Omar and Me
My strange, frustrating relationship with an American terrorist.
I don't know exactly when I began to worry I had become friends with a terrorist.
Believe it or not, this kind of thing happens to people relatively often. For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing, dozens of friends of the surviving suspect, college student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lined up in front of cameras to express horror that their friend had been so different from the person they thought they knew.
But they hadn't known.
I don’t know exactly when I began to worry I had become friends with a terrorist.
Believe it or not, this kind of thing happens to people relatively often. For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing, dozens of friends of the surviving suspect, college student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lined up in front of cameras to express horror that their friend had been so different from the person they thought they knew.
But they hadn’t known.
From the moment I first saw him in a video in April 2009, I knew Omar Hammami was a terrorist who had embraced al Qaeda’s global campaign. And when he first became aware of me, he knew I was on the other side of the apocalyptic conflict he imagined, an unabashedly Western writer and analyst working to shine a light on terrorist operations and violent ideologies.
Hammami grew up in a Muslim-Christian family in Daphne, Alabama. His upbringing was not particularly religious, but he gravitated toward Islam in his teenage years, seizing it with the zeal of a convert. Never one to do things halfway, he threw himself into religion and became militant. He traveled to Somalia in 2006 and joined al-Shabab, the violent insurgent group that more recently declared its affiliation to al Qaeda.
I’d devoted several pages to Hammami in my 2011 book on American jihadists, but he had been only one of many, distinguished in my mind mostly by his painful attempt to rap in an al-Shabab propaganda video. He seemed like a novelty act. After the book came out, I watched as he struggled mightily over the years to evolve into a substantial player on the jihadist stage, a process that looked to me like a train wreck.
On March 16, 2012, Hammami got a lot more interesting when he uploaded a video to YouTube, a virtual message in a bottle. Speaking directly to the camera in Arabic and then repeating the message in English, a grim-faced Omar made a shaky plea for help.
“To whomever it may reach from the Muslims … I record this message today because I fear my life may be endangered by [al-Shabab] because of some differences that occurred regarding matters of the sharia and of strategy,” he said into the camera. He did not volunteer any additional details.
The video was a big gamble. Al-Shabab had made Omar into one of its most visible and infamous figures. The only headline better than “the rapping jihadist from Alabama” was “the rapping jihadist from Alabama says his former allies want to kill him.” If he turned up dead now, al-Shabab would take the blame. But would the prospect of bad publicity only make the danger worse?
In May 2012, Omar doubled down. He created a Twitter account under the name “Abu M American” and used it to distribute a lengthy autobiography billed as “Part One,” a 127-page PDF covering his life through 2007.
The person tweeting from the account claimed to be Omar’s “spokesman” or “PR rep,” although many observers (including me) strongly suspected the Twitter account actually belonged to Omar himself, trying to maintain deniability with al-Shabab and Western intelligence. (I’ve edited and combined consecutive tweets throughout to make them more readable.)
Although it was rambling and repetitive, starting from childhood and running through the first part of his Somali experience, Omar’s autobiography was also, by turns, fascinating and funny. Much of the humor was intentional, not all. His tone vacillated between wryly self-deprecating and unselfconsciously self-aggrandizing.
At any rate, I was from the best in the class in reading, math, and art (and so forth). And that continued through second grade as well. My second grade teacher was Mrs. Lacey. She used to love me.
Omar’s telling of his life was replete with stories of his popularity and unorthodox thinking, as well as the occasional encounter with those who didn’t understand him — such as his first wife, a former Somali refugee who had relocated to Canada and who balked at the idea of taking their infant daughter back to the country she had fled. So Omar abandoned them.
Initial analysis of the manuscript by counterterrorism analysts focused on the travails and indignities he described in detail, including bug bites, explosive bowel movements, and getting whacked in the balls with wooden clubs. I tweeted a series of comments on his tale, often focusing on these absurdities and the occasionally excruciating detail with which they were chronicled:
“Although Hammami went to Somalia ‘it was my dream to join’ Al Qaeda and serve Osama bin Laden.”
