By Spencer Ackerman
Somalilandsun – Omar Hammami, the most prominent American jihadi left alive, probably should be running. When Hammami came to Somalia for jihad in 2006, he never anticipated that al-Qaida’s local affiliate would pledge to kill its former propaganda asset. And last month, the U.S. government put a $5 million bounty on the head of the 28-year-old Alabama native. These could be the last moments of Hammami’s life.
But Hammami tells Danger Room in an extremely rare and exclusive interview that he’s staying put. From an undisclosed location in Somalia, he grows vegetables, helps his wives around the house, and trolls his one-time colleagues in al-Shebab on Twitter, his newfound passion. As @abumamerican, he’s tweeting his ongoing jihad in 140-character installments, and is happy to debate it with U.S. national security professionals. Uniquely among jihadis, Hammami shoots the breeze with the people whose job it is to study and even hunt people like him.
That’s caused a cognitive and emotional dissonance within U.S. counterterrorism circles. Several openly say they like the charismatic Hammami, who’s quick with a joke and a touch of irony. Their Twitter interactions with him have led to a worry about his well-being, and a dim hope that maybe, just maybe, they can convince Hammami to give up a path that seems to promise a violent and imminent end. “It’s just a process of talking about what it is he believes and trying to understand it,” says J.M. Berger, Hammami’s main interlocutor, “and seeing if there’s an escape hatch for him from this life.”
That natural, human affection for Hammami risks obscuring something basic: Hammami isn’t looking for an escape hatch. He’s broken with al-Shebab, not jihad. “I believe in attacking u.s. Interests everywhere,” he tells me, through Twitter’s direct message function, the only means through which he consented to a week-long running interview. “No 2nd thoughts and no turning back.” Sentiments like that make it likely that Hammami will be the next American killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Hammami is a complex figure. He’s never attacked his fellow Americans. He reflects on his time in America with fondness. He jokes about porn and barbecue on Twitter with his unlikely buddies. And he’s chipping away at the legitimacy of America’s top adversary in east Africa one Tweet at the time, all while sunnily proclaiming his undying antagonism for his homeland. “A walking contradiction from massively different backgrounds” is how Hammami once described himself, “who is seriously passionate about what he believes in, but feels he has to go about doing it while laughing at almost everything along the way.”
From Alabama to al-Shebab
Omar Hammami grew up in the deep south, in a town called Daphne, near Mobile. Born in 1984 to a Syrian Muslim immigrant father and a white Protestant mother, he was raised as a Christian, and described himself in his 2012 online autobiography as “a social butterfly” and “the most popular guy in school.”
Hammami began to feel culturally adrift as a teenager, especially as he began to explore his Islamic heritage, a process outlined in a riveting 2010 New York Times Magazine piece. By the time he was in tenth grade, a kid who used to dress like a suburban skater “began to feel that I was being flung into an ocean and being asked not to get wet,” he would later write.