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.