The Evolution of an American Jihadi: The Case of Omar Hammami

Jun 21, 2012

Omar Hammami, who was until mid-March 2012 the most prominent foreign fighter in the ranks of the Somali insurgent-jihadist movement al-Shabab, has never been shy of being in the limelight. He emerged as the English-speaking, Western face of al-Shabab’s recruitment of foreign fighters following an interview from the field in October 2007 with the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazira and continues to be the subject of intense Western media interest even after his public break with al-Shabab on March 16, 2012, in a video posted to YouTube.[1]

In May 2012, Hammani released the first part of his autobiography describing his experiences before and after traveling to civil war-torn Somalia.[2] The first part of the autobiography, totaling 127 pages, was released as a document upload to the Scribd website in mid-May after its release was teased a week earlier by “somalimuhajirwarrior”[3] in a comment left on the original YouTube video.[4] In a footnote, Hammami also revealed that he produced written work as an online jihadist writer using the pseudonym “Abu Jihad al-Shami,” specifically four written volumes totaling nearly 300 pages.[5] This work stands in contrast to the widely-ridiculed jihadist rap songs for which he was previously known and shows an attempt by the Alabama-native to evolve from simply being another “mujahid” on the battlefield to a respected jihadist strategist and ideologue along the lines of individuals such as Abu Mus`ab al-Suri, whom he openly admires.

This article examines both Hammami’s career in al-Shabab, paying particular attention to the debate over his exact position within it, and his strategic writings under the pen name “Abu Jihad al-Shami.” Drawing from Hammami’s writings, including his autobiography, the article seeks to provide a detailed analytical profile of one of the most famous and prolific Western jihadist foreign fighters, contributing to the existing literature on the development of jihadist strategic studies[6] and the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon.[7]

The Road to Somalia and Al-Shabab
After living in Egypt for a brief period of time, during which he tried and failed to enroll at al-Azhar University, the prestigious Sunni center of religious learning located in Cairo,[8] Hammami left for Somalia in November 2006 using the pretext of looking for work in Dubai.[9] He traveled to the East African country to support the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an umbrella movement that brought together local Shari`a courts and a diverse array of Somali Islamist actors and successfully established a brief period of relative peace in much of central and southern Somalia during the second half of 2006 before being overthrown by an Ethiopian invasion in late December of that year.[10] In his autobiography, Hammami blamed the ICU’s military failures on several factors, including the “tribal” mindset of some of its leaders—specifically naming Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and Hawiye clan leaders—and overreach by attempting to seize control of more territory than the ICU’s “fledgling army” was capable of realistically controlling at that time.[11] His experiences in 2006-2007 had a profound effect on him, as represented in his strong opposition later to premature expansion and the use of conventional military tactics over guerrilla warfare in spite of jihadists’ technological and numerical disadvantages vis-à-vis their enemies.[12]

After the outbreak of guerrilla warfare by al-Shabab and other Somali Islamist insurgent groups following the Ethiopian invasion, Hammami eventually moved away from the armed faction led by Hasan al-Turki following political and strategic disputes and toward al-Shabab, which emerged in 2007 as a movement independent from the ICU.[13]

Hammami in Al-Shabab’s Media Campaign
Despite the attention he receives in Western media, Hammami’s exact position and role in al-Shabab is debated and unclear. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, in its designation of Hammami as an international terrorist, described him as a “military tactician, recruitment strategist, and financial manager” for the Somali insurgent movement and accused him specifically of planning the October 2008 suicide bombing carried out by U.S. citizen and fellow foreign fighter Shirwa Ahmed in Puntland. The picture based on al-Shabab primary sources, however, is at best ambiguous and short on specifics.