“Hunting and camping and eating stories galore. Bedeviled by biting ants.”
“Lots of searching for wives, his first wife divorces him for not coming back to Canada, so he starts Somali speed-dating. Married again.”
“Connected with and trained under a group of Yemenis. Then, more ants.”
All of this annoyed Omar, who had started following me and several other terrorism analysts on Twitter, probably in order to read his reviews. “Abu M” tweeted his complaints at me, linking to a Christian Science Monitor story on his tome with the comment “This is much better than your ‘Jihaad, then more ants,’ summarization.”
I wanted to know more about why al-Shabab was trying to kill him, but I didn’t want to promote his clearly pro-al Qaeda Twitter account by engaging with him in front of the world. So I sent him a direct message (DM) using Twitter’s system for private communication and asked him to email me. His reply was the start of something — exactly what wasn’t clear at the time, and to some extent, still isn’t.
Omar — and it was Omar, although he would not admit it for endless months — was suspicious at first.
“You are too far on the dark side, buddy” was the subject line of his first email.
His assumption was that I worked for the government and that my writing had a political agenda. I began my career as a journalist and continue to do journalistic work, but over the years I’d slipped into a role of researcher and analyst of extremism. I had given talks to government agencies, but I had never been directly employed by one.
I sent him samples of interviews I had done with jihadists and conservative Muslim clerics in the past to show him that I treated my subjects respectfully. In response to a question, I told him I don’t write solely about Muslims; I was interested in all types of American extremism. Abu M agreed to consider my request, probing my intentions in the meantime. He said my respectful tone in the interviews was not consistent with the mocking comments I had posted about his autobiography.
“What do you guys get by being ‘snarky?'” he asked. “Is it a way to pass the days cloistered up in academia or is it a concerted effort to deface ‘radicals’ and their messages?”
I pointed out that the autobiography and some of Omar’s audio lectures were deliberately humorous. For instance, in one recorded lecture intended for Western Muslims, he had argued that the dream of the caliphate was “different from some hillbilly seeing Bigfoot.”
It didn’t take him long to get in the snarky spirit. When I asked why al-Shabab wanted to kill him, his response was barbed, and delivered in the third person. (He continued to insist he was merely Hammami’s spokesman.)
“To tell the truth, I felt that he placed tons of innuendos about his current situation in his auto-bio, that no one seems to be catching on to,” he wrote. “I guess your analysts aren’t that great after all. Maybe the CIA has a better crew?”
“As a writer, I have found that if no one gets what I was trying to do, it may be a sign that I didn’t do it well enough,” I responded.
“I’ll pass on the news that he completely flopped,” Omar replied.
This verbal jousting would become typical of our exchanges, bouts of good-humored banter that would suddenly stop if he thought he was being disrespected. I would push for a long time, but retrench when I felt I had taken it too far. It was often difficult to bite my tongue, especially when he slipped into hyperbole.
Early on, I asked whether he would consider turning himself in to escape al-Shabab’s threats on his life, a question I would pose to him again and again over months to come. His response was characteristically dramatic and self-important.
“Definitely not an option.… He’s a pretty die-hard guy,” he wrote in the third person, almost always referring to himself by his chosen nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al Amriki, or just as Amriki — the Arabic word for American. “He’s just getting a taste of what bin Laden went through in Afghanistan after the civil war.”
In Omar’s mind, al-Shabab was the problem — not jihad itself, which he still endorsed, and not al Qaeda or its designation of America as first among enemies.
Over the course of our exchanges, Hammami would veer from self-deprecating charm to alienating megalomania. He compared himself at various times to Osama bin Laden and larger-than-life leaders of yore, plucked from the pages of Islamic history.
We traded emails for several days. Abu M never indicated that he wanted his comments to be off the record, and I never asked. When I published a long piece on the autobiography and its broader context here on Foreign Policy in May 2012, I cited “Abu Muhammad,” Omar Hammami’s “PR rep” as a source, while broadly hinting at my suspicions about his true identity. Omar was not happy about being quoted, but he was measured in his complaint.
