Submitted by Amir “MR”
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
ON A WARM, cloudy day in the fall of 1999, the town of Daphne, Ala., stirred to life. The high-school band came pounding down Main Street, past the post office and the library and Christ the King Church. Trumpeters in gold-tasseled coats tipped their horns to the sky, heralding the arrival of teenage demigods. The star quarterback and his teammates came first in the parade, followed by the homecoming queen and her court. Behind them, on a float bearing leaders of the student government, a giddy mop-haired kid tossed candy to the crowd.
Omar Hammami had every right to flash his magnetic smile. He had just been elected president of his sophomore class. He was dating a luminous blonde, one of the most sought-after girls in school. He was a star in the gifted-student program, with visions of becoming a surgeon. For a 15-year-old, he had remarkable charisma.
Despite the name he acquired from his father, an immigrant from Syria, Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain-spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like “sugar” and “darlin'.” Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve. As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. “It felt cool just to be with him,” his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. “You knew he was going to be a leader.”
A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world's most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.
More than 20 of those fighters have come from the United States, many of them young Somali-Americans from a gritty part of Minneapolis. But it is Hammami who has put a contemporary face on the Shabab's medieval tactics. In a recent propaganda video viewed by thousands on YouTube, he is shown leading a platoon of gun-toting rebels as a soundtrack of jihadi rap plays in the background.
He is identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “the American,” and speaks to the camera with a cool, almost eerie confidence. “We're waiting for the enemy to come,” Hammami whispers, a smile crossing his face. Later he vows, “We're going to kill all of them.”
In the three years since Hammami made his way to Somalia, his ascent into the Shabab's leadership has put him in a class of his own, according to United States law-enforcement and intelligence officials. While other American terror suspects have drawn greater publicity, Hammami exercises a more powerful role, commanding guerrilla forces in the field, organizing attacks and plotting strategy with Qaeda operatives, the officials said. He has also emerged as something of a jihadist icon, starring in a recruitment campaign that has helped draw hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia. “To have an American citizen that has risen to this kind of a rank in a terrorist organization — we have not seen that before,” a senior American law-enforcement official said earlier this month.
Not long ago, the threat of American-bred terrorists seemed a distant one. Law-enforcement officials theorized that Muslims in the United States — by comparison with many of their European counterparts — were upwardly mobile, socially integrated and therefore less susceptible to radicalization. Perhaps the greatest proof of this came with the absence of domestic terrorist attacks following 9/11, a period that has brought Europe devastating homegrown hits in Madrid and London.
America is now at a watershed. In the last year, at least two dozen men in the United States have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. They include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant driver in Denver who authorities say was conspiring to carry out a domestic attack; David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American from Chicago who is suspected of helping plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai; and the five young men from Virginia who, authorities say, sought training in Pakistan to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan.
These cases have sent intelligence analysts scurrying for answers. The American suspects come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, but they share much in common with Europe's militants: they tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world. Others may see them as rigid or zealous, but they envision themselves as deeply principled, possessing what Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, calls “an altruism gone wildly wrong.” While their religious piety varies, they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America's war against terrorism endures its ninth year.
The presence of Western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought those conflicts closer for many Muslims in America. Through satellite television and the Internet, the distance between here and there — between Fort Hood, Tex., and Yemen, between Daphne, Ala., and Somalia — has narrowed. For Omar Hammami, the war in Iraq provided a critical spark as he turned toward militancy.
In an e-mail message in December, Hammami responded to questions, submitted to him through an intermediary, about his personal evolution and political views. “We espouse the same creed and methodology of Al Qaeda,” he wrote. Of Osama bin Laden, he said, “All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands.” Did Hammami, like bin Laden, consider America a legitimate target for attack? “It's quite obvious that I believe America is a target,” he wrote.
OMAR HAMMAMI'S SISTER, Dena, is a petite 28-year-old woman with silky brown hair and a graceful manner. She lives with her husband and their baby daughter in an airy house overlooking a small American city, which she asked that I not identify for their protection.
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