Here is an extensive profile of the American jihadist Omar Hammami, a.k.a. Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, and how he moved from a middle-class Alabama upbringing to the jihad in Somalia and a life full of hatred and violence. “The Jihadist Next Door,” by Andrea Elliott in the New York Times, January 27 (thanks to Weasel Zippers):
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.” […]
There follows an account of a gregarious and charming child raised a Christian, with a Christian mother (Debra) and a Muslim father (Shafik). After awhile, in adolescence, Omar turns toward Islam — and grows more hateful:
Debra learned to walk a fine line when it came to religion. But Christianity remained the compass of her life. She called Shafik’s mosque “his church” and the Koran “his bible.” She wasn’t going to let her son defect without a fight. “Where are the verses about love in your bible?” she prodded him. They “argued and argued and argued,” she recalled. “Then he said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Like his mother, Hammami was stubborn. When he became convinced of something, he turned to convincing others. At Daphne High, he managed to persuade a handful of students, including his girlfriend, to explore Islam — a striking development at a school where Christian teenagers routinely gathered at the flagpole for prayer.
“He would say, ‘So if Jesus is God, who does he pray to?’ ” recalled his friend Bernie Culveyhouse. “And if you said, ‘God,’ he’d say, ‘Doesn’t that make Jesus a narcissist?’ ”
Culveyhouse soon converted. Stevenson decided it was not for her, and Hammami broke it off. His other friendships were already strained when, one afternoon in 2000, the subject in class turned to Osama bin Laden. Then a relatively obscure terrorist, bin Laden had claimed responsibility for the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. One boy in the class suggested that bin Laden should be shot dead.
“What if I said that about Billy Graham?” Hammami demanded.
“Billy Graham is a peaceable preacher,” the boy, a Christian, recalled saying. “Osama bin Laden is a terrorist.”
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Hammami replied.
By his junior year, Hammami had become a spectacle. He made a point of praying by the flagpole outside school yet refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, friends recalled. In class, he swore at Hirsch, his longtime teacher, assailing her for being Jewish. That spring, in another class, Hammami tried to choke a student who interrupted him as he was reciting the Koran, students recalled. Hammami was promptly suspended. With high grades and an A.C.T. score in the 93rd percentile, he skipped his senior year and enrolled at the University of South Alabama. There, he no longer prayed alone. He could walk to the mosque from campus, and he soon took over as president of the fledgling Muslim Student Association. […]
New York Times cheap shot of the year (and it’s only January): explaining the rigorist Salafi movement, the self-proclaimed exponents of a “pure” Islam, to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:
The Salafist interpretation of Islamic doctrine tends to be literal and originalist. “They remind me a lot of Scalia in their approach to texts,” says Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University. […]
Throughout his religious transformation, Hammami kept much of his former self intact. Some nights, he and Culveyhouse darted around the mosque in their robes, sparring with invisible light sabers in homage to “Star Wars.” He continued to run red lights and rack up speeding tickets, refusing to rise for a judge in traffic court. […]
Because he did not recognize his authority, but only that of Allah.
But aside from his sister and mother, Hammami had nothing to do with women. Much of the time, he and his friends were tormented by sexual frustrations, two of them recall. Hammami would stare at a woman on the street and then chastise himself for hours, Stewart says. He surfed Islamic Internet forums in search of a wife. His father promised to help him marry a Syrian woman provided that Hammami completed his degree in computer studies. But in December 2002, he dropped out of college, saying that he could no longer bear to be in the company of women. […]
For a time, Hammami and Culveyhouse took inventory at Wal-Mart. Their boss, an ex-Marine, tolerated their odd look (they tucked their pants into their socks), but he was frustrated by their demands: they refused to touch alcohol, pork, Christmas cards and even dolls. The boss finally assigned them to the women’s clothing section. […]
Hammami concluded that his Salafi mentors had been “hiding many parts of the religion that have a direct relationship to jihad and politics,” he wrote. He began searching for guidance on the Internet, Culveyhouse says, discovering a documentary about the life of Amir Khattab, a legendary jihadist who fought in Chechnya. The documentary traces Khattab’s evolution as a promising Saudi student who gave up a life that “any young man would desire” to embrace a higher purpose. Hammami was mesmerized, Culveyhouse recalls.
“Once you’ve made that step, it’s a gateway,” Culveyhouse says. “Once you’ve legitimized the jihad in Chechnya, you’re compelled to legitimize the jihad in other places as well.” […]
Later, in Egypt:
Alone with his young wife and newborn daughter, Hammami seemed overwhelmed, Dena recalls. He found freelance work translating Islamic texts into English but had trouble supporting his family. In the December e-mail message, he wrote that he was yearning to live in a country “where Shariah was being implemented completely.” […]
From Egypt, Hammami followed the events closely. He was convinced that “jihad had become an obligation upon me,” he wrote in his December e-mail message. He wanted to help his “captive brothers and sisters” while helping himself “obtain the highest rank available” as a Muslim. (Jihadists believe that the greatest rewards in the afterlife are granted to them.) On their Internet forum, Hammami and Maldonado made impassioned pleas for action without directly referring to Somalia. […]
Over the next few months, Mogadishu descended into a hellish war zone. That May, Hammami suddenly reappeared at the grandmother’s apartment, asking for a phone number to reach his wife, who had moved back to Toronto. Over the phone, Hammami told Sadiyo that he was still trying to leave Somalia, Ayan said. A month later, he called with a different story. He wanted his wife and daughter to join him.
“He was saying: ‘It’s so wonderful. There’s going to be an Islamic state,’ ” Ayan recalled Sadiyo telling her. “He was making it this utopia of happiness.” […]
Sometimes months would pass with no word from Hammami. When he reached out through Facebook in early September, he told Dena that he hoped his infamy would prompt people to ask, “How did this guy become that?”
“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.” […]
On Dec. 3, a suicide bomber disguised as a woman blew himself up at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu, killing nearly two dozen people, including three Somali government officials. Somali and American authorities said the attack was carried out by the Shabab. That same month, Hammami seemed more taken by his cause than ever. “I have become a Somali you could say,” he wrote in the December e-mail message. “I hear bullets, I dodge mortars, I hear nasheeds” — Islamic songs — “and play soccer. Sometimes I live in the bush with camels, sometimes I live the five-star life. Sometimes I walk for miles in the terrible heat with no water, sometimes I ride in extremely slick cars. Sometimes I’m chased by the enemy, sometimes I chase him!”
“I have hatred, I have love,” he went on. “It’s the best life on earth!”
Well, he certainly has hatred.