“I didn’t know you’d be quoting me directly in the piece, but now that it’s out, I guess there isn’t much I can do about it,” he wrote. “Maybe it’s for the best anyway. We’ll see how it turns out.… It was my fault. I’m not a seasoned PR rep.”
We agreed that all further correspondence would be off the record, unless he specified otherwise.
(I asked on more than one occasion whether I had explicit permission to use this material in the event of his death, a request he ignored. I honored the off-the-record agreement we had made as it regarded our private conversations until this day, but I occasionally answered questions from various interested parties about information I had gleaned from his public posts and other non-privileged sources.)
We continued to email for a few days after the article appeared. I stayed in interview mode, asking about his theological views, but he appeared to lose interest in the conversation, and soon stopped responding.
I wasn’t the only person with whom Omar spoke. He did audio interviews with Christof Putzel of Current TV, who had done a one-hour documentary about Hammami’s journey as an American jihadist. Somehow, Omar had managed to see it, and he had been impressed. His decision to speak with Putzel under his own name, rather than in disguise as a spokesman, revealed a hard-won level of trust, something I hadn’t been able to forge with him. Even after we went off the record, he continued to insist that he was simply Omar’s mouthpiece, despite my pointed questions.
In his guise as the “PR Rep,” Omar also engaged on Twitter with just about anyone who would talk with him, from scholars of jihadism to Muslim bashers, but only rarely speaking to his fellow militants.
The administrators of the powerful jihadist message boards had decided Omar’s accusations against al-Shabab — including a charge the group’s leaders had assassinated a senior al Qaeda member — were too controversial to be aired in their forums. They ruthlessly suppressed any mention of his plight, and so many of his fellow jihadists were in the dark about his troubles and oblivious to his online presence.
I declined to engage with him publicly on Twitter. The number of people aware of his account remained relatively small and I didn’t want to boost his visibility. He was, after all, a popular pro-al Qaeda propagandist.
Toward the end of May 2012, Omar stopped tweeting. With no new information, except for a steady stream of contradictory rumors about his status that flew around Somali media and government circles, people began to lose interest. I periodically emailed him trying to find out if he was still alive, but I received no response. After several efforts to keep the conversation going, I gave up and assumed we were finished.
In October, Omar surfaced again with another urgent video about the danger he faced with al-Shabab. After posting the video, he went silent again in public but responded to a few direct messages on Twitter. He said he no longer had access to email (he was using Twitter on his phone) and complained about another terrorism writer’s clumsy attempts to bait him into a conversation.
Our interactions trailed off again. He returned to Twitter in late November, after the FBI added him to its most-wanted terrorists list. His ego couldn’t let that moment pass.
“Amriki would like to accept the honor of most wanted list and thanks everyone,” he tweeted, still referring to himself in the third person.
He began sparring with anyone who stepped up, including a series of “counter-jihad trolls” who made a hobby out of arguing with jihadists and Islamic militants online.
On January 4, 2013, Omar posted a new update: Al-Shabab finally had enough of his dissent and had given him 15 days to lay down his weapons or he would be killed. Instead of silencing him, the threat prompted a torrent of new and much more specific allegations of al-Shabab misconduct. He accused them of imprisoning and torturing foreign fighters and of allowing the use of qat — a mild stimulant popular in the Middle East and North Africa, but banned by the strictest interpretation of Islamic law — so they could collect corrupt taxes on its trafficking.
This time, his audience was different. Although his tweets still garnered plenty of attention from Western terrorism analysts, he also began posting in Somali to an audience of his jihadist peers, who crawled out of the woodwork to harass him, some creating accounts expressly for that purpose.
This was an opportunity. I had become increasingly interested in how terrorists and extremists used social media, and a case study was breaking out right in front of me. I began to analyze Omar’s social network. It became clear from this work that the threat on his life was no laughing matter.
