On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

So, what could possibly turn a nice Southern Baptist boy into a jihadi terrorist? That’s what the stunned residents of Daphne, Alabama, are asking themselves. 

Omar Hammami at age 15

On May 12, the local high school’s former sophomore class president, Omar Hammami,  proclaimed in an African summit meeting of Islamist extremists outside of Mogadishu, Somalia, that the death of Osama Bin Laden will not weaken the group’s plans against the United States, but rather it has strengthened the terrorists’ resolve.

In Somalia

“Hammami warned that al-Qaida’s war against the United States and its allies will continue and will not end until there is an Islamic victory,” reports Jim Kouri.

Hammami, who has taken to calling himself “Abu Mansur Al Ameriki,” is a leader of the al-Qaida splinter group al-Shabaab. The summit meeting was themed “We are all Osama” and held in Afgoye, a small town on the outskirts of the Somali capital.

After Hammami’s proclamation on the Arab TV channel al-Jazeera, Yemen’s rebel al-Qaida leader Nasir al-Wahishi echoed Hammami’s sentiments. In a statement posted on an Islamic web site, al-Wahishi wrote that “the torch of jihad is brighter after bin Laden’s death at the hands of infidels.”

Omar as a 13-year-old Southern Baptist summer camper

So, what happened to this teenager who regularly attended Baptist summer camp and was one of the most popular kids at his high school?

“On a warm, cloudy day in the fall of 1999, the town of Daphne, Alabama, stirred to life,” wrote Andrea Elliott in the New York Times in 2010. “The high-school band came pounding down Main Street, past the post office and the library and Christ the King Church.

“On a float bearing leaders of the student government, a giddy mop-haired kid tossed candy to the crowd. Omar Hammami had every right to flash his magnetic smile. He had just been elected president of his sophomore class. He was dating a luminous blonde, one of the most sought-after girls in school.

“For a 15-year-old, he had remarkable charisma. Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain-spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like ‘sugar’ and ‘darlin’.”

After joining the jihadis

Now 25 years old, Hammami grew up in the Mobile suburb. His mother teaches elementary school. She is a U.S. native still active in the church where she took Omar as he grew up. His father was a Syrian-born Muslim and a civil engineer at the Department of Transportation.

On Fridays, Omar occasionally went to the mosque with his father. On Sundays, Omar often attended church with his mother and sister. Debra told the kids to keep their church-going a secret from their father. The Hammami home remained culturally Muslim. Inscriptions from the Koran decorated the walls and pork was forbidden.

In school, Hammami was an outgoing boy who in an assignment described the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as “stupid.” He wrote, “I wish violence would vanish clear from the Earth.”

But at age 15, he visited Syria and told friends how his male cousins shared a “cohesiveness of brotherhood.” Back in Alabama, he gave up Friday night football games to attend the mosque more regularly with his dad. He began offering Muslim prayers in the school library.

In 2000, during his junior year, the subject in class turned to Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

“One boy suggested that Bin Laden should be shot dead,” reports Elliott.

“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.

Hammami today

In class, Hammami swore at a teacher because she was Jewish and tried to choke a student who interrupted him as he was reciting the Koran. His high grades allowed him to skip his senior year and enroll at the University of South Alabama. There he became president of the Muslim Student Association. When the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, local reporters called him for comment. He told them, “It’s difficult for me to believe a Muslim did this.”

He dropped out of college and set out to master Arabic. In 2005, he joined a Muslim community in Toronto, Ontario, and married a friend’s 19-year-old sister-in-law. 

“Through an Internet web site and bulletin board, Hammami met a fellow American jihadist, Daniel Maldonado, who had also left the U.S.,” writes Kouri. “Eventually the two men secretly made plans to become jihadis.”

In 2005, Hammami and his wife moved to Egypt. There, she gave birth to a daughter. Then, abruptly, “Without telling his family, Hammami traveled to Somalia where he joined al-Shabaab,” writes Kouri.

Speaking this week on al-Jazeera

In October 2007, he appeared on al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network. A scarf concealed half his face, as he began, in English, “Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia …” which at the time was occupied by Ethiopian troops.

In 2008, he took credit on al-Jazeera for an ambush on an Ethiopian convoy. An al-Shabab video in 2009 shows Hammami leading fighters and lecturing recruits. And now, he has shown up as a spokesman at the summit.

Back in Alabama, Debra Hammami is at a loss to explain what happened to her boy. She told a reporter that he is “in the wrong hands.”

His father “talks about his son the way a parent talks about a child lost to a cult,” writes Elliot. “Terrorism, he says, ‘goes against everything I taught him.’”

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