a move that would have required an in-depth legal review because they were U.S. citizens.
Gadahn, who in 2006 became the first American to be charged with treason in half a century, was seen by counterterrorism officials as a prime example of “home-grown” Islamist militancy.
In his youth, however, Gadahn and his younger siblings lived a quiet life on the family’s remote farm. His parents, Jennifer and Phil, had relocated near Southern California’s Skinner Reservoir because they wanted their children to grow up away from the hustle of city life. There, they had a “hippie thing” going on, said Carol Koltuniak, whose son played on the same Little League team with Adam when the boys were in their early teens.
On the farm, the Gadahn family lived with only basic amenities — no electricity from the grid, no running water. Phil Gadahn raised goats and made cheese, Koltuniak said.
Away from the farm, Adam Gadahn appeared to be as uninterested in sports as he was in other children, Koltuniak said. “He didn’t really bond with anyone,” she said. “He was very off to himself all the time.”
Nancy Pearlman, an aunt of Gadahn’s, declined to comment.
As a teenager, Gadahn moved in with relatives in Orange County and developed a fervor for death metal, a strain of heavy-metal music. He later converted to Islam and first traveled to Pakistan in the late 1990s. There, he adopted the nom de guerre “Azzam the American” and rose rapidly toward the top of al-Qaeda.
Starting in 2004, he appeared in al-Qaeda videos in which he praised the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and threatened further violence against his homeland. “The streets of America shall run red with blood,” he said in one message.
Images of Gadahn show a bandit-like figure: wearing sunglasses, his head wrapped in a black-and-white scarf, a gun slung over his shoulder. In later messages, a bearded Gadahn is unmasked, looking directly into the camera as he makes a case for an array of causes, including forcibly toppling the Pakistani government, rejecting Western help for Syrian rebels and exacting revenge for a Libyan militant captured by the United States.
The FBI put Gadahn on its “most-wanted” list in 2006 and he remained a well-known militant figure, but U.S. officials said he was not considered a “high-value target.”
His death adds to the list of American militants killed overseas in drone attacks. In 2011, a U.S. strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al-Qaeda recruiter. Several other Americans have been killed incidentally in U.S. strikes in recent years.
Unlike Gadahn, Farouq, whose real name was Raja Mohammed Salman, spent little time in the United States. A dual citizen whose family left New York when he was a young child, Farouq never returned. He grew up in Pakistan, where his family had ties to jihadist groups.
Officials said Farouq ran al-Qaeda’s day-to-day operations in Pakistan prior to becoming the deputy emir of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). But Farouq was less widely known than Gadahn, and his U.S. citizenship may not have been known to even his militant colleagues.
For now, U.S. officials are less concerned by AQIS, a recently formed offshoot of al-Qaeda whose primary target does not appear to be the United States, than they are by al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and North Africa.
It is unclear what impact the death of the men will have on al-Qaeda, which has been weakened significantly after years of drone strikes and the 2011 killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Adam Goldman in Charlotte, Karen DeYoung in Washington and Tim Craig in Pakistan contributed to this report.