Omar Hammami, the most prominent American jihadi left alive, probably should be running. When Hammami came to Somalia for jihad in 2006, he never anticipated that al-Qaida’s local affiliate would pledge to kill its former propaganda asset. And last month, the U.S. government put a $5 million bounty on the head of the 28-year-old Alabama native. These could be the last moments of Hammami’s life.
But Hammami tells Danger Room in an extremely rare and exclusive interview that he’s staying put. From an undisclosed location in Somalia, he grows vegetables, helps his wives around the house, and trolls his one-time colleagues in al-Shebab on Twitter, his newfound passion. As @abumamerican, he’s tweeting his ongoing jihad in 140-character installments, and is happy to debate it with U.S. national security professionals. Uniquely among jihadis, Hammami shoots the breeze with the people whose job it is to study and even hunt people like him.
That’s caused a cognitive and emotional dissonance within U.S. counterterrorism circles. Several openly say they like the charismatic Hammami, who’s quick with a joke and a touch of irony. Their Twitter interactions with him have led to a worry about his well-being, and a dim hope that maybe, just maybe, they can convince Hammami to give up a path that seems to promise a violent and imminent end. “It’s just a process of talking about what it is he believes and trying to understand it,” says J.M. Berger, Hammami’s main interlocutor, “and seeing if there’s an escape hatch for him from this life.”
That natural, human affection for Hammami risks obscuring something basic: Hammami isn’t looking for an escape hatch. He’s broken with al-Shebab, not jihad. “I believe in attacking u.s. Interests everywhere,” he tells me, through Twitter’s direct message function, the only means through which he consented to a week-long running interview. “No 2nd thoughts and no turning back.” Sentiments like that make it likely that Hammami will be the next American killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Hammami is a complex figure. He’s never attacked his fellow Americans. He reflects on his time in America with fondness. He jokes about porn and barbecue on Twitter with his unlikely buddies. And he’s chipping away at the legitimacy of America’s top adversary in east Africa one Tweet at the time, all while sunnily proclaiming his undying antagonism for his homeland. “A walking contradiction from massively different backgrounds” is how Hammami once described himself, “who is seriously passionate about what he believes in, but feels he has to go about doing it while laughing at almost everything along the way.”
From Alabama to al-Shebab
Omar Hammami grew up in the deep south, in a town called Daphne, near Mobile. Born in 1984 to a Syrian Muslim immigrant father and a white Protestant mother, he was raised as a Christian, and described himself in his 2012 online autobiography as “a social butterfly” and “the most popular guy in school.”
Hammami began to feel culturally adrift as a teenager, especially as he began to explore his Islamic heritage, a process outlined in a riveting 2010 New York Times Magazinepiece. By the time he was in tenth grade, a kid who used to dress like a suburban skater “began to feel that I was being flung into an ocean and being asked not to get wet,” he would later write.
Increasingly a religious Muslim and an academic achiever, he skipped his senior year of high school to enroll in the University of South Alabama, “a breath of fresh air,” as he could wear his Islamic clothes in class and pray at the nearby masjid. But that new religious fervor led him to drop out, acting on the belief that “one charismatic leader” could do more for Muslims worldwide than another white-collar professional could — but not before he had already gotten certified as a Java programmer, and not before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Counterintuitively, 9/11 wasn’t a big deal for Hammami. Sure, his neighbors “acted as if they would not fix my car unless I denounced bin Laden and praised George Bush,” he wrote, but it didn’t flip any intellectual switches for him. “9/11 simply made me more politically [conscious], not knee jerk tho,” he DMs. “Terror” was never “my ultimate goal. jihad was my obligation and the nwo” — that is, the New World Order — “my enemy.”
If the Order was his enemy, Hammami doesn’t have the same harshness for the people who live in its clutches. He doesn’t dwell on the non-Muslims who taunted him. A post-collegiate move to Canada was “a blast,” as a smart-assed Hammami would crack on passersby: “How ’bout that hockey eh? Wanna have a coffee at Tim Horten’s [sic] or should I get ya a Fresca?”
None of that stopped Hammami from linking up with al-Shebab in Somalia in 2006.
‘My Life May Be in Danger’
It was a boom time for jihad in the horn of Africa. A U.S.-sponsored Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to oust the ruling Islamic Courts Union, a precursor to the more-extreme Shebab, was kicking off. Soon, he was awkwardly wielding a Kalashnikov — “I felt like I had just been given an atomic bomb that might blow at any second” — and singing alongside other proto-Shebab recruits as a flatbed truck drove them to their Kismayo stronghold. “I thought they were great and became friends w/many,” he DMs.
