An American jihadi, in his own words


American Omar Hammami, known as Al Amriki, is fighting in Somalia with the radical Islamic group, Al Shabaab. Here Somali women in a demonstration by Al Shabaab rebels on July 5, 2010. The demonstrators were carrying placards written with slogans against the African Union peacekeeping force.


Abdurashid Abikar

NAIROBI, Kenya — Something bizarre and unexpected appeared on the internet late on Wednesday: the autobiography of Omar Hammami, a 28-year old from Alabama perhaps better known as Abu Mansour Al-Amriki, one of the top commanders of the Somalia Islamist group Al Shabaab. The last time he was heard from publicly was a March video on YouTube in which he says his life "may be endangered" by his comrades.

And now this.

The 127-page document is just part-1 taking us through Hammami's family history, upbringing and schooling in Alabama, his (re)discovery of Islam, growing extremism and his travel to join al-Shabaab in Somalia.

It's a strange read, and faintly embarrassing, like paging through a teenager's diary.

There's a great deal of self-aggrandising commentary on how popular and witty he was at school. For example, he writes: "By eighth grade I think I was the most popular guy in school (that could be a big headed statement but I think it is backed by truth) … The main reason was that I was a funny guy.”

There are also a disconcerting number of jokey "Ha ha" and comedy exclamation marks scattered throughout the text. Here's a section about leaving the US for Egypt:

"The airport security had dogs and some swat team looking police or something like that at the gate when we boarded the plane. I became nervous and waited for my sister-in-law to come with her baby so they could see that we were not trying to do something. They asked me: Where are you going? I said: Egypt. They said: What are you going to do there? I said: Tou... (I wanted to say tourism but I was afraid my tongue would slip and say terrorism so I said:) to...to... visit the pyramids. They said: Cool, and let me board."

This passage about his sister's marriage to a non-Muslim is also typical: "Her husband, though extremely hilarious at times, is a pseudo-intellectual pot-head who makes dumb remarks about Islam when he gets drunk (Sorry Michael), but I have hope that they might both become Muslim one day."

As his remarks upon reaching Somalia for the first time: "The only thing that bothered me was that I did not see people that looked like [al-Qaeda] on every street corner."

There is also plenty of serious stuff about his family and how his Muslim awakening threw up barriers, about which he seems by beats sad and nostalgic before resorting to the strength of his newfound beliefs. Of his maternal grandfather, to whom he was close, Hammami writes:

"I saw him on his deathbed having cigarettes put in his mouth for him. He looked at me and told me that he loved me. As far as a human is concerned I used to really love the man. But as a Muslim I can only say that he lived and died upon a very bad form of sin and disbelief.”

While excavating his family background (a mix of Syrian Muslim and Irish Christian) he writes a peculiar mix of levity and threat: "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.”

The portrait painted by the autobiography is of a confused, arrogant but sensitive young man who struggles to find his place in US society, struggles to find a job and a wife, argues with his family and finds solace and meaning in increasingly radical forms of Islam which in turn distances him from friends and relatives.

It comes over as a bizarre piece of naive tragi-comedy, except that it seems also to be true (much of the narrative conforms to the two best and most comprehensive pieces of journalism on Hammami by Andrea Elliott in the New York Times Magazine and by Christof Putzel of Current TV.

Putzel has, in recent weeks, been contacted by Hammami who is it seems now eager to tell his story.