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American jihadist struggles inside Somali militia

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MARKA, Somalia — People here simply called him “the American.”

For the past three years, he lived in this bucolic oceanside town with three wives and five children in a modest residence down a narrow pathway. Known in Arabic as Abu Mansoor al-
Amriki, he had come a long way, psychologically as well as physically, from his home in Alabama.

After arriving in Somalia in 2006, he joined the Islamist
al-Shabab militia, fighting U.S.-backed African Union forces. And in Marka, he ruled. “Everybody feared him,” said Omar Salim, a resident.

Amriki, whose real name is Omar Shafik Hammami, has been the al-Qaeda-linked militia’s most visible face, using YouTube, Facebook and other social media Web sites to spread the militants’ propaganda. In some videos, he raps, praising jihad and extremist Islam. He was indicted in the United States on charges of terrorist activities, and a federal warrant was issued for his arrest in 2007.

But in recent months, there have been noticeable shifts in his rhetoric, from defiance to fear to a quest for survival and relevance. In one video, the now 28-year-old has portrayed himself as a victim facing a death sentence ordered by his own comrades. He has even penned the first part of an online autobiography in which he describes himself as “a middle-class white guy” who can “only pray that Allah grants me a righteous ending.”

Amriki’s journey is a reflection of the divisions and struggle for identity within the militia itself, according to Western and Somali security experts, as it suffers major loses on the battlefield. A visit with African Union forces to Marka, in a swath of territory the militia once controlled, provided an on-the-ground look into the jihadist life of Amriki and other foreign fighters, as well as the militia’s current state.

At its height, al-Shabab controlled large swaths of southern Somalia, including economically vital ports, and much of the capital, Mogadishu. But over the last year, it has lost control of Mogadishu and other bases of power. It has also lost large sources of revenue, as well as the support of many of Somalia’s powerful clans.

Now, as a major military offensive by Somalia’s neighbors has taken control of Kismayo, the extremists’ last — and most lucrative — stronghold, the future of the Islamist movement, as it now exists, is in doubt.

Whether al-Shabab transforms into a full-blown and violent insurgency and whether it remains focused on Somalia or becomes part of a broader jihad against the West and its allies remain in question. To survive, analysts say, the militia could formally link up with other al-Qaeda affiliates, such as the one in Yemen, a three-hour boat ride from Somalia.

“The Shabab is really struggling to define itself,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington. “Al-Amriki is jockeying for a place in whatever version of Shabab evolves after the fall of Kismayo.”

Western and Somali security officials say he is no longer in favor inside the militia, although he still has support from some leaders.

Amriki is believed to have fled Marka over the summer, before African Union forces entered in late August. His whereabouts are unknown, though African Union commanders say he is somewhere between Marka and Kismayo.

In a telephone interview from his home in Daphne, Ala., Shafik Hammami, Amriki’s father, said he had not spoken to his son in several years.

“I don’t have any idea of where he is,” said Hammami. “We have not heard from him.”

He has been following his son’s trail on the Internet and has read his autobiography, Hammami said. He is also closely watching the recent events unfolding in Somalia and hopes his son will emerge unscathed.

“I just hope and pray for his safety,” said Hammami. “It’s all in God’s hands.”

‘He was preaching to us’

Amriki grew up in Daphne. His father is Muslim and was born in Syria. His mother is of Irish heritage and was raised Baptist. In high school, he began to identify more with Islam, and by the time he attended the University of South Alabama, he had embraced Salafism, an ultraconservative brand of the faith.

He later settled in Toronto, where he married a Canadian of Somali ancestry, and within a few years he moved to Egypt. In 2006, Amriki left his wife and baby daughter and traveled to Somalia, where he received ideological and arms training. The next year, he was indicted in the United States.

“The Americans fear that their cultural barrier has been broken, and now jihad has become a normal career choice of any youthful American Muslim,” Amriki wrote in his autobiography.

Somalis who waged jihad in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden created and lead al-Shabab, which in Arabic means “the youth.” The militia’s goal is to overthrow Somalia’s weak government and create a caliphate in the Horn of Africa.

By 2009, foreign fighters, including Pakistanis, Arabs and other Africans, were gaining influence inside al-Shabab, importing al-Qaeda’s ideology and brutal tactics from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan into what was a moderate Muslim nation. These fighters were the main link to al-Qaeda’s central body in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they trained new recruits, both in weapons and ideology, according to Somali and Western officials.

A number of Americans, mostly of Somali descent, were also drawn to the militia. In September 2009, a Somali American from Seattle drove a truck bomb into an African Union base in Mogadishu, killing 21 soldiers.

Amriki’s role was more inspirational. He appeared in numerous recruitment videos posted on jihadist and religious Web sites. He spoke mostly in English, addressing a largely Western audience, in some ways similar to the role Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki played inside al-
Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, before he was killed last year in a U.S. drone strike in southern Yemen.