Al-Shabab’s Twitter account, the now-defunct @HSMPress, finally responded to Hammami’s claims, calling him a narcissist. They were laying the groundwork for their move against him and incidentally giving me a stick to poke him with.
I reached out to him again via direct message and asked about the threats against him. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, he continued to strike a tone of brash arrogance, while still maintaining the fiction of being Omar’s spokesman.
“Amriki’s death is martyrdom,” he wrote. “His blood will be light and fire. If he dies, the world will know. He’s still hardcore.”
In the span of a few days, between his public tweets and our private messages, he managed to compare himself to Martin Luther King Jr., infamous Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and Uthman, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.
“Not doing much to dispel the charge of narcissism,” I noted in a DM.
He complained, grumpily, that it wouldn’t do much good to compare himself to people no one had heard of.
When he popped up in the middle of the night, I would ping him for status updates. I began addressing him directly, ignoring the spokesman claim and addressing him in the second person as if he were Omar. He eventually began to respond in kind (without conceding the point).
I asked him if he had any cards left to play, and if he had any regrets.
“The last card is the last round in the mag,” he wrote back. “No regrets. Freedom! Ha ha.”
But over the next few days, the bravado faded, leading me to believe he genuinely expected the end was near. I asked if he was worried that al-Shabab would go after his family. He responded simply, “Nah.”
He may have been messaging with others as well (then or continuously), but I sensed he was hard up for friends. I started to feel bad for him.
Not sympathetic, necessarily. After all, his story was in many ways the definition of self-inflicted injury. He was hard-headed. When I asked him if he would consider giving himself up, he either ignored me or brushed me off.
But there was an unavoidable sense that there was a human being on the other side of the line, one who could well die in the middle of our conversation.
It weighed on me, and I couldn’t quite figure out if that was appropriate, all things considered. We were, after all, enemies, if you asked either of us. I was also dealing with him as a journalist, my role being to chronicle and not get involved.
In response to a question on my public Twitter timeline, I commented that the best outcome for Omar was capture by or surrender to U.S. forces. He responded defensively in a DM, childishly even, reverting to the third person for the first time in days.
“So you want Amriki caught? That’s mean.”
“Caught seems like a better option than dead to me, but I know you have a different perspective,” I replied. “And I can’t help but think that your remaining at large is a story that ends with a school bus or an airliner blowing up.”
So much for feeling bad for him.
Meanwhile, the host of al-Shabab-friendly tweeters who had come online to hurl abuse at Hammami stepped up their attacks. He fired back at a manic pace and in a manic tone for some days.
“[Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Godane’s] takfiiri tendencies are coming out thru the words of his crownies on twitter. Arrest my case,” he punned, sounding punch-drunk. He posted a picture of himself on the run from al-Shabab, on a donkey cart, with the caption, “A pic of the lavish benefits of narcissism.” He picked fights with terrorism expert Clint Watts, who had written extensively about Hammami in a long series of blog posts.
Soon after the ultimatum was announced, Omar posted two long Arabic texts detailing some of the allegations his autobiography had only obliquely hinted at. He was disappointed in the tepid reaction from the West.
“This proves the USA has a minute capacity in the Arabic-to-English translation field,” he grumbled in a DM, after only a few people wrote about his latest exposé. “Also no media strategy for handling Amriki. Silence.”
He was piqued people weren’t taking his current plight as seriously as the first time he warned al-Shabab wanted to kill him.
“Given this is kind of a replay of last year, I didn’t expect much coverage,” I responded in a DM.
Our conversations turned more ideological, pushing and pulling over terrorism and the intentional targeting of civilians, the significance of the Arab Spring, and Omar’s belief that the United States was oppressing Muslims around the world. We sparred over whether America had a national security interest in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, one of his pet obsessions. He argued that the United States feared the caliphate; I argued that we wouldn’t much care as long as terrorism wasn’t the method for its establishment. Just when the conversation would start to get interesting, he would pull back.
I noted that his mood had improved.
