The Jihadist Next Door
January 31, 2010 6:55 AM   Subscribe

"I hear bullets, I dodge mortars, I hear nasheeds" — Islamic songs — "and play soccer. Sometimes I live in the bush with camels, sometimes I live the five-star life. Sometimes I walk for miles in the terrible heat with no water, sometimes I ride in extremely slick cars. Sometimes I’m chased by the enemy, sometimes I chase him! I have hatred, I have love," he went on. "It’s the best life on earth!"
How did a popular kid from a small town in Alabama wind up connected to Al Qaeda? The Jihadist Next Door [SLNYT]
posted by billysumday (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
So when do we get a Jihadist version of this stuff?
posted by Anything at 6:59 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

He's like Jake Sully, living the dream!

Though I won't be worried until he rides a sandworm.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:13 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm starting to regret the blockquote I pulled from the article. It's an interesting addendum to the article in full but it's not an accurate representation of the life this kid is living in Somalia. The truth is that Hammami is a leading figure in the Shabab:

Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

And later in the article:

By the summer of 2008, Hammami was leading military strikes in the field — including a deadly ambush on Ethiopian troops that the Shabab captured on the video now popular on YouTube, American law-enforcement officials say. Among the fighters in the ambush were several of the Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, officials said, including Shirwa Ahmed, an aloof 26-year-old college dropout. Three months after the ambush, on Oct. 28, Ahmed blew himself up in northern Somalia, becoming the first known American suicide bomber. Senior American and Somali intelligence officials say that Hammami helped organize that attack — along with four others the same day that together left more than 20 dead.
posted by billysumday at 7:20 AM on January 31, 2010

Very interesting article. Thanks for posting.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:32 AM on January 31, 2010

Good post.
posted by humannaire at 7:34 AM on January 31, 2010

I'm impressed with the depth of the NYT investigation.

Timeline with photos and video.

Eric Hoffer's study of fanaticism and mass movements, The True Believer, suggests that mass movements often appeal to people who feel frustrated and marginalized. That seems like a good match with Omar Hammami's case:
... in December 2002, he dropped out of college [the University of South Alabama, where he had been studying computer science], saying that he could no longer bear to be in the company of women.

Over the next few years, Hammami, Culveyhouse and the other Mobile Salafis traveled around the country attending Islamic conferences. With Sylvester, they opened a small Muslim bookstore in Mobile, opposite a storage lot. Hammami worked to master Arabic and talked of becoming an Islamic scholar. In the meantime, he had to earn a living, and few jobs meshed with his piety. He loaded trucks, cleaned carpets and sold light bulbs.

For a time, Hammami and Culveyhouse took inventory at Wal-Mart....
At this point he was a pacifist, though. He became radicalized in Toronto, with help from the Internet:
Living in Canada, Hammami began to see his country through a new lens. The war in Iraq was deeply unpopular at the mosques and coffee shops he frequented. Being an American invited a stream of questions and commentary for which Hammami felt unprepared, Culveyhouse recalled. ...

One afternoon in April, he and Culveyhouse dropped by an Islamic bookstore. The owner, an Afghan, told them to “pray for the people of Fallujah.” Months earlier, the U.S. military had invaded the Iraqi city, an insurgency stronghold, for the second time....

Over the next few months, Hammami became consumed with events in Iraq and Afghanistan. He began subscribing to conspiracy theories about 9/11, Dena and Culveyhouse recall. He soon found himself rethinking his nonmilitant Salafi stance.

“I was finding it difficult to reconcile between having Americans attacking my brothers, at home and abroad, while I was supposed to remain completely neutral, without getting involved,” he wrote in the December e-mail message responding to questions posed to him through an intermediary.

Hammami concluded that his Salafi mentors had been “hiding many parts of the religion that have a direct relationship to jihad and politics,” he wrote. He began searching for guidance on the Internet, Culveyhouse says, discovering a documentary about the life of Amir Khattab, a legendary jihadist who fought in Chechnya. The documentary traces Khattab’s evolution as a promising Saudi student who gave up a life that “any young man would desire” to embrace a higher purpose. Hammami was mesmerized, Culveyhouse recalls.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, counter-terrorism officials in the Clinton Administration, wrote in The Next Attack that the war in Iraq was like throwing gasoline on a fire, confirming the jihadist world-view that the US is warring against Muslim countries for their oil.
posted by russilwvong at 7:37 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eric Hoffer's study of fanaticism and mass movements, The True Believer, suggests that mass movements often appeal to people who feel frustrated and marginalized. That seems like a good match with Omar Hammami's case:

I don't know about that. In Omar's case here, he wasn't exactly marginalized. He was admired and accepted by everyone around him. By the time we get to what you quoted above, he had been searching for something for quite some time. And what he was searching for was greatness, for glory. He aspired to greatness, and it looks to me like he just thought this would be his best path. It feels righteous, it appears to him and many others as glorious, and most importantly - he's good at it.
posted by molecicco at 8:11 AM on January 31, 2010

billysumday, I think the quote you chose is the right one. It shows that despite this kid's evident brilliance and perverted courage, he's enacting a stunted fantasy rooted in fundamentalist consumerism; reading the article I was reminded of Alex Garland's The Beach, particularly these lines:

Of course witnessing poverty was the first to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure stuff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with with a truly obsessive zeal, along with being tear-gassed and hearing gunshots fired in anger. Another list item was having a brush with my own death.

posted by generalist at 8:11 AM on January 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ah, it's Psychopath Sunday. My first thought as I started the article was, well young psychopaths need a place to go.

