Al Shabaab’s Alabaman jihadist

 Until recently counter-terrorism officials weren’t worried about jihadi pundits having much of an influence in the United States itself, where they believed that a higher degree of Muslim-American assimiliation, social mobility and economic well-being would act against such influences. It turns out however, that this isn’t always the case. In an article in New York ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

 Until recently counter-terrorism officials weren't worried about jihadi pundits having much of an influence in the United States itself, where they believed that a higher degree of Muslim-American assimiliation, social mobility and economic well-being would act against such influences. It turns out however, that this isn't always the case.

In an article in New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Andrea Eliot profiles the captivating transformation of an all-American boy from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who is now fighting with Al Shabaab in Somalia.

 Until recently counter-terrorism officials weren’t worried about jihadi pundits having much of an influence in the United States itself, where they believed that a higher degree of Muslim-American assimiliation, social mobility and economic well-being would act against such influences. It turns out however, that this isn’t always the case.

In an article in New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Andrea Eliot profiles the captivating transformation of an all-American boy from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who is now fighting with Al Shabaab in Somalia.

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.

And there are some downright chilling portions of the article:

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."

Getting native-born Americans to join the jihadist cause is a coup for groups like al Qaeda or al Shabaab. An American jihadi can increase a group’s legitimacy, add appeal to radicalizing youth in Western countries and can teach foreign jihadis about American culture. Having an American passport also allows for freer travel.

Although Omar Hammami isn’t the first American to reach the higher echelons of a radical Islamic organization (California native Adam Gadahn is a top spokesman for al Qaeda), Eliot’s article is a uniquely in-depth look into the details of such a metamorphosis. It’s definitely worth a full read.

Kayvan Farzaneh is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.