“Just a mad man. Nothing new. Ha!”
But something had changed. A local tribe had pledged him support against al-Shabab, he told me. The ultimatum was, for the moment, moot.
“So where does that leave you? Cutting a new rap album? New … book in the works?”
“Amriki isn’t that big of a joker now, is he?” he bristled, complaining about my jokes at his expense, as well as humorous comments by Watts. “I think what seems funny now will be seen as the turning point for real change.”
His rising megalomania suggested his claim of tribal support might be true.
“The west has a greater interest in discrediting Amriki than the defeated Shabab,” he wrote, now thoroughly in the third person. “Call him a diva if you like, but they’re scared.”
“Now, see, it’s hard not to poke fun when you start talking like that,” I replied.
I decided to prod Omar with a question about his relationship with another American in al-Shabab, whose house had been used to film his first panicked video call for help.
“I guess I’ll call it quits on our ‘thoughtful’ discussion,” he shot back tersely. “The future is ours to see.” (I’m guessing he didn’t intend to quote Doris Day, but with him you could never be sure.)
I let him go. I was, frankly, exhausted. For almost three weeks, we’d been going at it at high volume. I had been oscillating between feeling the weight of companionship to a man under a death sentence and the frustration of trying to talk with someone who could turn childish and petulant in the blink of an eye.
The break didn’t last long. Omar almost immediately began trying to engage with me in public on Twitter (in addition to many others). For an ego of his size, the divided attention of just one person could never be enough. He wanted an audience for our exchanges. I wavered in my resolve to avoid giving him publicity. His account was pretty well known by then, in part because of his relentless efforts to engage people in the counterterrorism and journalism communities.
A certain amount of calculation went into my decision to take him up on the challenge. Bad press for al-Shabab could only be a good thing, for sure, but there might be more to learn from these conversations — insights to what a Western jihadist believed, what parts of the al Qaeda party line he accepted unquestioningly, and where the soft spots in his thinking could be found.
I began to engage, leading to lengthy public exchanges on corruption and racism in jihadist movements, and what kinds of jihadist violence were necessary, just acceptable, or excessive. Although he sometimes slipped into dogmatic religious justifications, he could be pushed past them — at one point I told him “‘Because God’ is not an interesting answer,” and he gamely continued on the issues. Eventually, I goaded him into admitting he was not Omar’s spokesman, but Omar himself.
Others got involved. For a time, Islamic studies scholar Christopher Anzalone patiently engaged with him to get at the details of his Islamic justifications, which came off as simplistic. On the other hand, Will McCants, one of the smartest and nicest people studying the ideologies of jihadist extremism, had less patience for Omar’s posturing. After being dragged into the conversation by a third party on Twitter, he dismissed Omar sharply: “I’ve got better things to do than listen to your Milestones talking points. Enjoy your 15 minutes.”
Online jihadists were irked that Omar was speaking with the enemy so freely. After one of several such challenges, one of them tweeted, “The only reason (they) are even talking to you is to get more info from you! And to make fun of you, don’t you see that?”
“Clint, JMB, and gang… Is this true?” Omar asked.
This was an awkward question and it highlighted my growing internal discomfort with the tension between my work interest in Omar and the fact I was perversely starting to like him, even though I was appalled by his values and the path he had chosen for himself. I had come to enjoy these exchanges as a part of my routine Twitter life. But I had also exploited the information he had provided in ways large and small, including finding ways to surreptitiously keep tabs on whether he was alive during his periods of long silence.
I answered at some length, honestly, but with very carefully chosen language, concluding, “If you sent me your GPS coordinates or terrorist attack plan, it would complicate my life, so please don’t.”
Clint Watts was characteristically more direct.
“For information, yes, of course,” he tweeted, listing some of the various ways he used that information.
“Yeah, I thought it was a fun dramatic question to ask,” Omar replied. “I’m a grown-up and know who I’m dealing with. Good answers though.”
As an epilogue, he added that he was “just waiting to get my terrorism job back.”
