October 3, 2011

Omar Hammami: Making an American “Terrorist”


Last March, as African Union troops arduously expanded their front line across of Mogadishu, sources within Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) suspected that they caught a big fish. Except a body couldn’t be ID’d. Omar Shafik Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, soon surfaced to issue crude raps taunting the TFG and the Pentagon. He then found himself on the end of a Predator attack in July; no raps or confirmation have been released since.

U.S. analysts and pundits generally mock Hammami’s lyrical abilities, an easy out from the larger issues at work.

As a Western face with enough charisma to gravitate a trickle of American-Somalis back to their native land, Hammami’s bravado is for tailored for the Internet. Perhaps he fears death, but the Anwar al-Awlaki of al-Shabaab appears sincere in his willingness to “martyr” himself in battle. After trending into a studious and devout Muslim during his years at an Alabama high school, the errants ways of U.S. foreign policy soon preoccupied his attention after 9/11. Jumping from Toronto to Cairo in June 2005, Hammami absorbed himself in Egypt before succumbing to the allure of Somalia, where the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was beginning to consolidate its authority over the TFG and various warlords.

A major battle between the ICU’s militia and Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), a warlord coalition, resulted in the ICU’s relative capture of Mogadishu. A Sharia court was announced in October 2006, creating a de facto Islamic state and attracting Somalia’s diaspora back to their country. Hammami landed in Mogadishu in November 2006 for what would be a short-lived celebration. Fearful of an Islamist government, domestic and foreign powers with mutual interests drove the ICU out of Mogadishu after occupying the capital in late December.

Hammami would soon join al-Shabaab and later appeared in October 2007 report by an Al Jazeera video, posing as a masked “military instructor.” His family, friends and others who had passed through his life all stumbled to the same question: how did he become a “terrorist?”

The many journalists that have profiled Hammami and his infamy recount a similar story. A popular, outgoing kid growing up in Daphne, Alabama, Hammami went “rogue” after 10th grade when he began to fully embrace his Islamic roots (his father was Syrian), and grew increasingly inspired by militant leaders waging war against those perceived as anti-Muslim (U.S., Israel, Russia). Whether by coincidence or design, Current TV replayed American Jihadi on the night that the U.S.-born Anwar al-Awalki met his end in Khasaf, Yemen. Released in 2010, the documentary is even more jarring in light of al-Awlaki’s death, which has been hailed as a “significant milestone” in America’s war against al-Qaeda.

In al-Awlaki’s case, Americans generally have little recognition of how deep their government is involved in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s murderous regime. Hammami’s life story follows a similar track.

Unlike the many media reports that skip over a formative events, or those who claim the opposite, American Jihadi examines how Hammami came under ridicule for praying at his high school. His increasingly public Islamization began to outcast him, reinforcing his belief in Islam and losing respect for his previous lifestyle. Hammami is now widely vilified as an Islamic extremist, someone who twisted Islam’s peaceful message into death and mayhem, but at least part of his world view grew out of an intolerant high school setting, a frequent minority story.

Instead some commentators speculated on his “mental health issues.” It’s true that only a fraction of the inspired graduate to violent acts, so peer pressure alone is insufficient to explain Hammami’s pursuit of jihad. However social isolation (and political marginalization) partially explains how a “terrorist” is made - how America's social pressures are often suppressed until they explode.

A second way to make a terrorist also taps into basic psychology. For decades governments have slandered guerrillas, insurgents and revolutionaries with every slime they can think of: thug, bandit, outlaw, menace and the all-encompassing terrorist. While the insurgent is often more bandit than revolutionary, governments also commit enough terror to supply their entire populations. Hammami found himself caught in this rhetorical battle, one man’s freedom fighter and another man’s terrorist.

Hammami didn’t take long to veer into terrorist territory as al-Shabaab grew increasingly brutal in its policing of Sharia law, and its wanton killing of innocents. The group’s modest popularity would slowly erode to bare minimum levels, sustained by Somalia’s unforgiving economic conditions and a survivalist ideology. Yet Hammami didn’t begin life in Somalia as a full-fledged terrorist either, and still claims to avoid civilian targets. Driven to Somalia by Islam and to war by U.S.-supported Ethiopian troops, Hammami reacted to the Middle East and Africa’s concrete injustices. Ethiopian troops were already making incursions into the Somalia, part of long-standing tensions between the two countries, when he arrived in Mogadishu.