Misread his secret note to his sister as "Rolling farting leopard", which sounded like a Cute Overload/Fark mashup.

Enjoyed the article, interesting and disturbing. Thanks for the post.
posted by nickyskye at 8:19 AM on January 31, 2010

I'm impressed with the depth of the NYT investigation: Timeline with photos and video.

Read this the other day but missed the extra material. Interesting stuff there.
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:42 AM on January 31, 2010

Heresy is easy for one who's never seen true belief.
posted by koeselitz at 10:25 AM on January 31, 2010


they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America’s war against terrorism endures its ninth year.

For Omar Hammami, the war in Iraq provided a critical spark as he turned toward militancy.

So basically, he was more deeply affected by the war in Iraq than many of us because he saw it as "his people", felt obligated to do something, and "something" turned out to be horribly misguided. Doesn't matter, though, because looking for causes like that is for pussy liberals and obviously this kid just hates 'Murica because moo-slimes are all bad seeds.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:26 AM on January 31, 2010

I mean, imagine being a Muslim teenage boy in America. Besides your natural Holden Caulfield tendencies to assume that everyone giving you any kind of message is a phony, you're also getting bombarded with messages that your people are capital-E Evil, your people are going to be nuked into glass by God's righteous Blackwater soldiers or whatever, the religion of your fathers is Satanic, etc. etc. Is it that surprising that he went this way? Fuck, I was pretty hardcore anti-America when I was a teenager, and I was just a privileged white boy who listened to a lot of crust punk.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:32 AM on January 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

And if you might counter that "he should see Americans as his people", I've never been to Italy, but I still refer to myself as "Italian" because there are a lot of vowels in my name and that's where my family came from. Ethnic tribalism isn't as strong as when you had "Italian neighborhoods" and "Polish neighborhoods" etc. and never the twain shall meet, but it still exists, especially for people with physical ethnic identifiers like dark skin.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:36 AM on January 31, 2010

DecemberBoy, I, for one, think it is surprising that he went this way. Through a co-ed soccer team I play on, I've gotten to know several Muslim Somali young men in their late teens and early 20s. They live in the shittiest part of the city, and certainly have encountered anti-islamic and anti-immigrant bias, but for the most part, the people they meet on a day to day basis don't give a crap about their religion, and overall, they love living in the United States. The economic and educational opportunities are far better here than in their home country (not to mention the lack of armed conflict), and in general, Americans are perceived as more tolerant to Islamic people than Europeans.
posted by emd3737 at 11:53 AM on January 31, 2010


Not to mention that articles such as these will reinforce the idea that any teenage muslim boy "could become a terrorist". In your small town backdoor!
posted by titboy at 11:58 AM on January 31, 2010

Note: he isn't/wasn't actually a "Muslim teenage boy", that was inaccurate, he was raised Southern Baptist by his mother. However, that doesn't much matter: he's dark-skinned with an Arab name in Alabama. Actually, that even makes more sense. I once knew a guy who found out his real father was Puerto Rican, and next week he's spouting Pachuco slang. It's probably the same kind of thing with this kid: all teenage boys are looking for an identity, and he latched on to one.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:18 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

For a good time, check out the Wikipedia edit war on Wahhabi vs Salafi
posted by jcruelty at 12:40 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Goddamn, why couldn't he just wear baggy clothing, pretend to be black gangsta and rebel against society by committing petty crimes and misdemeanors like the rest of us privileged motherfuckers?

At least you weren't a lame bitch to powerful interests and geopolitics.
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 3:24 PM on January 31, 2010

So, I don't actually think this is true, but isn't this exactly what a deep cover agent inside an Islamist terror organization would look like? Someone who grew up in the U.S., had ties to the Muslim community, converted, but opposed violence and then eventually appeared to go off the deep end into extremism. How would we ever know he wasn't on our side (unless the government told us after he was dead/retired). They'd have to create wanted posters/call him dangerous, etc.
posted by Jahaza at 6:04 PM on January 31, 2010

Note: he isn't/wasn't actually a "Muslim teenage boy", that was inaccurate, he was raised Southern Baptist by his mother.

In the article, you'll find that he was baptized in a Christian Church when he was six and converted to Islam as a teen. After converting to Islam as a teen he was indeed a "Muslim teenage boy".
posted by Jahaza at 6:18 PM on January 31, 2010

In the article, you'll find that he was baptized in a Christian Church when he was six and converted to Islam as a teen. After converting to Islam as a teen he was indeed a "Muslim teenage boy".

He wasn't culturally Muslim, though, it wasn't something he was brought up in, it's something he chose. I assumed the opposite.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:35 PM on January 31, 2010

The article says clearly that they had a culturally muslim home, he visited Syria a few times, learned Arabic from his father and his father was a leader in the small muslim community. I got the feeling from the article that there was a hell of a lot that they were leaving out. The parents relationship, the mother secretly took the kids to church, the father was controlling of his sister to the extent that she left at 16 saying to Omar, "I wish I could take you with me." It almost sounds like, just as the sister rebelled by playing hippie, Omar rebelled from his authoritarian father by saying, I'll be a way better muslim than you. The thing that bothers me the most is that shit eating grin while his group cuts off hands and stones rape victims. Does he really have that much of a disconnect? This article sould have been three times longer.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 5:56 AM on February 1, 2010

Anyone point to the YT videos referenced in the article?
posted by jckll at 1:29 PM on February 1, 2010

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