The End of a Romance? The Rise and Fall of an American Jihadi: Omar Hammami’s Relationship with Somalia’s Al-Shabab
March 17, 2012 8 Comments
-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)
In a 1:10-minute video posted on YouTube on March 16, Omar Hammami, until now the most prominent non-Somali foreign member of the Somali insurgent-jihadi movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabab/Al-Shabaab), issued an “urgentmessage (sic)” to “whoever it [the message] may reach among the Muslims” in which he said that he feared for his life following a dispute with Al-Shabab following “differences” over matters of “shari’a and strategy.” Sitting in front of the black-and-white flag emblazoned with the Muslim testament of faith (shahada) that Al-Shabab uses, Hammami, who is referred to in transnational Sunni jihadi (hereafter “jihadi“) circles as “Abu Mansur al-Amriki [the American],” does not elaborate on the nature of his dispute with Al-Shabab or whether the dispute was with the movement’s leadership generally or specific members of the insurgent leadership cadre, in which they are also reportedly divisions and disputes over several issues including the response to the famine threatening the Horn of Africa and local or glocal versus full-fledged transnational militancy. The room appears to be the same one, or similar to the one, in a photograph of Hammami that was posted to jihadi Internet forums in December 2011, though it is impossible to tell for sure.
The release of this video from the American citizen who is perhaps most famous for his terrible hip hop songs such as “Send Me a Cruise” and “Blow by Blow” has caused considerable consternation among segments of the cyber jihadi community. The dispute appears to be genuine has become stronger with the release of multiple messages via Al-Shabab’s official or affiliated media outlets earlier today. Given the potential importance of this news, it is worth reviewing Hammami’s lengthy relationship with Al-Shabab.
Hammami (b. 1984), a native of Daphne, Alabama and son of a Syrian Muslim father and a Protestant Christian American mother, traveled to Somalia in late November 2006 from Egypt. According to his former best friend Bernie Culveyhouse, he likely traveled to the East African country because of a desire to aid the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an umbrella movement that, in 2006, brought the first real semblance of law and order to civil war-torn Somalia since the fall of dictator Siyaad Barre in 1991. It is believed that Hammami joined Al-Shabab, which formed part of the UIC’s military wing. In 2007, wearing a kuffiya scarf over his face and only showing his eyes, he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera Arabic and made an appeal to Americans to heed the example of Somalia.
Hammami became most well known, however, following his starring role in Ambush at Bardale, a 31-minute video released in late March 2009. The video, produced by Al-Shabab’s media department, then simply referred to as such, documents an ambush by insurgents led by Hammami against an Ethiopian military convoy near the city of Baidoa, capital of the Bay region, in western Somalia in early August 2008. In the video Hammami, speaking in English, lectures a group of Al-Shabab fighters on hadith, the Qur’an, and strategic and ideological matters concerning the movement’s “jihad” and standing in “ribat,” or guardianship over Muslim lands. Ambush at Bardale also includes Hammami’s first two hip hop songs, “Blow by Blow” and “Hum Hum,” which feature him and a second unidentified English speaker. Hammami later addresses the camera in Arabic.
Despite his very public persona in the news media, particularly in North America, Hammami’s exact position and role in Al-Shabab has largely been the subject of speculation. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s designation of him as an international terrorist, Hammami is (or was) a “military tactician, recruitment strategist, and financial manager” for Al-Shabab. The designation also accuses him of being involved in the planning of an October 2008 suicide attack in Puntland carried out by U.S. citizen and Al-Shabab fighter Shirwa Ahmed. Open source material with regard to his role, particularly insurgent primary sources, is generally ambiguous. In the three official Al-Shabab videos that he’s appeared in, he has been referred to as “shaykh” and “the brother (al-akh).” The first title is traditionally an honorific title describing either a societal or religious leader though jihadi groups use the term so frequently that the term’s meaning is often of limited use with regards to determining an individual’s specific role. The second is a term of endearment used by Muslims generally to describe a fellow male Muslim. In the statement reporting the Hammami-led ambush of Ethiopian forces at Bardale, the Daphne native was referred to as a “field commander” (al-qa’id al-maydani). His exact role, if any, in the upper echelons of Al-Shabab’s leadership cadre is unclear, at least in open source materials.
