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From Boy-Next-Door To Terrorist

What made a popular Alabama teenager join an Islamic holy war against the United States?

By Andrea Elliott

On a warm fall day in 1999, the high school band marched down Main Street in Daphne, Alabama. The football team came first in the parade, followed by the homecoming queen. Behind them, on the student-government float, Omar Hammami tossed candy to the crowd.

The son of a Southern Baptist mother from Alabama and a Muslim father from Syria, Omar had just been elected president of the sophomore class. He was dating one of the most popular girls in school, and his classmates found him smart, funny, and rebellious. He dreamed of becoming a surgeon. At 15, he already had remarkable charisma.

"It felt cool just to be with him," recalls Trey Gunter, a friend from high school. "You knew he was going to be a leader."

A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the east coast of Africa, he has become a key figure in a ruthless Islamist insurgency in Somalia known as the Shabab. The rebel group is notorious for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves, and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the Shabab has turned Somalia into a destination for jihadis, or Islamic holy warriors.

In a recent propaganda video on YouTube, Hammami is identified as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, "the American."

"We're waiting for the enemy to come," he whispers, a smile crossing his face. "We're going to kill all of them."

Over the past year, at least two dozen men in the U.S. have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. But Hammami's position of leadership puts him in a class of his own: U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials say he commands guerrilla forces and plans strategy with Al Qaeda operatives.

"To have an American citizen that has risen to this kind of a rank in a terrorist organization'we have not seen that before," says a senior American law-enforcement official.

In a December 2009 e-mail message, Hammami responded to questions (submitted through an intermediary) about his views. Of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda's founder, he said, "All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands." Did Hammami consider America a legitimate target for attack? "It's quite obvious that I believe America is a target," he wrote.

Journey to Jihad

A few months earlier, Hammami had contacted his sister, 28-year-old Dena, through Facebook. He told her he was prepared to meet death, adding, "It's all in God's hands."

Omar Hammami's transformation from popular "boy next door" to jihadist began in Daphne, a town of 19,000 about 13 miles from Mobile, Alabama, with Colonial-style cottages and wide, tree-shaded streets.

His father, Shafik Hammami, was looking for a quiet American town when he left Syria for the U.S. in 1972, hoping to study medicine. He enrolled in a community college not far from Daphne. Alabama's conservative Christian culture agreed with him. Most of the women didn't drink or smoke, and those were the first things he liked about Debra Hadley. Soon she and Shafik were engaged. They had a church wedding, followed by a Muslim ceremony in the reception hall.

By the time Omar was born in 1984, his parents and sister had moved to Daphne. Shafik was a civil engineer working at the Department of Transportation; Debra taught elementary school.

On Sundays, Omar attended the Baptist church with his mother and sister. Debra told the kids to keep their churchgoing a secret from their father, and the Hammami home remained culturally Muslim: Inscriptions from the Koran decorated the walls, and pork was forbidden.

In school, Hammami was bright but easily bored. One teacher remembers him as being interested in weighty subjects. He devoured J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and George Orwell's 1984. In a journal he kept at school, he described the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, as "stupid," adding, "I wish violence would vanish clear from the Earth."

But Hammami was increasingly conflicted over whether to be Muslim or Christian. When he was 15, a visit with family in Damascus, Syria's capital, made a lasting impression. He loved how his male cousins shared a "cohesiveness of brotherhood," and he wore Muslim garb during his visit.

Back in Daphne, Hammami gave up Friday night football games to attend his father's mosque in nearby Mobile. He stopped holding hands with his girlfriend and drew stares when he prayed in the school library.

In 2000, during Hammami's junior year, the subject in class turned to Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. One boy suggested that Bin Laden should be shot dead.

"What if I said that about Billy Graham?" Hammami demanded.

"Billy Graham is a peaceable preacher," the boy said. "Osama bin Laden is a terrorist."

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," Hammami replied.

That year, Hammami began acting out: He swore at a teacher because she was Jewish and tried to choke a student who interrupted him as he was reciting the Koran. Hammami was suspended. But his high grades allowed him to skip his senior year and enroll at the University of South Alabama in Mobile in 2001.

A computer-science major, Hammami became president of the Muslim Student Association. When the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, local reporters called him for comment. He told them, "It's difficult for me to believe a Muslim did this."

