Three months ago, Alabama native Omar Hammami's major claim to fame was his notoriety as the "jihadist rapper," laying down dope (or just dopey) beats in propaganda videos supporting al Shabaab's jihadist insurgency in Somalia.
"To whomever it may reach from the Muslims ... I record this message today because I fear my life may be endangered by [al Shabaab] because of some differences that occurred regarding matters of the sharia and of strategy," a visibly shaken Hammami said in an unprecedented breach of jihadist omertà.
The rumor mill kicked into overtime, with most accounts claiming Hammami had been placed under house arrest somewhere in Somalia while al Shabaab figured out what to do with him. Hammami was rumored to be an important battlefield commander, and al Shabaab propaganda portrayed him in a role close to its leadership. What could have happened to cause such a dramatic split?
Hammami is easily the most high-profile Westerner among the al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization in the Horn of Africa, a group that boasts dozens of American-born recruits among its ranks. Several years ago, al Shabaab was seen as largely being a regional force, but a leadership shuffle and the formal alliance with al Qaeda has given it broader ambitions -- and put the terrorist group squarely in the sights of U.S. counterterrorism officials.
In particular, U.S. officials worry about domestic radicalization and support for the Somali group. The schism between Hammami -- the popular son of a Syrian and "typical Southern protestant girl" (as he describes his mother in his autobiography) -- and al Shabaab leadership is therefore particularly interesting.
This week, Hammami tried to address those questions, first in an autobiography posted online, and then in a series of e-mails with Foreign Policy, via his "interlocutor" Abu Muhammad.
His fascinating 127-page autobiography was packed with detail about everything from Hammami's childhood in Alabama to the various types of biting insects and bowel movements he encountered upon coming to Somalia. It's also filled with details about the torturous training that recruits (in particular, foreign recruits) were made to endure. Hammami doesn't complain per se, even when he recounts being beaten in his genitals and starved on forced marches, but these are passages that aren't likely to be seen as generous to al Shabaab. But, in order to avoid making Hammami's current situation any worse, the narrative (billed as "Part 1") stops in 2007, when al Shabaab first emerged as an organization distinct from its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union. References to Hammami's current plight were oblique at best, and media reports understandably failed to pick up on them.
In response to questions from Foreign Policy, the person who posted the March 14 video agreed to provide some further detail.
As to the identity of the source, the poster identified himself as Abu Muhammad As-Somali, but also as Abu M American, echoing Hammami's jihadist nom de guerre of "Abu Mansoor Al Amriki." His user account was the same one that posted the March 14 video. In addition to the video, Abu Muhammad posted the autobiography, a photograph of Hammami with the autobiography and a portion of a previously unreleased Hammami audio recording.
Abu Muhammad responded promptly to queries about Hammami's intentions and views, often using the American jihadist's distinctive tone of voice and sense of humor, though he represented that he had received these answers through conversations with Omar.
When asked directly if he was Omar Hammami, Abu Muhammad replied "I'm Omar's PR rep" and said Hammami was limiting his media contacts for security reasons.