From Marka, Amriki controlled al-Shabab’s military tactics in the region, according to Western and Somali security officials. “He was a strong commander inside al-Shabab, training fighters and leading operations,” said Capt. Mohammed Shahban, a Somali military officer who coordinated with informants in Marka before it fell.

Fadhil Ahmed Ali, 19, an al-Shabab fighter who recently defected, recalled fighting with Amriki on the front line in the town of Baidoa, before African Union forces drove out the militants in February. “He was fighting like all the other fighters,” Ali said.

On another front line, Amriki stood before a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters, speaking in a mix of Somali and English. “He was preaching to us, encouraging us to fight," Ali said. “He was encouraging us to wage jihad.”

In Marka, Amriki and other foreign fighters attended the local mosque, but rarely interacted with the locals. He received income from transporting goods using donkey carts and other small businesses that paid him a share of their profits, Shahban said.

Selling himself as a jihadist

In a March video, Amriki accused the al-Shabab leadership of trying to assassinate him over differences about the implementation of Islamic law, or sharia, in areas under the militia’s control.

“It was a very desperate move on his part,” said Abdirashid Hashi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Maybe he was using it to pressure other international jihadists to speak to al-Shabab and spare his life.”

In statements on jihadist Web sites, the militia’s leaders denied that they were trying to kill Amriki.

Still, within days of the denial, reports emerged that Amriki had been arrested; some even declared that he had been beheaded.

Al-Shabab has never been completely unified. It is a collection of hard-core extremists, foreign fighters and Somali nationalists. There were sharp differences within the leadership over the use of harsh sharia laws on the population and whether to support a global jihadist agenda or focus solely on turning Somalia into an Islamist emirate. The militia’s decision to formally align itself with al-Qaeda in February 2010, which Amriki supported, also triggered divisions.

Later that year, the militia orchestrated back-to-back bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed more than 70 people watching the World Cup finals — an attack that was widely seen as the influence of the foreigners inside al-Shabab.

In May, Amriki released another video. This time, he was calling for radical Islamist groups around the world to unite under a single caliphate. Around the same time, he published his online autobiography, signing it “still alive and well.” In other videos, he depicts himself as a religious figure or as a unifier of global jihadist groups in an apparent effort to raise his stature in extremist circles.

His actions suggest that he’s concerned about his future, analysts and security officials say. Some foreign fighters are already leaving Somalia, heading to other parts of Africa and Yemen, where Islamists are actively seeking to undermine governments, U.S. and Somali officials say .

“He’s trying to sell himself to a broader world market,” said a Western diplomat in Nairobi who follows Somalia closely. “He realizes that he may want to go to Nigeria or Yemen.”

Relief and wariness

Over the summer, Amriki and other foreign fighters left Marka, and African Union and Somali government forces entered without much of a fight. Today, there’s a sense of relief among the people. As in other areas it controlled, the militia imposed brutal decrees, banning Western-style haircuts, music, soccer and other acts they consider un-
Islamic, as well as amputating the hands of alleged thieves and stoning teenage girls accused of adultery. They also exacted taxes on residents as a source of funding.

“If I had cut my hair in the style I want, they would have beaten me,” said Ali Oban, 15, whose hair was cropped short. “We didn’t have freedoms.”

Yet there’s also a sense of fear. In interviews, many residents were reluctant to speak about the militia, particularly the foreign fighters. There have been recent explosions in the town. At least four grenades have been thrown at African Union vehicles. Soldiers were recently tipped off to a large weapons cache hidden inside a house, which included antitank weaponry, a sign that the militia was perhaps preparing for a full-blown guerrilla war.

As African Union troops spread out across Somalia, they are stretched thin in Mogadishu, where attacks are on the rise again. Last month, the militia sent three suicide bombers in a failed attempt to kill Somalia’s new president. A suicide bomber targeted a popular restaurant, killing 14, including three well-known local journalists, and a Somali lawmaker was assassinated.

Even with the fall of Kismayo, hardly anyone expects al-Shabab to vanish. It still controls swaths of the countryside in southern Somalia. Pham predicts the militia will become “a more nimble, more potentially dangerous and more radically violent organization.” No Somali has forgotten what happened when, in 2007, Ethiopian forces swept in and ousted another Islamist militia that controlled much of the nation. The occupation failed and triggered the rise of the more extremist al-Shabab.

It’s unclear where Amriki will fit into al-Shabab’s new dynamic. African Union officers still see him as a key military commander. His capture, dead or alive, would be a crucial setback for the militia — both on the battlefield and its propaganda campaign.

“Al-Shabab relies on him,” said Maj. Patrick Cherop, a military intelligence officer for the African Union forces near Marka. “If we capture him, then we can blow them down.”

In his autobiography, Amriki yearns for Chinese fast food, his family in Alabama and the daughter he left behind in Egypt. But he says he knew the consequences of becoming a jihadist.

“I knew that I was going to become a fugitive for the rest of my life when I made that decision [to fight in Somalia],” he wrote. “I was well into the post-9/11 era.”

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