- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
It’s been more than a year since Omar Hammami, an American-born jihadist in Somalia who made a name for himself with lo-fi propaganda rap productions, posted a video telling viewers he feared for his life. The threat he felt came not from the Somali government, which he had come to fight against in 2008, or from the U.S. government, which has branded him a wanted terrorist, but from his own comrades in al-Shabab, the Somali affiliate of al Qaeda.
Since then, Hammami has been hiding out in Somalia, but he’s hardly kept a low profile online. He is the apparent operator of the @abumamerican Twitter account, from which he has criticized al-Shabab’s leadership and communicated with journalists and terrorism analysts — he even gave an interview for a profile by Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman. In the past week, though, his luck living on the lam has been running out.
Last Thursday, Hammami live-tweeted what he claimed was an assassination attempt in which an al-Shabab gunman shot him in the neck in a coffee shop (he quickly posted pictures of blood running down his neck and soaking his shirt). Then his hideout was assaulted by militiamen who, after a shootout, reportedly hauled Hammami before an al-Shabab tribunal. According to Hammami’s account on Twitter, the tribunal released him and several members of al-Shabab’s leadership issued a fatwa protecting Hammami, but others in the organization still promised to pursue him. Yesterday, as Shabab-affiliated forces closed in around the village where he remains in hiding, Hammami seemed to think he could be killed shortly:
May not find another chance to tweet but just remember what we said and what we stood for. God kept me alive to deliver the mssg 2 the umah
— abu m (@abumamerican) April 29, 2013
Today he did find another chance to tweet, reporting that a militia from the Somali province of Gedo is threatening to kill him “even if they lose 100 despite defections.”
The apparent end of Hammami’s life on the run is certainly high drama, but it’s also a rare glimpse into the divisions in al-Shabab’s leadership. There have been tensions in the organization before, but “it has not, to my knowledge, resulted in such a public display of discord,” wrote Katherine Zimmerman, a senior analyst for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, when reached by email by FP.
There seems to be bad blood between Hammami and al-Shabab’s emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who also goes by the kunya Abu Zubayr. In Hammami’s telling, he went into hiding after a fight he had with Godane over the role of foreign fighters, taxation issues, and trial procedures. “i told him every last detail in person,” Hammami told Ackerman in his interview, “leading to the beginning of the oppression.” As militiamen gathered last Friday to drag him to the tribunal, Hammami saw Godane’s hand: “abu zubayr has gone mad,” he tweeted. “he’s starting a civil war.”
Hammami believes the decision to pursue him has driven a wedge between Godane and his deputies. And sure enough, after he was released by the tribunal, several senior leaders — Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the deputy emir, Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Shabab official who ran a rival militia until 2010, and Ibrahim Haji Jama Mead, a member of al-Shabab’s Shura Council — issued a fatwa protecting Hammami. “The fatwa,” Zimmerman writes, “does indicate that these three have, and will continue to, position themselves on the side of protecting Hammami.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean al-Shabab is headed for civil war, as Hammami suggests. “It is still not clear to me that the divisions over the treatment of Hammami and the fighters with him will result in an actual split within al Shabaab,” Zimmerman writes, stressing previous tensions in the organization’s senior leadership. Specifically, she cited Robow’s 2010 decision to withdraw his troops from Mogadishu after rejecting Godane’s strategic approach to the city, Aweys’s public disagreement with Godane over whether al-Shabab should have a monopoly on jihadist groups in Somalia, and a message Mead addressed to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he expressed opposition to Godane’s leadership. Despite their differences, Zimmerman points out, they’ve all remained stakeholders in the organization: “When these divisions surface, some are quick to assume that the group is weaker, but time and again, the group has remained united despite the divisions.”
What’s more, the internal fight over Hammami’s fate doesn’t split along what seems to be al-Shabab’s largest internal fault line. That would be the fight “between the ‘globalists’ and the ‘nationalists,'” writes Zimmerman, “those who sought to establish an Islamic caliphate in Somalia for the purpose of supporting al Qaeda’s vision of jihad, and those who appeared to seek an Islamic caliphate as an end-state.” Both Godane and Hammami are in the globalist camp (Hammami’s even rapped about it); Robow and Aweys have tended to side with nationalists.
At the end of the day, Hammami seems to be caught in the middle of these rivals’ power plays. And though the debate over his fate might not tear the organization apart, his desperate tweets do shine a light on the leadership’s stark divisions.