In January 2008 the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a shadowy jihadi media outlet and distribution network that has for years facilitated the distribution of Al-Shabab’s statements and other media material online, released a 5-page essay penned by Hammami and addressed to “the mujahideen in particular and the Muslims in general.” In the essay, he criticized the UIC and discussed the differences between it and Al-Shabab. Whereas the former restricted itself to the “boundaries placed by the Taaghoot [Taghut; tyrant-rulers],” Al-Shabab had “a global goal” that included the formation of a jihadi caliphate, a transnational state, in “all parts of the world.” Hammami criticized the UIC’s poor treatment of foreign fighters, the “muhajireen” (emigrants) who traveled to aid their Somali Muslim brethren. Toward the end of his essay, the American discusses Al-Shabab’s purported program or “path” (Minhaj). How definitive in terms of guidance his discussion of the movement’s program was, however, is unclear. Al-Shabab’s Somali leaders and more important non-Somali foreign leaders and affiliated Al-Qa’ida Central operatives, such as the late Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhan and Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad, were likely more influential on the formation of the movement’s ideology. If continuous reports about purported internal divisions are true, Al-Shabab’s leaders are divided on a number of issues, though this cleavages have not yet precipitated the actual break-up of the movement. Currently Al-Shabab has a leadership cadre that includes a number of prominent Somali preacher-ideologues, including some who have lived in diaspora communities such as Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf and ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min. Together with political leaders such as the movement’s amir Ahmed Godane, spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Robow, and Aweys, these individuals have likely been more influential over the construction of Al-Shabab’s ideology as a movement than Hammami.
Hammami has appeared a number of times at public Al-Shabab functions including a celebration for the children of the movement’s “martyrs” in 2009 or 2010. His most high profile appearance was at a lengthy conference entitled “We are All Usama” held by Al-Shabab in the Lower Shabelle region south of Mogadishu in mid May 2011 following the killing of Al-Qa’ida Central founder-leader Usama bin Laden by U.S. forces earlier that month in Pakistan.
In photographs released by Al-Shabab and affiliated/sympathetic media outlets, Hammami was pictured alongside a number of senior Al-Shabab leaders including Rahanweyn leader Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Hasan Dahir Aweys, Lower Shaballe governor Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, preachers ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole,” and Banaadir governor Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman. In Ambush at Bardale Hammami also appeared alongside Robow planning the ambush against Ethiopian forces. In that footage and in photographs and video footage from the conference dedicated to Bin Laden.two appeared quite friendly with one another. It is purely speculative, but it is possible, if rumors of a rift among Al-Shabab leaders is true and the evidence is mixed and not concrete, that the row has been caused by a faction attempting to isolate Robow, who has had a longstanding relationship, based on insurgent media, with Hammami. Robow is one of the leaders who, according to reports of leadership divisions, is opposed to a fully internationalized militancy, instead favoring a more Somalia and Horn of Africa-centered vision, at least for the medium term.
The amount of media attention that Hammami has attracted is likely disproportionate to his actual role and importance to Al-Shabab. This is not to say that he was not important to the movement’s recruitment efforts, particularly among English-speakers. It is interesting to note that Al-Shabab had already recruited dozens of mostly Somali youth in the U.S., Canada, and Britain before its public video unveiling of Hammami in Ambush at Bardale, though this fact does not discount the possibility/likelihood that he was involved prior in an advisory role.
Hammami, as mentioned previously, has appeared in three official video releases produced by Al-Shabab’s media wing, Ambush at Bardale, the September 2009-release Labbayk Ya Usama, and an April 2010 release about a celebration held for children of killed insurgents. In Labbayk Ya Usama Hammami’s makes a brief non-speaking appearance and is shown observing and directing training of Al-Shabab “special forces” and meeting with other Al-Shabab commanders. He speaks at the celebration for the children of the “martyrs,” though the children seem more interested in their toys and food, alongside ‘Ali Rage. Hammami’s hip hop songs, both those released independently (or at least unbranded by) of Al-Shabab’s media department and the two featured in Ambush at Bardale, were branded as being from “Ghaba Productions.” His most recent lecture, “Lessons Learned,” appeared on YouTube and the Ansar al-Mujahideen English jihadi Internet forum on October 7, 2011 and was subsequently released on other web sites including the predominantly Somali language al-Qimma al-Islamiyya (Islamic Summit) forum. The latter link was later not working and was possibly removed by forum administrators. In November, the lecture was translated from English into Arabic by the al-Masada (Place of Lions) Media Foundation, the media office of the Shumukh al-Islam (Islamic pride/glory) Internet forum. Comparisons made by some of Hammami with Anwar al-‘Awlaqi are, frankly, bordering on the absurd. Unlike Hammami, al-‘Awlaqi had some semblance of religious legitimacy, at least prior to his public embrace of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and militancy. While Hammami was able to speak a caricatured youth slang, it is unlikely that his religious arguments for jihad or even his personal life story carried the same authoritativeness and weight of al-‘Awlaqi’s, since the latter gave up a successful public life and leadership role in the U.S. in order to embrace “true Islam,” at least according to the American-Yemeni preacher’s self-image and the image constructed by AQAP and other jihadis.