He also quickly became Internet-famous. In 2008, around the time Shebab intensified its attack on Ethiopian forces and their Somali proxies, a YouTube video popped up of a smiling, handsome, longhaired Hammami, toting his rifle and whispering into the camera in English about how he and his colleagues were about to “kill as many of them as we can.” The video didn’t show him killing anyone, although he DMs that he killed an enemy Somali once, a prisoner Shebab captured working for the Ethiopians who wouldn’t talk under interrogation. “Just told myself he’s worse than a goat,” he says.
But as a propagandist, Hammami shined. In 2009, he started recording and posting online what he calls his “rap nashid” thing: a capella rhymes in English about jihad, martyrdom and violence that bridged the gap between hip-hop and Islamic nashid chanting. They were amateurish — Danger Room has mocked them over the years — but fascinating. “Send Me A Cruise” fantasized about getting killed by a “Predator drone/ or a paradise missile”; the cadence of “Make Jihad With Me” deliberately referenced Tupac Shakur’s classic “Hail Mary.” Hammami tells me he actually played no part in those corny raps — he only co-wrote “Hmm Hmm” and “Blow By Blow” — but his rapping partner released them under Hammami’s name, playing off his high profile. Less lyrically, Shebab had Hammami issue arejoinder to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world.
Yet the longer Hammami stuck around al-Shebab, the more frustrated he became. Its leadership, particularly “Emir” Abu Zubayr, marginalized the foreign jihadis who had rallied to Shebab’s side, including Americans and Canadians, and confronted militarily superior foes openly when it could have waged guerrilla warfare. Shebab, in Hammami’s telling, levied unreasonable taxes on the impoverished Somalis who lived in its southern strongholds, and took civilians prisoner based on secret evidence. None of that seemed like the Islamic justice Hammami thought he was upholding. In late 2011, Hammami confronted Abu Zubayr. “i told him every last detail in person,” Hammami DMs, “leading to the beginning of the oppression.”
The next March, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a shaken Hammami. He informed the world that “my life may be in danger” from his old comrades. Shebab initially tweeted a denial, seemingly not wanting to air grievances with its main propaganda figure. But Hammami went into hiding. His long periods of silence — unusual for the motormouthed jihadi — prompted frequent speculation that Shebab had him killed. By December, Shebab broke its own silence and claimed Hammami’s accusations “stem purely from a narcissistic pursuit of fame and are far removed from the reality on the ground.” Ironically, the FBI had just placed Hammami on the Most Wanted Terrorists list for collaborating with the group. But Shebab’s statement, issued on Twitter, seemed like a death sentence.
In response, Hammami issued a counterattack — one that showed Shebab was way outclassed on Twitter.
‘The Coyote Can Only Hang in Mid Air for So Long’
@abumamerican emerged, technically, in May, though it took a few months to build up a head of anti-Shebab steam. The handle is a reference to Hammami’s nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, as well as his heritage. Its Twitter page links to a now-deleted photo of “al-Amriki” and a YouTube channel filled with Hammami’s videos.
There is no way to prove that the green egg avatar accompanying @abumamerican is truly Omar Hammami. No blue check mark verifies his identity, nor would one even be meaningful for a man in hiding, apparently in Somalia. He refuses to talk over email, Skype, IM, phone or any format besides Twitter. But counterterrorism analysts are convinced Hammami is the one tweeting. “If it’s a hoax,” says J.M. Berger, author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, “it’s an incredibly elaborate one, and would be done for an extremely small audience.”
Hovering around 700 followers, to be specific. But those followers are exposed to a fusillade of assaults on al-Shebab, accusing it of being sellouts, cravens or idiots. “when mujahidin are allowed to fight like they did pre-shabab chains no country can survive somalia,” reads a typical @abumamerican tweet.
Hammami’s tweets range from jihadi refutation to pop-culture infused trolling. Sometimes @abumamerican breaks Godwin’s Law: “Like hitler they intentionally inject bureaucracy into the hierarchy out of psycho fear of a coup.” When random tweeters ask about his beef with his old colleagues, he’s quick to reply that Shebab has strayed from the true path of jihad: “our mission as muslims is to establish all of the shari’ah upon all of the earth, khilafah. Shabab left both parts.” Tweets frequently accuse of Shebab of locking up its fightersbased on little more than whims. Other times he’s happy to point and laugh: “Today I hereby declare that the shabab have fallen off the cliff, and the coyote can only hang in mid air for so long b4 screams r heard.”
