Al-Shabaab Loses its American Face

September 11, 2013

Last week, after months of speculation and dubious reports about his fate, Omar Hammami – the American commander and erstwhile media face of al-Shabaab – left the jihadist group.  In an interview with the Voice of America’s Somali Service, Hammami claimed to have severed ties with al-Shabaab’s leadership and renounced his affiliation to al-Qaeda.  There have long been reports of ruptures between Hammami and other al-Shabaab figures, and this is not the first public report of his withdrawal from the group.  Many of those reports were later proven false.  But growing tensions with the group’s emir seem to have prompted this dramatic action.  Hammami appeared to confirm via Twitter that the interview was legitimate and that this latest news of his formal departure is indeed accurate.

Hammami’s rise through the ranks of al-Shabaab began when he traveled to Somalia in late 2006. This was effectively the final step in a progressive radicalization that began years earlier in his hometown of Daphne, Alabama (Hammami’s road to radicalization and to Somalia is discussed in detail in a 2010 New York Times biographical article).  His ascent up al-Shabaab’s command chain was rapid: less than a year after he arrived in Somalia, Hammami represented the group in an interview with al-Jazeera.  He was subsequently featured as an operational commander, purportedly leading a 2008 ambush targeting Ethiopian and Somali soldiers, from which al-Shabaab derived considerable propaganda value by recording it and publishing it online.

Hammami’s command position, however, was not a function of any innate mastery of military strategy.  Nor did he possess any extraordinary technical skill or tactical expertise.  His greatest asset, and the source of his rapid elevation within al-Shabaab’s leadership hierarchy, was his native English language proficiency and Arabic fluency.

That his language skills were of paramount importance is evidenced by the fact that Hammami demonstrated little desire to learn the language of his newly adopted homeland, despite living in Somalia for years, fighting alongside Somali militants, and marrying Somali wives.  In April 2010, speaking on behalf of al-Shabaab at a fair organized for the children of fighters who had been killed in battle, Hammami began by apologizing that he would address the crowd in Arabic because he did not speak Somali.  At the time, he had been in the country for three and a half years.

Hammami’s language skills would make him the mouthpiece with which al-Shabaab would communicate with the world during a period in which it sought to announce its presence both widely and loudly.

Indeed, Hammami joined al-Shabaab at a transformative stage, both for the group and for militant Islamism in Somalia more broadly.  Al-Shabaab was seeking to assert its independent identity amid a split with the Islamic Courts Union, and was starting down a path of adopting an increasingly internationalist worldview in the years to come.  By 2011, nearly every one of al-Shabaab’s 200-plus media releases disseminated online was produced in either Arabic or English.  Its use of Arabic was part of an ambitious drive to transform the nature of Somali society into one with which the group’s ideology would be a better fit.  Al-Shabaab members have destroyed billboards not written in Arabic, and in 2010 declared Arabic to be the official language to be used in schools in areas under the group’s control.  But English was the language in which al-Shabaab would speak to the world.  Hammami, fluent and articulate, would be key to that effort.

So then, what does Hammami’s departure mean for the group?  In the near term, his severing of ties will not have a major impact.  He only assumed the role of an operational commander in an effort to bolster his image and thus his credibility when he acted in his primary capacity – as a public face for al-Shabaab.  Furthermore, there is little evidence that he had developed an internal base of support among al-Shabaab’s members, either Somali or foreign fighters.  After his VOA interview, Hammami reiterated that, despite his disavowal of both al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, he is “still a terrorist.”  But without any independent following among the group’s grassroots, his commitment to jihadism will likely leave him, as Clint Watts suggests, a “terrorist army of one.”

There is a chance that Hammami’s formal defection will leave the group vulnerable to intelligence collection, but the likelihood of his recruitment by an intelligence service – be it that of America, Kenya, Ethiopia, or any other – is extremely low.  In the interview, Hammami ruled out the possibility of any communication with governments.  Still, with his formal withdrawal from the group, al-Shabaab’s leaders will lose any of the control they still maintained over his public statements.  Hammami is his own brand.  He is adept at generating publicity for himself, both locally and internationally.  There is little doubt that he will remain vocal, and any statement he makes could potentially provide crucial pieces of information that could aid in operations against al-Shabaab.

Hammami’s decision to leave al-Shabaab is similarly unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the quality or frequency of al-Shabaab media releases.  Simply put, the group has significantly greater organizational depth now than it did in 2006, when Hammami joined.  The group’s latest English-language videos, such as 2011’s “The Burundian Bloodbath” feature a new voice, that of a native English speaker with a British accent.  When Hammami joined al-Shabaab, he was one of the few options with which the group could communicate globally in English.  Now, that is simply not the case.

Perhaps the most significant implication of Hammami’s announcement is that it validates claims that al-Shabaab’s central leadership is beset by significant factionalism.  Anecdotal reports over the past two years have indicated a growing rift between Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, the group’s emir, and Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Dahir Aweys, two other senior figures.  The former allegedly seeks to pursue a more global form of jihad, while the latter two are believed to favor an emphasis on establishing an Islamic state in Somalia.  As the most prominent of al-Shabaab’s non-Somali foreign fighters, it would seem natural for Hammami to ally himself with Abu Zubeyr.  But Hammami claims the emir tried to have him killed several months ago.  He has called Abu Zubeyr a madman bent on “starting a civil war.”  So while Hammami’s withdrawal from the group does add further credence to reports of growing rifts within al-Shabaab’s leadership circles, the particular scorn he holds for Abu Zubeyr highlights the fact that understanding the relationships and power dynamics within the organization is both of fundamental importance to countering any threat posed by the group and, equally, an immensely difficult challenge.

Hammami’s separation from al-Shabaab does not mean the group poses either more or less of a threat to regional stability and international security.  Perhaps his talkative habits might open opportunities to make further assessments and, potentially, target recalcitrant leaders.  But for now, the level of threat posed by the group remains the same.  The threats just won’t be conveyed in Hammami’s voice any longer.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.