The open question is why would Hammami make such a public break with Al-Shabab now? Speculation in some media coverage and on social media networks, primarily Twitter, has been that the dispute may be related to the movement’s formalizing of its affiliation with Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC) in early February. This is certainly a possibility. Praising the charismatic persona of Bin Laden is still a step below being an actual member of an AQC affiliated movement or group, which perhaps Hammami finds undesirable, if only for reasons of personal safety particularly after the U.S. government’s targeted killing of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi on September 30 of last year in Yemen. Given Al-Shabab’s public embrace of the decision to formally affiliate with AQC, demonstrated by a number of high profile public celebrations in regions under insurgent control that have been attended by many but not all of its senior leadership (at least based on insurgent photographs), the reverse seems unlikely, that is that Hammami broke with Al-Shabab because he supported the affiliation while insurgent leaders opposed it. The possibility that some Al-Shabab leaders are not as supportive of the affiliation remains. Robow and Aweys, for example, were not in photographs of insurgent-organized public celebrations in Lower Shabelle and other regions and they have only just begun to reappear in insurgent-affiliated media following the announcement by Godane and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The exact reasons for this, it should be noted, are unclear. It is possible that the break between Hammami and Al-Shabab’s leadership, if true, is unrelated to the affiliation and concerns other issues, such as the insurgent movement’s application of its particularly harsh and philistine interpretation of shari’a. Al-Shabab has actively promoted its own version of law and order, a harsh one for sure, and has attempted to establish its control over local shari’a courts through its Office of the Judiciary, which has held “training sessions” for judges from all the regions under insurgent control.
Others suggest that the break may be related to suspicions by Al-Shabab’s domestic leadership with regard to “foreign fighters.” It is important to remember that there are several different types of such fighters in insurgent ranks. First, there are those, likely the smallest number, who, like Hammami, are non-Somalis. This group includes Arabs, South Asians or those of South Asian descent, possibly from Horn of Africa countries, Americans, and Europeans. Second, there are ethnic Somalis from the diaspora. Third, there are non-Somalis from in and around the Horn of Africa. Available evidence, including from insurgent media, is that this group remains welcome by Al-Shabab’s leadership and indeed is increasingly the target of insurgent recruitment efforts. This includes the affiliation of Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and the Muslim Youth Center in Kenya and the appearance of Swahili-speaking Al-Shabab fighters in insurgent videos, particularly since the November 2010 release of Message to the Umma: And Inspire the Believers.
Al-Shabab today, in a series of Tweets via its Arabic and English-language Twitter accounts and in an official statement released on jihadi Internet forums, denies that Hammami’s life is endanger and says that he still enjoys the “benefits of brotherhood” with the “mujahideen.” The Arabic Tweets were posted after the English ones and essentially mirror them in meaning. The affair will remain purely the subject of speculation until more concrete information emerges.
UPDATE (March 18, 2012): For the time being Hammami seems to have achieved his short-term goal, gaining the attention of a variety of audiences including jihadis with his SOS call. Al-Shabab, or at least its Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, has felt pressured enough by the uploading of his video to publicly respond in an official statement and Tweets on its Twitter accounts. After assuring their supporters that Hammami is not at risk of harm from them, the insurgent movement has, to some degree, boxed itself in. If Hammami is killed later by them, Al-Shabab will have to either formulate a strong argument as to why they went against the assurances offered in their statement or, perhaps as likely, make his death look either like the doing of another group such as AMISOM, the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government, Kenya, Ethiopia, or one of their allied Somali militias like Ahlu Sunnah Wal-Jamaacah, or an “accident” which they facilitate, as some analysts have alleged insurgents did with Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad (though actual concrete evidence of this thus far has not surfaced.)
Comments left on Hammami’s uploaded video on YouTube include the copy-and-pasted text of the HSMPress English Tweets, by user “golbourne1234,” (another commenter posts the main Arabic text of Al-Shabab’s official statement) and the bemoaning of “fitna” (social discord) by user “missizx2,” who writes, “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh, Fitna is everywhere, also on the Ard ul Izzah, my brother I dont think Mujahideen would kill their own brother only because of differences in opinion or understanding, have sabr and keep trust in Allah. And if they execute you because they have a reason according to Shariah (for example like the execution of Ebuzer in Khurasan) then may Allah accept you from among the Shuhada. ‘Verily, with hardship there is relief ‘(Qur’an 94:6).” The latter comment, even with the prayer for Hammami to be accepted as a “martyr” if Al-Shabab executes him in a shar’i (legal) fashion, is unlikely to comfort the American.