Insights into the minds of Westerners who have traveled to faraway lands to join the armies of radical Islam are usually confined to esoteric security websites and jihadist blogs rarely written in English.
But an eye-opening, eyebrow-raising, 127-page document just uploaded to the internet gives a unique glimpse into the motivations of the increasing numbers of young men now fighting in the ranks of Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab.
"The Story of An American Jihadi: Part One" is the autobiography of Abu Mansur al-Amriki, a 28-year-old Al Shabab commander who was, in an earlier life, a popular school soccer player, star student, and baptized Christian from Daphne, Ala., called Omar Hammami. In the book, Mr. Hammami talks of his “privileged” upbringing, his turn to Islam, his journey to Somalia, and his time training with some of America’s most wanted Islamist terrorists.
He also writes of how he misses “Chinese food, hot wings, Nestle ice cream, and gourmet coffee,” but that his motivation to fight for Islam means he knows that he will be “a fugitive for the rest of my life.”
Hip hop jihadi
Hammami has become one of the few public faces of Al Shabab. He has appeared on YouTube videos explaining Al Shabab's aims, has been featured on an al-Jazeera documentary, and even recorded a rap song that was released on the internet. He is wanted by the FBI, and has been indicted in the Southern District of Alabama on terrorism violations, including for leaving the US to join Al Shabab.
Hammami’s father is a respected civil engineer who came to Alabama as a teenager from Syria, and his mother is a “typical Southern protestant girl” descended from Irish immigrants.
“I think having the IRA on one side of my family tree and Al Qaeda on the other might have given me a bit of a bad temperament,” he writes.
His father, a Muslim, was not religious. His mother would take Hammami and his sister, with whom he was very close, to church each Sunday, and he was baptized at the Perdido Baptist Church, where he says he was “the best student in Bible school.” As a young teenager, he would visit his maternal grandfather and “spend time deer hunting like good old boys.”
“My accuracy with the shot gun those days was not as good as my accuracy with the AK though,” he writes. “Let’s just say I missed my good share of deer.”
He was, he says, “the most popular guy in school,” a trusted member of the soccer team, and cruising at the top of his class with among the best grades. But his interests changed as he grew older – especially after a trip to Syria to visit his father’s family. He began to think of himself as a Muslim and turned away from what he increasingly saw as unIslamic activities: “the drugs, the girls, the friends, the TV."
“It would be around my tenth grade year that it started becoming clear that Omar is a Muslim and Muslims can’t do drugs or have girlfriends,” he writes, referring to himself in the third person. “It was an upward battle.”
He dropped out of university, moved to Canada where a friend helped him find a wife, a Somali refugee, and he took menial jobs including delivering milk to Toronto’s large Somali community. Eventually he left North America for Egypt, where he wanted to study.
September 11, he says, did not “radicalize” him. “I took things a bit more intellectually than that. But by the time the Iraq war started I could not find any way for us to say that it is anything less than obligatory to fight the Americans.”
Soon after arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, he met another American Muslim, Abu Muhammad al-Amriiki, born Daniel Maldonado, and the two began plotting to join the war raging in Somalia between Islamist forces and the weak Western-backed government.
After a fretful journey from Cairo to Dubai and then to Mogadishu, when he worried that he would be stopped as “a lone white man” on the flight, he eventually arrived in the Somali capital, only to be disappointed that “I did not see people that looked like Al Qaeda on every street corner”.
He eventually joined with young international fighters based in Kismayo, now Al Shabab’s stronghold in Somalia’s far south.
Boot camp, with beatings
There follows a long stretch of writing about his “torturous” training, which included performing push-ups on broken glass and long marches on empty stomachs being beaten by senior commanders – once between his legs.
“I became fatigued. I told him that he will pay the full blood money if I find out that I won’t be able to reproduce, but everyone thought it was funny, so the torture continued,” Hammami writes.
The book is a strange mixture of childish humor (he writes “ha ha” a lot to indicate something he found funny) and deadly serious description of his life with Al Shabab.
When he chose to go to the front-line during battles between the Islamists and Ethiopian troops in Somalia, there are more descriptions of sharing ambush sites with biting ants, being almost attacked by a snake, and hearing lions encircle his camp, than there are about the actual conflict.
Constant squabbles between Al Shabab commanders worry him. He is "irked" by vehicles breaking down, a lack of water rations and meager food. “Sometimes I found myself irking myself out, because I would inevitably remember a time [in America] when my pocket was full of change and I carelessly drove past an ice cream parlor, a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, a café, or even a convenience store without so much as stopping for a treat,” he says.
But his desire to oppose what he sees as unjust American battles against Islam remains strong, despite the hardships, he concludes. “It was only when I had become completely convinced that jihad is truly incumbent upon me as an individual that I took it upon myself to make that huge leap," he writes.
“I knew that I was going to become a fugitive for the rest of my life when I made that decision. I was well into the post-9/11 era. Someone seeking a thrill or a hippy's mid-summer’s night dream doesn't normally consciously burn his bridges like that.
“The real fear that the Americans feel when they see an American in Somalia talking about jihad, is not how skilful he is at sneaking back across the borders with nuclear weapons.
“The Americans fear that their cultural barrier has been broken and now jihad has become a normal career choice for any youthful American Muslim."
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