Adam Yahiye Gadahn on Wednesday became the first American since the World War II era to be charged with treason.
The Orange County, California, native — who converted to Islam and is believed to be living in Pakistan — was also charged by a grand jury with providing material support to al Qaeda through his appearance in five videos tied to the organization, in which prosecutors said his intent was to "betray the United States."
"The crime of treason is perhaps the most serious offense for which any person can be tried under our Constitution," Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said at a Washington, D.C., news conference to announce the charges, according to the Los Angeles Times. "It is not a crime only against the American people but against America itself." Treason, the only crime specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, can carry a death penalty.
Originally thought to be merely a translator for al Qaeda, Gadahn, 28, has emerged recently as the most prominent American involved in extremist Islam thanks to his appearance in videos alongside al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Gadahn first appeared in a video that aired October 27, 2004, wearing a head scarf covering everything but his eyes and stating that he had "joined a movement waging war on America and killing large numbers of Americans." Also known as "Azzam the American," Gadahn is believed to be the person in an hour-long al Qaeda video released just before the 2004 presidential election in which he said that American "streets will run red with blood."
In one of his recent appearances, on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, he was shown without a disguise, mentioned the name of 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, warned of new attacks on Los Angeles and Australia, and referred to the U.S. as "enemy soil."
Last month, he urged American soldiers to "escape from the unbelieving army and join the winning side," describing the 9/11 hijackers as "brothers."
Because the government must present at least two witnesses to an act of treason or provide a courtroom confession, the case for the crime has historically been difficult to prove, according to the Times. The last person charged with treason was Tomoya Kawakita, a Southern Californian Japanese-American who was found guilty of torturing American prisoners of war who worked at a mining company where he was an interpreter during World War II, according to the Times. Though originally sentenced to death in 1952, Kawakita's sentence was commuted to life and he was eventually deported.
Unlike most people charged with treason, who typically carry their efforts out in secret, Gadahn has been very public in his criticism of the U.S., which experts said could make his prosecution easier.
The grandson of a well-known Orange County urologist, Gadahn was home-schooled on a goat farm by parents who had "eclectic religious tastes [and] shunned the modern world," according to the Times.
At 16, he moved in with his grandparents — his grandfather was a board member of the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish organization — during a period of rebellion and soul-searching that saw him study fundamental Christianity, obsess over death-metal music and finally discover Islam on the Internet using his grandmother's computer, the Orange Country Register reported.
He began attending a nearby Islamic Center where he was influenced by the followers of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
In other news:
A British man, Dhiran Barot, 32, pleaded guilty on Thursday (October 12) to conspiring to bomb high-profile targets in the U.S. such as the New York Stock Exchange and the International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington, D.C., according to The Associated Press. Barot was arrested in August 2004 and officials found on his computer plans for back-to-back attacks on additional targets in London, Washington, New York and New Jersey using radioactive dirty bombs.
In the British plots, Barot planned to pack gas cylinders into limousines and detonate them in underground parking garages.