In insurgent statements and videos in which he appears or is mentioned, Hammami has been referred to in three ways: al-akh,[14] shaykh,[15] and al-qa’id al-maydani.[16] The first translates to “the brother” and is simply a term of endearment used by some Muslims to refer to a fellow male Muslim. The second is an honorific title denoting a leader, either religious or societal; however, the term is used by jihadists so frequently and generally that its meaning is of limited value by itself with regards to determining an individual’s specific position in an organization. The third translates to “field commander” and the statement describes Hammami’s role in leading military operations in the Bay and Bakool regions of Somalia.

In his autobiography, Hammami described meeting some of al-Shabab’s founding leaders upon their arrival in the port town of Barawa in southern Somalia after leaving the forces of Hasan al-Turki.[17] Hammami said he met al-Shabab leaders Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane, Ibrahim al-Afghani, Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole.”[18] Hammami also appeared alongside Robow in an al-Shabab video, Ambush at Bardale, released in March 2009 that showed the planning and execution of military operations aimed at besieging the city of Baidoa.[19] Hammami has also appeared several times at public al-Shabab events. The highest profile of these was a conference the insurgent movement held in mid-May 2011 in the Lower Shabelle region following the killing of Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. Entitled “We Are All Usama,” the conference was attended and featured speeches by Hammami and a number of senior al-Shabab leaders.[20]

Hammami has appeared in three official videos produced by al-Shabab’s media department: Ambush at Bardale, a brief appearance in Labbayk Ya Usama, released in September 2009, and an April 2010 video of a celebration for children of insurgents who were killed in battle. Two of his rap songs were featured in Ambush at Bardale but subsequent ones were attributed to “Ghaba Productions” and released independently of al-Shabab’s media department.[21] The last publicly-released, full lecture by him before his public break with al-Shabab, entitled Lessons Learned, was released independently on YouTube and the Ansar al-Mujahidin English jihadist internet forum on October 7, 2011, and was later translated by the media department of the Shumukh al-Islam jihadist internet forum and released a month later.

Public Break with Al-Shabab
Hammami did not fully elaborate on his specific disputes with al-Shabab, either in the March 2012 YouTube video or since his first media communication after it was posted.[22] In a subsequent interview, Hammami’s self-described “PR rep,” Abu Muhammad al-Somali, who claims to run both the “somalimuhajirwarrior” YouTube account and the affiliated Twitter account “abuamerican,”[23] suggested that violent internal discord in al-Shabab was at the heart of the Alabama native’s disputes with the group.[24]

In the interview, al-Somali, who may in fact just be Hammami, highlighted several passages in the first part of Hammami’s autobiography, which was uploaded to Scribd by al-Somali in mid-May.[25] Written under the American’s more well-known nom de guerre, Abu Mansur al-Amriki, it documented, in a narrative style similar to his sometimes goofy and juvenile spoken style, his life from childhood to his early years as a foreign fighter in Somalia. It is unclear whether al-Somali is in fact Hammami, although al-Somali has denied being Hammami on Twitter and in e-mail correspondence.[26]

Hammami as a Jihadist Strategist
In the first footnote of his autobiography, Hammami revealed that he is Abu Jihad al-Shami, an online jihadist strategic writer whose real identity was previously unclear.[27] Using this pen name, he produced four strategic studies monographs that sought to both provide guidance and stir debate among jihadists as well as “remind Muslims” of the place of strategy in Islamic history.[28] He frequently referenced traditional Muslim biographical accounts (sira) of the Prophet Muhammad’s life throughout his original three-part series on strategic thought: An Islamic Guide to Strategy,[29] A Strategic Study of the Prophetic Sirah, and The Vision of the Jihadi Movement & the Strategy for the Current Stage.[30] He later wrote a fourth strategic study in which he tried to apply his previous strategic maxims to the ongoing conflict in Syria, A Strategy for the Land of the Gathering (Syria): An Attempt to Pinpoint the Pivotal Aspects.[31] Hammami’s foray into strategic writings, although not entirely convincing, has resulted in works that are not as easily dismissed as his rap songs.[32]

