What the accidental drone killing of an American ‘traitor’ says about the power of visual weapons

American al-Qaida militant Adam Gadahn in a video grab from 2008. REUTERS/IntelCenter/Handout

Adam Gadahn died a footnote. This American-born propagandist for al-Qaida was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan on January 19, but the government kept his death classified until April 23, a silence that seemed curious in light of Gadahn’s unique significance in the War on Terror.

In October 2006, Gadahn became a high-profile criminal: the first – and so far, only – American to be charged with treason since the era of World War II. Gadahn’s case was noteworthy not only for this reactivation of the treason statute, but also because he never actually fought for the enemy.

All he did was appear before the camera on their behalf in a series of internet videos denouncing the United States and its policies. The federal government’s decision to indict him for the capital offense of treason reveals its need to confront and contain visual threats. Like a latter-day Toyko Rose, Gadahn’s skillful use of propaganda made him a potent enemy in the eyes of the state.

Gadahn also occupied a prominent place on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists. After his indictment, he temporarily replaced Osama bin Laden as the Most Wanted Terrorist.

Given all of this, one might have expected the US government to announce Gadahn’s death by drone strike with fanfare and relish. Instead, it broke the news about the killing of the 36-year-old parenthetically and in a period of administrative contrition for its drone policy.

While Obama was apologizing for the accidental drone strike killings of two hostages, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, the government declassified a report revealing that Gadahn had also been unintentionally killed in another strike around the same time. According to that report, the government was unaware that Gadahn was in the targeted compound.

This accidental assassination, however, is a fitting end to Gadahn’s relationship with the US government, which struggled for a decade to manage him and, moreover, his image.

Adam Gadahn is seen in these undated pictures released by the FBI. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

A California boy turned al-Qaida militant

Born in 1978, Gadahn lived until his adolescence on the rural California goat farm where his parents raised and home-schooled him. His father was from a comfortably middle-class Jewish family, but had a conversion experience and, like his mother, was nominally Christian throughout Gadahn’s childhood. As a teenager, Gadahn moved to his grandparents’ home in Orange County and affiliated himself with a mosque there. He converted to Islam in the mid-1990s and later left California for Pakistan.

The first time he appeared on video, in October 2004, Gadahn disguised himself, appearing under the nom de guerre “Azzam the American,” with all but his eyeglasses covered by a checkered scarf. The following month, the government publicized intelligence surmising that this shadowy figure was indeed the erstwhile Californian. Roughly two years later, the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) confirmed this hunch, and solidified it with a three-part indictment for Treason, Providing Material Support to a Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and Aiding and Abetting.

The charges had no effect on Gadahn’s movie-making, as he continued to produce and appear in videos uploaded to the internet with some regularity. His on-screen persona matured; he uncovered his face and relinquished the large weapon that he brandished as a prop in his first video.

Gadahn’s later videos cultivated a more mature, sober image

By the mid-2000s, Gadahn was appearing primarily as a spokesman, cultivating a presence that was owlish and didactic. Although he did make some dramatic flourishes like issuing vague threats about the “streets of America … run[ning] red with blood” and tearing up his American passport, one commentator described his rhetoric as “articulate, reasonable, and troublingly persuasive.”

Overall, his work was was not particularly intimidating, and some in the intelligence community even characterized it as dull. Yet the USDOJ, by deeming Gadahn a traitor, implied that he was the most dangerous American of the last 60 years.

This designation, I suggest, was less a reflection of the seriousness of Gadahn’s actions and more an indication of how much they perplexed the state. Gadahn never killed anyone, never blew up a building; the closest he ever came to actual operational significance was when he petitioned bin Laden, offering his services as a media strategist. Ultimately, the real threat was not so much Gadahn as his image. With his undeniable American-ness and (renounced) Jewish heritage, Gadahn confounded prevailing understandings of who “terrorists” are, where they come from and what they look like.

If the government characterized him as an American terrorist, it would have conceded that such a thing could exist. But calling Gadahn a traitor neatly skirted this representational dilemma by keeping him within the state’s legal authority while also marking his unbridgeable separation from the nation.

Gadahn was not the only American defector in the War on Terror

Of course, Gadahn was not the first American to defect during the War on Terror; now, he is one of many, though he remains the only one officially deemed a traitor. Even John Walker Lindh, who was captured by US forces while fighting for al-Qaida, was not charged with treason. The government’s assiduous refusal to do so can be explained, in large part, by the manageability of Lindh’s image. Portrayed first by his family and then by the media as a fragile, damaged young man, Lindh did not pose a visual threat. Disheveled, gaunt, teary-eyed in court, Lindh looked vanquished and, moreover, appeared before the public only with the state’s permission.

Gadahn, on the other hand, never fought for the enemy, but operated entirely beyond government control in his mastery of visual propaganda. Although there was some indication that he had attended an al-Qaida training camp, the treason indictment did not even mention that possibility, and the other two counts only hinted at it: the state was primarily concerned with his visual infractions. And its decision to level the charge of treason for the first time in more than half a century indicated just how alarming this visual threat seemed to be.

The state’s intentions in making this charge, however, are more complicated than they look. Although treason is a capital offense, I contend that the state did not actually wish to kill Gadahn.

In my 2014 book, Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in the Global War on Terror, I analyze the documents surrounding the case to argue that the state did not truly desire to execute Gadahn or even to try him. Neither of these actions would have satisfactorily redressed his explicitly visual crimes.

Instead, I suggested that the most likely outcome for a captured Gadahn would have been indefinite detention: active, perpetual disappearance in an effort to finally control his image.

My hypothesis that the government would not seek to kill Gadahn was borne out by his status as an unintended casualty of this drone strike.

An accidental killing was not the optimal government outcome

Other American propagandists have been dispatched in this way. Samir Khan, editor of the English-language al-Qaida magazine Inspire, was killed alongside Anwar al-Awlaki in a September 2011 drone strike. But unlike Gadahn, al-Awlaki seemed to have some actual influence, including on the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight in December 2009.

A relatively invisible death by drone does not offer the government a full or satisfying rejoinder to Gadahn’s visual unruliness.

Even in death, Gadahn eluded the state’s control over the visual, exceeding it paradoxically this time by his invisibility. Whatever tactical victory Gadahn’s death might entail (which is likely very minimal), it also underscores the limitations of even the most lethal weapons systems against threatening images that may live on, indefinitely, through the digital infrastructure of the internet.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 108,500 academics and researchers from 3,567 institutions.

Register now