NAIROBI, Kenya — He's been one of Al Shabaab's chief propagandists and a poster-boy for the group's foreign fighters but now it seems American-born Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour Al-Amriki, thinks his comrades want to kill him.
Various reports on Monday said Hammami was arrested close to the port town of Merka and was taken into al-Shabaab custody, the arrest followed the issuing of this YouTube video posted at the weekend Al-Amriki, bearded and sitting in front of black flag and AK47, speaks briefly in English saying: "I record this message today because I feel my life may be endangered by Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahadeen due to some differences that occurred between us regarding matters of Shariah and matters of strategy." He offers no further explanation.
According to a comprehensive investigation by the New York Times Magazine, Hammami, 27, was born in Alabama to a Syrian immigrant father and native Alabaman mother. He was brought up a Christian but later converted to Islam becoming more radical after the September 11th attacks. He went to Somalia to join Al Shabaab in 2006.
"When Hammami joined the Shabab in late 2006, he had no known military training. Like other foreign fighters, he quickly fell ill, probably with malaria ... But over time, Hammami caught the attention of his superiors. He brought an unusual skill set: he was articulate, computer savvy, well organized and fluent in Arabic," wrote journalist Andrea Elliott.
His videos include "Ambush at Bardale" released in March 2009 which featured his signature clunky rapping over footage of Al Shabaab fighters — apparently led by Hammami — launching an ambush on Ethiopian soldiers. "Month by month, year by year, keeping them kafirs livin’ in fear ... Mortar by mortar, shell by shell; only gonna stop when I send them to hell,” he raps.
Hammami rose to the top of Al Shabaab and appeared at rallies alongside senior Somali commanders and leaders. He is the only foreigner to hold such a public position in Al Shabaab and is a far cry from the Western-raised young aspirant jihadis, mostly of Somali origin, who have been attracted to join Al Shabaab in recent years.
It is unclear what drove Hammami to issue his video but analysts, including the International Crisis Group, have pointed to long-standing divisions between Al Shabaab commanders with a primarily nationalist agenda and those who strive for a more global jihad. Hammami sits firmly in the latter category and that
could make him a target for the nationalist fighters.
Some argue that with Al Shabaab under pressure on three fronts and facing US drone strikes assassinating foreigners from above Hammami might be looking for a way out.
In any case Hammami's video will be a blow to Al Shabaab which recently formalized its allegiance to Al Qaeda and actively seeks to attract foreign jihadis to its cause.
Al Shabaab sources have expressed surprise at Hammami's statement. On its Twitter feed the Al Shabaab press office wrote: "[Al Shabaab] is surprised by the video of Abu Mansoor #AlAmriki that surfaced on the internet recently claiming that his life is ‘endangered by HSM’. Adding soon afterwards: "We assure our Muslim brothers that #AlAmriki is not endangered by the Mujahideen & our brother still enjoys all the privileges of brotherhood."
Another Al Shabaab statement published by the Al-Kataib Foundation for Media Production which produces Al Shabaab's slick propaganda videos of battles, speeches and rallies said it too was "surprised" by Hammami's statement and said an investigation was underway but until then "everything that came in the statement is absolutely incorrect, and the life of the brother is not threatened by Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen."
There has been no further comment from Hammami.