“Maybe, but we probably won’t have such great conversations anymore,” I said.
“Yeah, but the cause is greater. Bitter sweet I guess.”
“Ours is an unusually star-crossed bromance,” I replied.
Such exchanges increasingly attracted outside attention. Spencer Ackerman interviewed Hammami over Twitter for Wired and asked him if he had any warm feelings toward me and Clint.
“Ha ha. Warm thoughts? I don’t dream of slaughtering them,” Omar replied. It was probably the best he could do under the circumstances. He still saw us as part of the enemy force, he told Ackerman, and he prayed for us to see the light.
My complicated feelings about our relationship had been on a slow boil for some time. I continued to try to convince him to give himself up to U.S. authorities.
He didn’t want to spend life in prison, he said. I told him he might be able to get a better deal than that, but he wasn’t interested. At one point, he said the only way he would come back to the United States was “in a body bag.” (He would echo that comment in other interviews as well.)
I investigated his life when he wasn’t talking, and talked when I wasn’t investigating. Our private exchanges, which had started off as interviews, slowly morphed into conversations, not unlike many other relationships I have with people online.
I was interested in his activity, but I wasn’t reporting on it in any meaningful way. Instead, I mostly just listened. I asked occasionally about what he was doing to win support in Somalia as events progressed. Sometimes he would respond with brief descriptions; other times he deflected.
“How goes the plan to take over the world?” I asked on one such check-in.
“Have to find out how to make cheese for Pinky first,” he responded, a reference to the cartoon Pinky and the Brain.
In the spring, Omar announced publicly he had won support from several prominent Somali jihadist figures who condemned al-Shabab emir Godane, the target of almost all of Omar’s grievances. I picked up with him on DM occasionally to discuss the new developments. In mid-April, he told me a very prominent and influential online jihadist asked him for a copy of a tract Omar had written on Syria under a pen name.
“Big day for you,” I wrote.
“Ha ha,” he replied. “Just saying.”
“I was being serious.”
“Hard to tell, dad.”
The obvious land mine created by our respective professions literally exploded the very next day.
Someone bombed the Boston Marathon, not far from my home in Cambridge, MA, killing an eight-year-old boy and two young women, while wounding hundreds more.
Two days later, while the perpetrators were still unknown, Omar tweeted at me publicly to ask if the lack of a claim pointed toward the perpetrators being Muslim.
I was not much in the mood for banter, but I responded that domestic non-Muslim extremists were more likely to let an attack go unclaimed.
“Bloody kookoo if you ask me,” he replied. “What’s the point if no message is sent?”
I did not reply further. I was angry. Angry about the bombing and its pointless cruelty, which I had been chronicling continuously on Twitter since the blasts. Angry that this person with whom I could joke and chat thought it was a good idea to prod me after such an event, and angry about what I assumed he would say if I continued to engage with him on the subject.
If I kept talking to him, I estimated that anger would boil over to the point it could endanger our ability to continue talking. For professional reasons — I told myself — I didn’t want to do that.
I ignored his conversations with others about the bombing — it was easy enough; I had plenty to keep me busy. The next day, the two Chechen jihadist brothers who had carried out the attack engaged in a wild shootout and chase through Cambridge and Watertown.
Events were close enough to my house to remark on, but far enough that I wasn’t in any immediate danger. Police cornered the brothers in a neighborhood about two miles away, which I noted in a public tweet.
“Give me their number, I’ll tell them to spare you,” Omar responded.
Later, when I made a blanket acknowledgement of the many people who had expressed their concern and appreciation for my coverage, he again tried to get a response.
“I’m included, right?” he asked. “Offer still open.”
The strange thing is, I think he may have meant it. I ignored him.
Later, he tried to engage me more broadly about the bombing, and more aggressively. I continued to shut him out. But a few days after that, Omar live-tweeted an al-Shabab attempt to kill him — complete with pictures of a gunshot wound on his neck, a graze, but one that appeared close to the carotid. I ended the deep freeze.
