Who Are the American Terrorists?

Ben Terris
National Journal

The Obama administration in February leaked a paper telling us what we already knew: The U.S. government would kill an American citizen if that person were deemed an imminent terrorist threat. We knew this because we had seen it happen. Four U.S. citizens had already been killed in drone strikes: Kamal Derwish in 2002, followed by Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011 and Khan’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, two weeks later.

But the leaked white paper caught the attention of the country, because it made official a grim U.S. policy: If Americans fit certain criteria, they could be killed by a small group of government officials acting as judge, jury, and executioner. While it is possible that Americans have been on this so-called kill list, currently there are none. Even the highest-profile American-born terrorists—Adam Gadahn, Omar Hammami, Jehad Serwan Mostafa, and Abdul Yasin—all of whom were on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list, apparently don’t make the cut.

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1) Adam Gadahn: It didn’t take long for Gadahn (known as Azzam the American) to rise up the ranks of al-Qaida after moving to Pakistan in the late 90s. Gadahn was born and raised in California, the son of a musician, and a fan of heavy-metal music. After converting to Islam in his late teens, he moved to Pakistan in 1998 and began working as a translator and media adviser for al-Qaida. He flourished in the role, becoming a “senior operative,” essentially in charge of the terrorist group’s media operations. As such, Gadahn created a series of videos aimed at both attracting new converts and intimidating opponents. FBI Executive Assistant Director Willie Hulon said that Gadahn represented “a new breed of homegrown extremist, who has chosen to betray the country of his birth.” In 2009, Gadahn became the first American in nearly 50 years to be charged with treason.

Despite all that, Gadahn does not appear to be a possible target for a drone strike. That’s because as important as a propagandist is to a terrorist operation, the job doesn’t meet the conditions of the kill list. A Business Insider article from earlier this year explains why: “U.S. officials draw a sharp distinction between propagandists like Gadahn and [people] who planned or were potentially directly involved in operations.” In other words, Gadahn is mostly all talk.

For a brilliantly told and comprehensive account of Gadahn’s life, read Raffi Khatchadourian’s 2007 New Yorkerprofile.

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2) Omar Hammami: A native of Daphne, Ala., Hammami is another American who was able to move up the ranks in a terrorist group’s hierarchy thanks to charisma and media savvy. But his role with the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab went beyond just making videos. Hammami made his way to Somalia in 2006 at the age of 22, had his first public interview in 2007, and was overseeing military forces by the summer of 2008. Then, according to The New York Times, he led a series of military strikes on Ethiopian troops, followed by an October mission he commanded in which his compatriot, Shirwa Ahmed, became the first known American suicide-bomber.

In November of last year, Hammami’s named was added to the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list. And since al-Shabaab has affiliations with al-Qaida, it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for a top lieutenant in the group to land on the kill list. But Hammami’s recent role with al-Shabaab has become a bit uncertain, and whether he fits any kind of “imminent threat” category is up in the air.

After Hammami released a series of jihadi-themed rap videos and a 45-minute audio recording in which he criticizes jihadist organizations for focusing too much on local issues, al-Shabaab issued a sharply worded statement.

"The opinions expressed by [Hammami], the alleged frictions, and the video releases are merely the results of personal grievances that stem purely from a narcissistic pursuit of fame and are far removed from the reality on the ground,” the official statement read.

Once a terrorist group starts issuing death threats to a guy, he probably no longer serves a particularly important role with them.

And again, if you are looking for a well-told comprehensive take, read Andrea Elliott’s New York Times Magazine story from 2010.

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3) Jehad Serwan Mostafa: Hammami may have been the highest-profile American helping al-Shabaab, but he wasn’t the only one. Jehad Mostafa is said to have helped “organize, supervise, and otherwise direct the operation of al-Shabaab,” according to an indictment announced by the U.S.  Attorney General’s Office.

In 2010, the Justice Department unsealed four separate indictments charging 14 people, including Mostafa, with terrorism violations. The indictment against him was vague, saying that he “provided material support, including himself as personnel, to terrorists; conspired to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, al-Shabaab; and provided material support to al-Shabaab.”

The Long War Journal reported that Mostafa “established himself as reliable in the field, at one point serving as a lieutenant under the senior al-Qaida and Shabaab commander Saleh Nbhan.”

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4) Abdul Yasin: On Feb. 26, 1993, two men parked a van beneath the World Trade Center and set off a bomb, killing six people and injuring about 1,000 more. Of those involved, all but one have been arrested. Yasin, one of the men responsible for making the bomb and who was also in the van, is the only one still at large. The National Counterterrorism Center has offered $5 million for information on him.

Yasin was born in Bloomington, Ind., where his Iraqi father had come to get his Ph.D. at Indiana University, but he lived most of his life in Iraq. In 1992, Yasin obtained an American passport in Jordan and began living in an apartment below Ramzi Yousef and Mohammed Salameh, two of the convicted bomb plotters.

After the attack, the FBI questioned Yasin but decided to let him go after he cooperated with them; they had nothing to hold him on. Afterward, he flew to Newark, N.J., and then to Iraq, where there was no extradition policy with the United States. Later reports indicated that Saddam Hussein’s regime gave Yasin money and housing.

"We wanted him badly, but he escaped and is now in Iraq," a former counterterrorism chief for the CIA told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "He's the one the FBI should be embarrassed about. They talked to him in 1993, and then he skipped the country."

But since 1993, Yasin has kept an extremely low profile, with no public indication that he is a threat. In a 2009 60 Minutes episode, Lesley Stahl caught up with him at a prison on the outskirts of Baghdad for his first and only interview.

"I am very sorry for what happened," he told her. "I don't know what to do to make it up. My father died because of pain and sadness. It caused many troubles. I don't know how to apologize for it."


Correction: A previous version of the article misidentified the state in which Abdul Yasin lived. It is Indiana.