Brian Dodwell has an article in the new CTC Sentinel entitled “The Quiet Ascent of Adam Gadahn.” The piece includes some genuinely interesting insights about Gadahn’s evolution as a thinker. It also includes repeated assertions about “the significant role Gadahn played in bin Laden’s al Qaeda.” While analysts recognize Gadahn as a media adviser for the jihadi group, Dodwell argues that the newly-released Abbottabad documents–or, more specifically, one document in particular–demonstrate Gadahn’s “role beyond that of media adviser within the organization.” The bottom line is that Dodwell’s conclusion about Gadahn’s significant role in al Qaeda is not justified by the available evidence.
The document that Dodwell relies on in concluding that Gadahn played a more significant role in al Qaeda than previously believed is a 21-page letter written by Gadahn himself. Part of that letter, as Dodwell recounts, is a response to a request from bin Laden, who asked that Gadahn translate an article by Robert Fisk and provide input on which U.S. media to engage with for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Gadahn completed both of these assigned tasks, but Dodwell notes that he also “went a step further and provided an additional 15 pages of commentary and advice on various ideological and strategic issues.” Gadahn’s advice on ideological and strategic issues was genuinely interesting, and certainly provides us with insight into Gadahn’s thinking. But does it provide us with insight into the role he played in bin Laden’s al Qaeda?
Dodwell argues that the answer is yes, based on Gadahn’s apparent confidence and comfort in providing the advice. “[T]he fact that he felt empowered to raise the substantive issues addressed in his letter demonstrates an evolution beyond just media tasks,” Dodwell writes. He makes the same point a couple of other times:
- “Gadahn appears to have carefully crafted a role for himself in the organization, and through competent performance has presumably garnered the respect necessary to expand that role.”
- “One may debate the precision of his critiques (although it appears they were in line with many of Bin Ladin’s concerns), but the point here is that Gadahn’s willingness to provide them and his superiors’ willingness to allow him to contribute to such internal debates suggests a more substantive role for Gadahn in al-Qaeda than has been previously acknowledged.”
To be frank, when removed from the context of al Qaeda, we can rather clearly see that such analysis, based on the confidence with which Gadahn provided advice and suggestions to bin Laden, does not hold up:
- “The fact that Rev. Jeremiah Wright felt empowered to write a letter raising substantive political issues with President Obama demonstrates that he evolved beyond just being Obama’s preacher, and was in fact a significant policy adviser.”
- “The fact that Charlie Sheen felt empowered to submit a six-and-a-half minute video to President Obama on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks demonstrates his evolution from actor to high-level national security adviser.”
Okay, both of these are obvious reductio ad absurdum examples; and further, unlike Gadahn in al Qaeda, neither Rev. Wright nor Charlie Sheen have played any substantive role in the Obama administration. But the point stands that one cannot determine the influence an individual has on an organization, whether a government or a militant group, based solely on the letters that he writes to that organization. To Dodwell, Gadahn’s letter makes it appear that Gadahn had “carefully crafted a role for himself in the organization, and through competent performance … garnered the respect necessary to expand that role.” Another plausible interpretation, based on the same letter, would be the exact opposite: that Gadahn crafted a role for himself in al Qaeda as a media adviser, but though he wrote 15 pages of substantive advice to bin Laden in an attempt to expand that role, his substantive advice was completely ignored. Yet another plausible interpretation is a middle ground between the two: that Gadahn crafted a role for himself in al Qaeda as a media adviser, and wrote 15 pages of substantive advice to bin Laden in an attempt to expand that role, but bin Laden was killed before deciding whether to allow Gadahn to do so. Basically, there is no reason to believe that the likeliest interpretation from Gadahn’s own letter is that he played a significant role within al Qaeda beyond that of media adviser.
Further, when Dodwell writes that Gadahn’s superiors showed a “willingness to allow him to contribute to … internal debates,” this is also something we do not know. Gadahn wrote a letter attempting to contribute to al Qaeda’s internal debates. Even within a group like al Qaeda, writing such a letter did not require the ascent of his superiors. Whether they took it seriously in any way is the real question–and one that we cannot answer, based on the evidence before us.
Dodwell makes one further argument about how Gadahn’s advice to bin Laden (some of which concerned al Qaeda’s taking of innocent Muslim lives) may have been received:
Gadahn’s proposed declaration was never released, although bin Laden died only three months after this letter was written so it is impossible to know how he reacted. Bin Laden’s own thoughts on this topic, however, are instructive. His concern about the killing of Muslims is well documented, but he also appeared to concur with Gadahn’s suggestion to both publicly denounce such acts and publicly take responsibility when mistakes are made. He asked `Atiyya to send guidance to “every amir in the regions” to exercise control over their military actions and not conduct operations that unnecessarily risk Muslim lives. If such an event does occur, he asked “for the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened,” and if they do not, “we [al Qaeda] should then assume the responsibility and apologize for what happened.” Based on this document, one would presume that Gadahn’s proposal reached a sympathetic ear.
In other words, Dodwell argues that the possible influence that Gadahn’s letter may have had is bolstered by the fact that bin Laden, prior to receiving Gadahn’s letter, expressed similar concern about al Qaeda’s killing of Muslims. This may indeed have made bin Laden more receptive to Gadahn’s letter; or bin Laden may have had a low opinion of Gadahn beyond his assigned role as media adviser, and thus may have decided to ignore the American’s advice despite his expressed sympathies for the concerns that Gadahn raised.
The CTC Sentinel is a respected publication, and often analysis that appears in such places will echo throughout much of the Western literature on terrorism. I expect to see Gadahn’s “significant role” in al Qaeda mentioned either frequently or at least occasionally in articles, reports, and the academic literature. But really, it shouldn’t. The idea that Gadahn had gone on to a significant role in al Qaeda beyond that of media adviser amounts to nothing more than supposition based on a single document that Gadahn himself authored.