US charges al-Qa'ida video man with treason

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A 28-year-old Californian accused of collaborating with al-Qa'ida has become the first American citizen since the aftermath of the Second World War to be indicted for treason, a crime which theoretically carries the death penalty.

The charges against Adam Gadahn ­ who is believed to be living in Pakistan ­ were announced by the Deputy Attorney General, Paul McNulty, at a Justice Department press conference. Mr Gadahn "chose to join our enemy and provide it with aid and comfort by acting as a propagandist for al-Qa'ida," Mr McNulty said.

Mr Gadahn, who grew up on a goat farm in a barren region of Riverside county east of Los Angeles, converted to Islam in 1995, when he was 17. Three years later he moved to Pakistan and in May 2004 was identified by the FBI as one of seven al-Qa'ida members said to be planning attacks on the US.

A few months later he made his video debut, threatening attacks on the American homeland in lurid terms. "The magnitude and ferocity of what is coming your way will make you forget all about September 11 ­ the streets of America shall run red with blood."

Since then he has appeared in several such al-Qa'ida videos, including two in September this year ­ the first marking the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the second a longer production entitled "Invitation to Islam", in which American troops are urged to turn against their commanders and in which Mr Gadahn is seen along with Ayman al-Zawahiri, second in command to Osama bin Laden.

He also appeared in a 9/11 anniversary video last year, in which his face was partially covered and in which he was identified as "Azzam the American". In it, he warned Americans of "unpleasant consequences" if they continued to support the government of George Bush. The FBI has placed him on its list of 10 most wanted, and is offering a $1m (£550,000) reward for information leading to his capture.

The charge of treason, which has been used barely 30 times in the entire history of the US, is exceptionally severe. It is also very hard to prove. Barring a confession, it requires testimony from two witnesses confirming "overt acts" of treason on the part of the accused. For that reason John Walker Lindh, the Californian captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and labelled "the American Taliban", was only charged with aiding the Taliban and was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Mr McNulty denied suggestions the Bush administration was exaggerating the case in order to highlight the national security threat to the US ahead of November's mid-term elections ­ the issue that most Republican strategists believe offers the best change of seeing off the challenge of the Democrats. He said the videos were sufficient evidence on their own. "This has not been done lightly. This is the right case," he said.