At its core, Hammami’s ideological arguments are simple and straightforward, with little room for nuance or debate. Shari`a, or Islamic law, which he described as being uncontested, must be the guiding basis of the contemporary jihadist movement.[33] Indeed, he argued that the historical roots of the use of strategy lay in the sira of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shari`a itself.[34] The goal of the jihadist movement, he argued, must be the complete implementation of Islamic law as he interpreted it. He was unabashedly critical of its “halfway” implementation using the disingenuous excuse of protecting the public interest (maslaha).[35] The failure to fully implement Shari`a is because of a lack of trust in God (tawwakul ‘ala Allah).[36]

The writ of jihadist Shari`a must, Hammami argued, be extended until it encompasses the entire world. This is necessitated by the obligations of maintaining belief in the absolute unity of God (tawhid), upholding the Shari`a, and safeguarding the welfare of Muslims.[37] Islam, as a total system of life, must be followed to the exclusion of everything else.[38] Hammami identified three ways by which this is achieved: missionary propagation (da`wa), getting non-Muslims to convert to Islam or, if they are from the People of the Book,[39] pay the jizya poll tax, or if this fails, through “outright warfare.”[40] Da`wa is not only aimed at non-Muslims but also Muslims, who must be properly educated and prepared for the advent of the caliphate. It is the duty of local jihadist authorities to undertake this education program over the communities they rule.[41]

The ultimate goal of the jihadist movement, according to Hammami, is global, as he outlined most explicitly in the third installment of the series, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement & Strategy for the Current Stage. In his view, however, the mujahidin have not made the formation of a new caliphate their main goal because they have failed to truly understand “the vision and [grand] strategy” as he envisioned it.[42] This misunderstanding is manifested in several ways. First, some jihadists simply want to inflict damage on their enemies, the “disbelievers” (kuffar), even to the detriment of achieving the ultimate goal of the caliphate, thus “confusing strategy [damaging the kuffar] with [the ultimate] vision [the caliphate].”[43] Second, anti-occupation struggles in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Palestinian Territories have become the focus of many jihadist groups to the detriment of the true globalization of these localized conflicts. Anti-occupation struggles can thus actually distract Muslims from working toward what should be the ultimate goal, the caliphate.[44] The establishment of local “safe havens,” Hammami reminded his readers, is only meant to enable the building up of an infrastructure for the caliphate. Local jihadist emirates are only meant to lead  to the establishment of a single “Islamic state.”[45] Glocalized militancy, which uses global rhetoric while maintaining a primarily local operational focus, is what Hammami believed is the most serious problem facing the jihadist movement. It is a view shared by his purported “PR rep,” Abu Muhammad al-Somali.[46]

Later intentions of jihadists to “go global” are often never realized, leading Hammami to be skeptical of a “local-to-global” strategy.[47] The globalization, he wrote, often never truly happens. Many movements that once had global or pan-Islamic visions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have been led astray by the localization of goals and operations, he wrote.[48] Thus, Muslims should beware of becoming hypocrites by speaking about the caliphate and then not actually working toward its establishment.[49] The concept of hypocrisy (nifaq) is a powerful one with deep historical roots in the Qur’an and prophetic sira.[50]

Hammami warned that localized jihadist states, or “emirates,” may actually lead to increased disunity because of local differences and contradictory local strategies and conflicting policies that would ultimately derail the caliphate project.[51] Even in Iraq, the seat of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the jihadist movement is not unified since al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) and the ISI have failed to convince other jihadist groups, such as Ansar al-Islam, to join the fold.[52] Due to the lack of unity among the jihadist groups in Iraq, Hammami argued against the seat of the caliphate being established there, expressing serious reservations about the country’s suitability as a safe haven and base.[53] Instead, Hammami suggested the Arabian Peninsula and specifically Yemen as the best candidate for the jihadist movement’s chief base of operations in the campaign to found a new caliphate because of the strength of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula and its close proximity to Somalia, which he described as the “land of the mujahidin.”[54] What is needed, he wrote, is a single leader (caliph) to whom all local jihadist groups swear allegiance (bay`a).[55] Despite recognizing the potential pitfalls in establishing numerous localized states, namely the outbreak of discord due to local differences, Hammami did not seem to recognize that this likely poses an even bigger threat to the full globalization of the jihadist movement that he seeks.