The screams have started. On its official, English-language Twitter account, Shebab typically subtweets shots at Hammami (“There is no reason whatsoever for an apostate, once he leaves the fold of Islam, to enjoy the privileges and protection of Islam“) but its minions attack him directly through other formats. Last month, it distributed a slick, 17-page online PDF called “Turning Away from the Truth Won’t Make It Disappear: Demystifying the Abu Mansur Saga.” It portrays Hammami as a preening, egotistical, “brittle mental construct of his own making,” incompetent militarily and out for his personal glory. Offline, the threats are more serious: in January, Hammami claimed that Shebab gave him 14 days to lay down his weapons or die.
Hammami’s campaign against al-Shebab comes at a delicate time for the group. Once on the march, al-Shebab made a drastic miscalculation in 2011 when it expelled international aid workers attempting to mitigate the effects of a regional drought. The result was a famine in its southern stronghold that alienated Somalis who had once acquiesced to its agenda. Last year it lost the important port city of Kismayo. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a longtime Somalia analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, now describes al-Shebab as “a would-be insurgent force.” The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told Congress last month that the group will merely “remain focused on local and regional challenges.” Add to that a tight market for foreign fighters — many of whom are swarming to Syria — and the last thing Shebab can afford is a direct attack on its legitimacy by its most famous former adherent.
There are signs that Shebab’s counterattacks may intensify. Last week, a major extremist Web forum that had previously neglected Hammami hosted an online Q&A with him, allowing jihadis and wannabes to directly question him about his accusations. Simultaneously, Shebab sympathizers in Kenya issued a statement directly threatening Hammami’s life IRL: the group requested “swift and appropriate action against Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki for his persistence in fomenting dissent.”
@abuamerican copped to being Hammami in February. Thus far, he says, no one from Shebab has dared lay a finger on him. He believes that his Twitter campaign has trolled Shebab so successfully that it’s insulated him from retaliation. “They know that the first bullets are the nail in their coffin now that everything is in the open,” Hammami DMs. “shabab would lose aq [al-Qaida] support and support of soldiers and middle level.”
‘There’s Kind of a Weird Camaraderie’
Al-Shebab is Hammami’s Twitter target. But the social butterfly tendencies he once copped to in high school are on display. His most devoted Twitter interlocutors are some of the least likely: members of the U.S. counterterrorism community, who’ve been won over by Hammami’s charm.
Hammami engages with American security professionals who ask him about his current views on jihad, and he jumps into their discussions of counterterrorism. There’s a notable absence of rancor, and even some constructive criticism, however inadvertent. When Hammami criticized State Department initiatives at confronting extremists like him online, he said those efforts came across as tin-eared. Berger and Hammami have an extended, public colloquy about the justification and the efficacy of using violence to pursue jihad. All this comes leavened with Star Wars references. Berger wonders if this sort of collegial jihadi-counterterrorist dialogue is “the wave of future, when everyone’s on Twitter.”
Jihadis and their American opposites have engaged each other over the Internet for years, notes Will McCants, a former State Department terrorism adviser. But usually those efforts are tentative and rarely substantial — let alone fun. What’s happening with Hammami is something new. “He comes across as quite likeable. He’s willing to listen, hear your argument and respond to it,” McCants says. “He’s not just a robot, he’s got this great sense of humor.”
He’s even winning over who prefer to point and laugh at jihadis, like Rusty Shackleford of the My Pet Jawa blog. Hammami recently tweeted, “rusty, I ain’t comin’ home alive jus like you ain’t gonna stop puttin’ soft porn up on mypetjawa. and to shabab, I’m here till u fix up.” Shackleford blogged, “I’ve actually become kinda fond of the guy — if that’s possible.”
These days, Twitter conversations between Hammami and several prominent counterterrorism scholars, commentators and practitioners with a social media presence — Berger, McCants, ex-FBI agent Clint Watts — have settled into loose, barstool-style banter. (That is, if Hammami drank.) Watts once remembered that Hammami used to crave crappy Chinese food and tweeted about his “Halal BBQ-style” dinner, prompting Hammami to reply, “drool. Mmm. Gonna eat a chicken my wife slaughtered and cooked right now.” Berger joined in to discuss hot sauce. When several American national-security nerds waged a goofy “Twitter Fight Club” using the hashtag #TFC13, Hammami interjected himself, declaring: “I abu mansuur al amriki have declared war against #tfc13 until i am made victor… A vote for abu m is for khilafah and shari’ah. I’m gonna win!“
All this has led to one of the strangest buddy movies on the internet. In interviews, Hammami’s counterterrorist interlocutors concede that, yes, yes, they recognize that “Omar” — as they universally call him — is a jihadist. “This is unique because the American public is seeing the human side of some of these terrorists and getting confused, like they’re not really sure what to think about it,” says Watts. “The terrorist might be nice one day, and detonate a suicide vest the next.”
