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Winding Spiritual Path for Suspect

Faiths are integral to the family of a former O.C. man now wanted in the war on terror.

May 28, 2004|William Lobdell, Lance Pugmire and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

Not long after being expelled from an Orange County mosque in 1997 for fighting, Adam Yahiye Gadahn returned wearing a white turban and robes styled in a fashion, one cleric remembers, similar to Osama bin Laden's.

"When I saw that, I thought, 'My God, this guy is going in the wrong direction,' " said Haitham "Danny" Bundakji, president of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove.

On Wednesday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller announced an international manhunt for Gadahn and six others thought to have terrorist connections. They alleged that Gadahn attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and worked as a translator for Al Qaeda.

Gadahn, 25, has traveled a long road since his days as a youth on a goat ranch in the hills of southwestern Riverside County. Grandson of a prominent Jewish doctor from Orange County, he was raised by parents with eclectic religious tastes who tried to turn their backs on the modern world.

After turning to Islam as a teenager in 1995, Gadahn's religious urges were answered at a Garden Grove mosque.

With light skin, hazel eyes and long hair, Gadahn stood out at a mosque dominated by worshippers of Middle Eastern descent. He identified himself as Yahya, the Arabic name for John the Baptist, a great prophet in Islam as well as in Christianity. His Muslim name, Yahiye, might be a variant spelling of the Arabic word.

Those who knew him recalled a quiet but angry young man who often wouldn't say hello to passersby if he believed they disagreed with his militant interpretation of Islam.

"He would not answer much; he would not comment much," said Muzammil Siddiqi, the Harvard-educated executive director of the Orange County Islamic center and a national Muslim leader.

Bundakji said the newly converted Gadahn mingled with half a dozen "hard-line" Muslims, a faction that Bundakji as the mosque's president didn't allow to meet as a group on the property. "I tried to chase these people away," he said. "This kid [Gadahn] would give me a dirty look all the time. I could see he was going with the wrong crowds."

Bundakji said those Muslims didn't like the mosque's moderate teachings and protested its outreach to Christians and Jews. He said they printed fliers calling the cleric "the Jew," among other things.

"These people looked at us as too modern, too Americanized," Bundakji said. "They thought we were drifting away from Islam."

The feud erupted into violence in May 1997. Gadahn, then 18, was arrested in an attack on Bundakji.

Police said Gadahn had been fired from his position as a security guard at the mosque after he was caught sleeping on the job. They said that he persisted in hanging around the mosque after his dismissal and that when Bundakji confronted him, Gadahn punched the leader in the face and the right shoulder. Bundakji, who was 56 at the time, was not seriously injured.

Bundakji said he doesn't recall Gadahn working for the Islamic center, just that the young man came into his office "yelling and screaming."

Gadahn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of assault and battery and was sentenced to two days in jail, time already served. He also was ordered to perform five days of community service but failed to do so, according to court records. Because of this, there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

Bundakji said he saw Gadahn visiting the mosque a few times after that in his new wardrobe of robes and a white turban -- worn, he said, in a style clearly meant to duplicate the garb of Bin Laden.

Gadahn's father, Philip, 57, also remembered his son falling under the influence of a group at the mosque.

He said his son told him of visits to an Islamic center and of becoming friends with four Pakistanis. Those friends ultimately swayed the youth to visit Pakistan, his father said, and then to move there in 1998 after dabbling in a variety of odd jobs in Orange County and opting not to attend community college.

He said the family has received letters from his son -- although not recently -- written from Karachi, Pakistan.

Philip Gadahn said he hasn't spoken with his son in 2 1/2 years. "He just called us [from Pakistan] out of the blue one day, right after 9/11."

Philip Gadahn said he was greatly surprised to learn of the government's allegations. On Wednesday night, he met at his home with FBI investigators.

"If [my son is] involved in what they're saying he's involved in, then he's changed," Philip Gadahn said.

Federal officials said they aren't sure how Gadahn fits into Al Qaeda's terrorist operation and conceded that he may be little more than an English-speaking sympathizer of Islamic radicals.

"It was not as if he was on the radar screen as a Top 10 terrorist or anything like that," said one counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gadahn first came to the attention of the FBI's Los Angeles office and local intelligence about the time that he was asked to leave the Orange County mosque, federal officials said.

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