The friction caused ICU elements and popular protesters to threaten jihad on Ethiopia, which completed the negative cycle by invading to “prevent jihad.” Less than two months later a despised Ethiopian army seize control of Mogadishu, forcing the ICU to restart its campaign from the south. A global jihadist call summoned some 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, many of them Somali, to the ICU’s ranks.

Hammami was first indicted in the Southern District of Alabama on December 13th, 2007 for terrorism violations. Although various figures in al-Shabaab, the largest militia under ICU leadership, maintained links with al-Qaeda since the 1990s, the group wasn’t listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization until February 28, 2008. Hammami was preemptively targeted because he mentioned support for al-Qaeda in his October debut, and a 2009 superseding indictment accused him of providing material support to “terrorists” from 2006 onward. At this time he had yet to assume “an operational role in that organization,” in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Maybe Hammami shouldn’t have involved himself in someone else’s war, but he was instantly classified as a terrorist because he chose the wrong side.

Right or wrong (mostly wrong), al-Shabaab eventually forced Ethiopian troops out of Somalia after all sides (mostly the civilian population) suffered countless losses. al-Shabaab’s disapproval must be detached from an equally unpopular Ethiopia’s invasion, universally perceived with hostility, and a suspect TFG. Aside from propaganda against the West - “It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target” - Hammami has concentrated his attacks on Ethiopian troops and the AU mission that would replace them. During this time Washington supported Ethiopia’s unpopular invasion and funded the warlord syndicate ARPCT, a strategy that still failed to reverse al-Shabaab’s expansion. U.S. and Western officials also allegedly encouraged Nairobi to remain in Somalia longer than it desired, fearing a “power vacuum.”

The past five years of U.S. policy in Somalia obviously build on decades of expedient decisions, decisions that America as a whole has never paid for. While Hammami was immediately branded as a threat and a terrorist, no one held U.S. policymakers accountable for the terror they enabled through anti-Islamic proxies, or through supporting an unpopular dictator. Ethiopian troops retreated in 2009 without penalty from the international community, leaving Somalis for dead in the same vacuum Washington had feared in 2007.

U.S. generals and policymakers believe they can eliminate people like Hammami and al-Awlaki by killing them and their recruits faster than they can multiple. The FBI, in particular, has been keeping a close eye on al-Shabaab's moves, including dozens of Somalis recruited out of the hotspot that is Minneapolis. Earlier in the year Rep. Peter T. King of New York urged the Muslim-American community to speak out against extremism, then wondered why relatively few clerics are willing to do so. “Not enough leaders in the Muslim community are willing to face up” because U.S. leaders are equally unwilling to confront the counterproductive effects of U.S. foreign policy in Muslim countries.

So long as America’s military goes where it shouldn’t, those opposed to U.S. hegemony will continue to rally. America’s strategy against al-Qaeda is largely directly outward, forgoing the introspection needed to win the ideological war.

The U.S. government wants to kill Hammami because he, like al-Awlaki, has charisma and functions as an English-speaking face to Western recruits. He called out President Barack Obama after his Cairo speech, which would disappoint the majority of his Muslim audience, and confidently pressed ahead after Osama bin laden’s death. Hammami is the product of a time when most Americans had tuned out of the Middle East’s injustices, before 9/11 shattered their world and sucked them in again. He was then branded a terrorist after he joined the fight against Ethiopia’s invasion. This thinking falls in line with the U.S. strategy to label all insurgencies as terrorist organizations, outlawing resistance against occupation.

The Haqqanis, for instance, focus on killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan and for this reason are labeled terrorists, not for killing innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. al-Awlaki made repeated calls for global jihad against America, but look at U.S. policy in his home country: Washington has sustained an unpopular dictator to pursue AQAP and maintain a military foothold, necessitating the suppression of Yemen’s revolution. When Obama claimed that AQAP had killed many innocent Yemenis, he left out how many Yemenis were sacrificed to eliminate al-Awlaki. Meanwhile in Libya, suspected al-Qaeda elements were brought into the opposition’s fold on the assumption that Western influence would follow.

Ally with America, however insincere, and you can become a freedom fighter - the ICU’s former president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, now heads the U.S. and Ethiopian-backed TFG. Fight against America, on the other hand, and you are automatically a terrorist. An extension of politics, as Clauswitz concluded.

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