“Looks like you were within a quarter inch of dying,” I tweeted publicly. “Perhaps it’s time to come in now.”
“Gotta finish what I started, [J.M.],” he replied. “Let’s see what type of war breaks out tomorrow.”
I also opened up the direct message line again.
“Seriously? You shot?”
“If you send me their phone numbers, I’ll call them and tell them to spare you.”
“Joker. Not the same.”
“On a more comparable note, if you want to get out of this, I’d do whatever I could to get you a livable deal.”
“You know I’m not on it. I appreciate the compassion though.”
Omar went silent soon after.
For months, he did not tweet through the @abumamerican account. But my previous research allowed me to see that he was still alive.
Leaving his Western audience behind, he began trying to win support locally using pseudonymous social media accounts, as well as online friends and proxies — similar to a Western intelligence tactic that had amused him endlessly a few months earlier, the management of multiple online identities known as “sock puppets.”
His childlike side was delighted with the phrase, even though he didn’t seem to quite grasp the concept. At one point, he asked Clint Watts if he was a sock puppet, prompting Clint to change his normal Twitter avatar into a sock-puppet version of the sketch he normally used. Omar loved it.
Through his sock-puppet networks, Omar released recordings in Arabic, but his audience was far smaller than the counterterrorism crowd. No one really noticed.
Stories and blog posts (and African intelligence officials) occasionally speculated he was dead, sometimes pretending to have direct information to that effect. I knew better, but I didn’t want to talk about my methods. When people asked on Twitter about his status, my stock response was “I have no information to make me think he’s dead.”
I periodically tried contacting him, but I got no response. Weeks dragged into months, and al-Shabab went on the offensive, slaughtering most of Hammami’s allies and sending the rest into flight or hiding. His situation looked grim, but I could see that he was still alive.
In early September, Omar gave an interview to Voice of America’s Somali branch. He was still out there hiding from al-Shabab, nursing his grievances and plotting his comeback. He said al-Shabab had kidnapped his two wives as a means to exert pressure on him. After the interview aired, he returned to Twitter as @abumamerican one last time:
I immediately sent him a direct message asking why he continued to insist on his identity as a terrorist. By his own account, and accounts given by other members of al-Shabab, Omar had barely been involved in any military fighting and never in an act of terrorism, per se. He hadn’t even performed most of the atrocious propaganda rap videos attributed to him. I couldn’t see why he would insist on being called a terrorist at this stage in the game.
“Good news is I’m alive and free up until now,” he responded almost immediately. “Still on my principles. Hoping for steadfastness.”
“It seems like now would be a good time to keep your options open vis-a-vis terrorism, given how things have been going,” I wrote. “I still think you could cut a deal of some kind, and it might take the heat off your family if you got out of Somalia.”
When that was met with silence, I messaged again.
“By the way, you’ve really come a long way in your understanding of sock puppetry.”
“Ha ha. Crazy world we live in. Berger never changes,” he replied.
We briefly discussed his plans for a comeback, which had basically not changed since he first started airing his dissent — convince the tribes to rise up against al-Shabab.
“Martyrdom might be near. They are planning an attack, but we are maneuvering.”
I pointed out that his rebellion was not going very well, given al-Shabab’s successful offensive that had left some of his biggest heroes dead. He replied that it was not his rebellion.
“It was going on before I went public,” he wrote. “Those killed or jailed refused to go caveman and fight. Those who came to us are alive still.”
“So why continue to insist on being a ‘terrorist’?” I asked again. “What good does that do you?”
I never received a response.
One week later, al-Shabab attacked again. This time, it seems, they achieved their goal. According to witnesses and social media accounts of both pro- and anti-Shabab forces, Omar was killed and those last allies by his side were either killed or arrested. Voice of America reported that he had been buried in an unmarked grave.
On Sunday, someone logged into the @abumamerican account and tweeted the following message:
I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it.
More from Foreign Policy
Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?
The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.
China’s Crisis of Confidence
What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?
Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different
This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.
China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War
Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.