But some wonder if Hammami’s friendliness isn’t a subtle opening, a climbdown for him to get out of the jihadi life before Shebab comes for him with a Kalashnikov or the Joint Special Operations Command comes for him with a Predator. Berger, who has talked with Hammami for longer and in greater depth than any counterterrorism professional, feels strongly that reaching out to him is worth a shot — even if it doesn’t work out. “There’s kind of a weird camaraderie that’s come out of these exchanges,” Berger says. “Odds are, it ends badly for us.” That is: either Hammami kills an innocent person in pursuit of his jihad, or he gets killed himself.
Because Hammami is so engaging, and so fluent in the idioms of American culture, it’s easy to overlook his commitment to the jihad. But factor out his tone from his words, and his message is clear. His criticisms of Shebab boil down to a charge that they’re insufficiently down for the cause. Tempting as it may be to believe that the nice guy from Alabama could really be ready to kill and die, he shrugs over DM: “fighting is part of the religion.” His back-and-forth on Twitter with Americans, he says, is transactional: “Definitely to get the word out. The only people who [otherwise] listen and give me a platform are my default audience. Hope it echoes 2 rest.”
Does he have any warm feelings for Berger, Watts, McCants and everyone else he tweets at?
“ha ha. warm thoughts? i don’t dream of slaughtering them, but i still see them as part of my greater enemy,” he DMs. “i pray 4 their guidance.”
‘I Can’t Do Much But Wait 4 My Time’
Is Omar Hammami a terrorist? Serious question.
He has never killed any civilian — although, by his own admission to me, he killed a man who was powerless to fight back — and no American. By the terms of leaked Justice Department memoranda justifying drone attacks on Americans, Hammami is no “senior operational leader” of al-Qaida or its affiliates; in fact, he’s a thorn in the side of al-Qaida’s East Africa affiliate. But his consistent advocacy of jihad against the U.S., in context, is incitement to violence, and he has reconciled himself to the idea of violent struggle against the west.
I get a sense of that during one of our DMs. “Any non-muslim grown sane male w/o a covenant is a target,” he tells me. I become suddenly aware of the Passover holiday I’ve been observing.
“So if we met,” my thumbs tap back, “you’d try to kill me?”
Hammami dials it down. He wouldn’t harm me, he DMs, “if we met as an agreed meeting w/terms of safety.”
Killing Americans is a means to an end, one the Alabama-born Hammami accepts after convincing himself that the U.S. stands irreconcilably in his way. “Its not like i fantasize about it,” he says, “but it is a means to the end when done as prescribed.” He might spend a lot of time on his Twitter dialogues, but dialogue alone “won’t stop u.s. From blocking shari’ah and khilafa.”
By “Khilafa,” Hammami means his ultimate goal of a world governed by Islamic law, similar to the caliphate of old. When I ask what happens to nonbelievers like myself in such a world, he explains, “nonmuslims are suboordinate to shari’ah but free, in exchange 4 small tax.”
Yet Hammami’s focus on his dream of an Islamic world contains an intriguing subtlety: al-Qaida isn’t particularly important within it. “aq did their job. It’s time to move on to khilafah,” he DMs. “Aq is a methodology to move towards khilafah. We became closer now and need a new paradigm. No idea 4 candidates tho.”
Nor is Hammami interested in going outside of Somalia to pursue it. Asked if he might join the uprising in Syria — his father is Syrian and the Assad regime tortured his uncle — he says there’s “No road, and i have to fix this place b4 leaving.” But “victory and state building isn’t my perrogative,” he DMs. His jihad is finished “once we are irreversibly on the right track. the ideology becomes spread broad base.” In the meantime, he says, he’s planting corn and melons, riding his donkey to get water, and keeping an eye out for Shebab. Washington believes stopping that is worth $5 million; it might be overpaying.
“He was a big-time Shebab recruiter and now he’s blowing holes in Shebab’s rep,” McCants observes. “He’s more valuable kept in place doing that kind of damage. There’s great intelligence value in capturing him, sure, but I think this is going to end up with his death, and I don’t think that’s useful.”
“My primary motive at this point is that this is a guy who doesn’t have to die stupidly,” Berger adds. “I don’t think that there’s a very good chance anything we say on Twitter is gonna change his mind about things that are problematic and determine whether he dies stupidly. But I think it’s worth an effort. There’s no reason for him to just sort of let him ride off into the sunset without putting up a fight first.”
And yet Hammami seems reconciled to the idea that he will not leave Somalia alive, let alone struggle long enough to see Islamic law dominate the earth. “I figure i can’t do much but wait 4 my time,” he DMs. “I’m surrounded by enemies. Drones don’t have borders. Just kickin’ it w/family till then.” After dozens of DMs, I can’t tell if it’s just bravado.