Conclusion
Hammami’s collective works, namely his autobiography and strategic writings, are among the most extensive available from a Western jihadist in terms of providing personal details about his experiences, such as his journey to the battlefield, and ideological development.[56] On the one hand, his writings and lectures are anecdotal and not verifiable, telling the story of one young man’s trajectory from the small Alabama city of Daphne to the battlefields of Somalia, just one of many Americans who have joined the ranks of al-Shabab. His writings and lectures also, however, collectively provide an account, rare in its amount of detail, on the ideological development and radicalization of one of the most prominent Western jihadist foreign fighters as well as on the formative days of al-Shabab as it emerged in 2007 and 2008 as a movement separate from the ICU.

Hammami’s writings call into question previous arguments about his radicalization and recruitment into al-Shabab. His ambitions to be a respected and even controversial jihadist strategist, as expressed in his writings and lectures, suggest that his radicalization was not solely the result of his attraction to the battlefield in Somalia. Rather, he sought to gain an audience that was much larger than simply members, supporters, and sympathizers of a single militant movement. His goal was to produce written material integral to the success of jihadists globally in the war of ideas.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim sociopolitical movements including transnational jihadi groups, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture.

[1] In the 1:10-minute video posted by user “somalimuhajirwarrior,” Hammami, sitting in a room with a bare wall with the black-and-white flag used by al-Shabab hanging in the background, issued an “urgent message” to “whoever it [the message] may reach among the Muslims,” saying that he feared for his life following a break with al-Shabab over “differences” in matters of “Shari`a and strategy.” See Omar Hammami, “urgentmessage,” video message, March 16, 2012.

[2] Abu Mansuur al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi: Part One, May 2012, available at www.scribd.com/doc/93732117/The-Story-of-an-American-Jihaadi.

[3] The user name translates to “Somali emigrant-warrior.” In this context, the term refers to travel from one’s homeland to one of the “lands of jihad.”

[4] The original document was uploaded to Scribd by user “Abu Muhammad al-Somali.”

[5] Ibid. The autobiography is not paginated and the page numbers referenced in this article are taken from the page numbers of the PDF version of the document when it is opened.

[6] Study of “jihadist strategic studies” was pioneered by Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer in their article “Jihadi Strategic Studies: The Alleged Al Qaida Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 27:5 (2004).

[7] Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35:3 (2010); Thomas Hegghammer, “The Foreign Fighter Phenomenon: Islam and Transnational Militancy,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, February 2011.

[8] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi, pp. 29, 32-33.

[9] Andrea Elliott, “The Jihadist Next Door,” New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2010.

[10] See Christof Putzel’s interviews with Hammami’s former best friend, Bernie Culveyhouse, in the 2010 Vanguard TV documentary American Jihadi.

[11] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi, p. 58. He also criticized the ICU’s treatment of foreign fighters in a short treatise, “A Message to the Beloved Mujahideen Specifically and the Muslims Generally,” dated January 8, 2008, and released by al-Shabab’s media department and distributed on jihadist internet forums by the Global Islamic Media Front.

[12] He warned against premature expansion beyond jihadists’ current capabilities in one of the strategic monographs he penned as Abu Jihad al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement & the Strategy for the Current Stage, pp. 18, 23. In another work, A Strategy for the Land of the Gathering (Syria): An Attempt to Pinpoint the Pivotal Aspects, he advised Syrian rebels to stick to guerrilla tactics against the larger and more technologically-advance and well-equipped Syrian military and security forces.

[13] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi, pp. 94-98.