But Hammami, caught off guard, felt he didn't know enough about Islam. Seeking deeper knowledge, he joined a fundamentalist group. His father, who was president of his mosque in Mobile, disapproved. In many ways, Shafik Hammami embodied the Muslim-American mainstream: He held a comfortable job and wore a suit and tie to work. Meanwhile, his son was striding around campus in ankle-length robes and observing a strict Islamic code: He wouldn't look at women, listen to music, or be photographed. When Hammami refused to pose for a family photo in April 2002, his father ordered him to move out.

To Canada and Egypt

Later that year, Hammami dropped out of college and set out to master Arabic. In 2005, he left to live in the Muslim community in Toronto, Ontario, where a fellow convert from Alabama had settled with a Somali wife. Hammami soon married his friend's 19-year-old sister-in-law.

Living in Canada gave Hammami a different view of the U.S. The war in Iraq, which began in 2003, was deeply unpopular in the mosques and coffee houses he frequented. He became consumed with events in Iraq and Afghanistan and began rethinking his previously non-militant stance.

Hammami, who dreamed of living in a Muslim country, decided to move to Egypt. He and his pregnant wife settled in Alexandria, but he found it too secular. He longed to live in a country where Shariah, Islamic law, was being implemented.

In April 2006, he joined an online forum called Islamic Networking. Before long, he was telling friends that he was planning "a trip." He seemed to be communicating in code: "Our family members to the south need doctors," he wrote.

"Doctor" was a code word for jihadis, one friend says. By "the south," Hammami seemed to be referring to Somalia.

Somalia had been consumed by civil war since 1991.* What was not destroyed by famine and drought was plundered by warlords and pirates. An Islamist movement took control of Mogadishu, the capital, in June 2006. The insurgents, known as the Islamic Courts Union, promised unity under Islam.

Officials in Washington found this troubling. The group's military wing, the Shabab, was said to be sheltering foreign Al Qaeda operatives. They were calling for a jihad against neighboring Ethiopia, a longtime enemy. Ethiopian troops gathered at the border, threatening to invade. Osama bin Laden called upon Muslims to join in Somalia's fight, and Hammami left for Somalia in November 2006.

Soon after, thousands of Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and gained control of Mogadishu. The Shabab retreated south and tried to drive the Ethiopians out.

Hammami soon caught the attention of his superiors: He was articulate, computer savvy, and fluent in Arabic. "He has that charisma," says an American law-enforcement official.

In October 2007, Hammami made his debut on Al Jazeera, a 24-hour Arabic-language news network based in Qatar. A scarf concealed half his face, as he began, in English, "Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia. . . ."

In 2008, Hammami led a deadly ambush on Ethiopian troops. Senior intelligence officials say that he helped organize that attack. "This guy is dangerous," says Abdullahi Mohamed Ali, the Somali Minister of National Security. "He's a threat to the region. I want him to be eliminated."

In early 2009, Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia and the new President, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, began paving the way for a democratic Islamic state. The U.S. recently sent 40 tons of weapons to Somalia to help support the fragile government.

A half-hour Shabab video released in March 2009 shows Hammami leading fighters, as jihadist rap plays in the background. He reads from the Koran and lectures recruits.

'Against Everything I Taught Him'

Back in Alabama, Debra Hammami stared at the video in shock. She'd already known that her son was "in the wrong hands." But it was something else to see Omar on her laptop. His face was gaunt; his eyes, glassy.

Shafik Hammami talks about his son the way a parent talks about a child lost to a cult. Terrorism, he says, "goes against everything I taught him."

In September, Fox News reported that Hammami had been charged with terrorism offenses in a sealed federal indictment. His wife has moved back to Canada and asked for a divorce; his family and friends wonder what will become of him. "There is no out," his sister says. "He's in too deep."

Indeed, in his December e-mail message, Hammami seemed more taken by his cause than ever: "I have hatred, I have love," he wrote. "It's the best life on Earth!"

*Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991. President George H.W. Bush sent 28,000 U.S. troops to Somalia in 1992 to help with humanitarian relief. In October 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed when Somali militiamen shot down two military helicopters. (The incident was dramatized in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.) The U.S. pulled out of Somalia the following year.

Click here to view an interactive timeline of Omar Hammami's journey from a Bible Belt town in America to the terrorist training camps of Somalia.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 19, 2010)