[14] “Celebration for the Children of the Martyrs,” al-Shabab, April 2010.

[15] Ambush at Bardale, al-Shabab, March 2009.

[16] Al-Shabab statement, August 8, 2008.

[17] A specific date is not given.

[18] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi, p. 99.

[19] Ambush at Bardale.

[20] Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia Hold Conference to Eulogize Usama bin Laden, American Member Omar Hammami Present,” Views from the Occident Blog, May 11, 2011.

[21] Christopher Anzalone, “The End of a Romance? The Rise and Fall of an American Jihadi: Omar Hammami’s Relationship with Somalia’s Al-Shabab,” al-Wasat Blog, March 17, 2012.

[22] Christof Putzel, “American al-Qaida Member and FBI Target Still Alive and Talks Exclusively to Current,” Current, May 16, 2012.

[23] The Twitter account is accessible at https://twitter.com/#!/abumamerican.

[24] J.M. Berger, “Me Against the World,” Foreign Policy, May 25, 2012.

[25] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi.

[26] In e-mail correspondence with terrorism researcher J.M. Berger, al-Somali denied being Hammami. Al-Somali also refers to Hammami in the third person when speaking about him on Twitter.

[27] Al-Amriiki, The Story of an American Jihaadi, p. 2.

[28] Abu Jihad al-Shami, An Islamic Guide to Strategy, pp. 3, 127.

[29] Much of this monograph is lifted whole cloth from several U.S. military training manuals and other books, the titles of which Hammami noted in the introduction but did not fully cite in the actual text.

[30] Al-Shami, An Islamic Guide to Strategy, p. 11.

[31] Al-Shami, A Strategy for the Land of the Gathering (Syria), p. 10.

[32] Hammami offered oral analysis in a lecture entitled “In Defense of the Khilaafa,” which was released in full on May 25, 2012, but parts of which were released, and then quickly removed, online in January 2012. The author credits J.M. Berger for bringing this initial release to his attention as well as for sharing this version of the lecture. In the lecture, Hammami provided both an analysis of Western counterterrorism studies and used it to make an argument for the need for a caliphate.

[33] Al-Shami, An Islamic Guide to Strategy, pp. 1-2; Al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement, p. 7.

[34] See, for example, Al-Shami, An Islamic Guide to Strategy, p. 2; Abu Jihad al-Shami, A Strategic Study of the Prophetic Sirah, pp. 39-41, 51-52.

[35] Al-Shami, A Strategic Study of the Prophet Sirah, p. 20.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 33.

[38] Ibid., p. 34, fn 43.

[39] The “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab) are generally believed by Muslims to have received revealed scriptures from God, although it is believed they have since corrupted some of its original message. This group includes Christians and Jews.

[40] Al-Shami, A Strategic Study of the Prophetic Sirah, p. 33.

[41] Al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement, pp. 15-18.

[42] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[43] Ibid., p. 11.

[44] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[45] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[46] Twitter conversation between the author and Abu Muhammad al-Somali, available at https://twitter.com/abumamerican/status/204585777773031427.

[47] Al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement, pp. 12-15.

[48] Ibid., p. 14.

[49] Ibid., p. 15.

[50] For a straightforward discussion of the historically symbolic importance of the concept of nifaq, see Robert Wisnovsky, “Beyond Jihad: What We Can Learn from the Religious Language of Terrorists,” Slate, October 23, 2001.

[51] Al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement, pp. 13-14.

[52] Ibid., p. 26.

[53] Ibid.; Al-Shami, A Strategy for the Land of the Gathering (Syria), p. 10.

[54] Al-Shami, The Vision of the Jihadi Movement, pp. 25-26.

[55] Ibid., p. 28.

[56] Other notable personal accounts from Western jihadists include those of Adam Gadahn, Anwar al-`Awlaqi, Samir Khan, Yassin and Mounir Chouka, Eric Breininger, and Donald Maldonado.