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The Jihadist Next Door

Left: From The Hammami Family

Left, Omar Hammami as a freshman in high school. Right, in a Shabab propaganda video released in March 2009.

Published: January 27, 2010

ON A WARM, cloudy day in the fall of 1999, the town of Daphne, Ala., stirred to life. The high-school band came pounding down Main Street, past the post office and the library and Christ the King Church. Trumpeters in gold-tasseled coats tipped their horns to the sky, heralding the arrival of teenage demigods. The star quarterback and his teammates came first in the parade, followed by the homecoming queen and her court. Behind them, on a float bearing leaders of the student government, a giddy mop-haired kid tossed candy to the crowd.

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An interactive timeline that includes home videos, family photos, journal entries and more.

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. He was a star in the gifted-student program, with visions of becoming a surgeon. For a 15-year-old, he had remarkable charisma.

Despite the name he acquired from his father, an immigrant from Syria, Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain-spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like “sugar” and “darlin’.” Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve. As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. “It felt cool just to be with him,” his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. “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 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.

More than 20 of those fighters have come from the United States, many of them young Somali-Americans from a gritty part of Minneapolis. But it is Hammami who has put a contemporary face on the Shabab’s medieval tactics. In a recent propaganda video viewed by thousands on YouTube, he is shown leading a platoon of gun-toting rebels as a soundtrack of jihadi rap plays in the background.

He is identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “the American,” and speaks to the camera with a cool, almost eerie confidence. “We’re waiting for the enemy to come,” Hammami whispers, a smile crossing his face. Later he vows, “We’re going to kill all of them.”

In the three years since Hammami made his way to Somalia, his ascent into the Shabab’s leadership has put him in a class of his own, according to United States law-enforcement and intelligence officials. While other American terror suspects have drawn greater publicity, Hammami exercises a more powerful role, commanding guerrilla forces in the field, organizing attacks and plotting strategy with Qaeda operatives, the officials said. He has also emerged as something of a jihadist icon, starring in a recruitment campaign that has helped draw hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia. “To have an American citizen that has risen to this kind of a rank in a terrorist organization ­— we have not seen that before,” a senior American law-enforcement official said earlier this month.

Not long ago, the threat of American-bred terrorists seemed a distant one. Law-enforcement officials theorized that Muslims in the United States — by comparison with many of their European counterparts — were upwardly mobile, socially integrated and therefore less susceptible to radicalization. Perhaps the greatest proof of this came with the absence of domestic terrorist attacks following 9/11, a period that has brought Europe devastating homegrown hits in Madrid and London.

America is now at a watershed. In the last year, at least two dozen men in the United States have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. They include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant driver in Denver who authorities say was conspiring to carry out a domestic attack; David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American from Chicago who is suspected of helping plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai; and the five young men from Virginia who, authorities say, sought training in Pakistan to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan.

These cases have sent intelligence analysts scurrying for answers. The American suspects come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, but they share much in common with Europe’s militants: they tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world. Others may see them as rigid or zealous, but they envision themselves as deeply principled, possessing what Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, calls “an altruism gone wildly wrong.” While their religious piety varies, they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America’s war against terrorism endures its ninth year.

The presence of Western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought those conflicts closer for many Muslims in America. Through satellite television and the Internet, the distance between here and there — between Fort Hood, Tex., and Yemen, between Daphne, Ala., and Somalia — has narrowed. For Omar Hammami, the war in Iraq provided a critical spark as he turned toward militancy.

In an e-mail message in December, Hammami responded to questions, submitted to him through an intermediary, about his personal evolution and political views. “We espouse the same creed and methodology of Al Qaeda,” he wrote. Of Osama bin Laden, he said, “All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands.” Did Hammami, like bin Laden, consider America a legitimate target for attack? “It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target,” he wrote.

OMAR HAMMAMI’S SISTER, Dena, is a petite 28-year-old woman with silky brown hair and a graceful manner. She lives with her husband and their baby daughter in an airy house overlooking a small American city, which she asked that I not identify for their protection. The walls are decorated with Dena’s whimsical paintings, which draw inspiration from Kandinsky. Wind chimes dangle over the front porch, by a sign that reads, “Hippies use side door.”

One morning in September, she was sitting in her kitchen when she opened her laptop, logged on to Facebook and saw a message that read, “Rolling farting leotard.” Her heart began to race.

Years earlier, Dena had put a note in her little brother’s school binder, trying to crack him up. She told him to picture a fat girl in a leotard, rolling across the floor and passing gas. It had become one of their many inside jokes. Now, she realized, it was her brother’s way of reaching out from Somalia, of saying, “It’s really me.” He had created a fictitious Facebook profile, listing his alma maters as Stanford and Harvard.

“Things are pretty good,” he wrote. He and his new Somali wife (“the wifey,” he called her) had a baby girl. “Sometimes marriage is up,” he wrote. “Sometimes it’s down. The lifestyle is not exactly normal for most.”

Hammami wouldn’t say where he was, but he urged Dena not to worry about him. He was prepared to meet death, he said. “I don’t do anything too dangerous except once every month or so,” he added. “It’s all in God’s hands.”

Hammami’s life in Somalia appears to be more precarious than he let on. He spends much of his time shuttling between villages in southern Somalia, where many of the Shabab’s camps are based, according to Somali intelligence officials. In addition to his role as a military tactician, they said, Hammami helps guide the Shabab’s recruitment strategy and management of money — exercising surprising power after landing in Somalia as a 22-year-old rookie. The Somali government is seeking increased American aid to fight the Shabab and may have reason to play up the threat of foreigners like Hammami. But they were adamant about his role. “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.”

When Hammami engages in combat, he makes an impression on other militants, said a former Shabab commander, Sheikh Mohamed Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Mohamed. “He doesn’t blink in the face of the enemy,” said Mohamed, who recalled four battles in 2008 and 2009 in which he and Hammami took part. In combat, Hammami used a sharpshooter’s rifle, firing calmly and with precision, said Mohamed, who spoke to me by telephone this month from a government compound in Mogadishu after defecting to the government’s side. Somali officials said they were keeping him there for his protection.

Until recently, the few visible images of American jihadis were of young men on the margins: John Walker Lindh, a Californian loner who wandered into Afghanistan to join the Taliban; or Adam Gadahn, now a Qaeda spokesman, who grew up home-schooled on a goat farm and channeled his teenage energies into death-metal music. If Omar Hammami followed his own compass, others followed him. Years later, more than one of his classmates compared him to the incongruous high-school hero of the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Hammami’s journey from a Bible Belt town in America to terrorist training camps in Somalia was pieced together from interviews with his parents, sister, best friends and law-enforcement officials, as well as hours of home videos and passages from his e-mail messages, journal entries and hundreds of his postings on an Internet forum. If anything has remained a constant in Hammami’s life, it is his striving for another place and purpose, which flickered in a poem he wrote when he was 12:

“My reality is a bore. I wish, I want, I need the wall to fall and the monster to let me pass, the leash to snap, the chains to break. . . .

“I’ve got a taste of glory, the ticket, but where is my train?”

DAPHNE SITS ALONG Alabama’s serene Mobile Bay, just north of the Gulf of Mexico. The town seems stopped in time. Colonial-style cottages and gazebos dot the bluffs. The wide, blacktopped streets are shaded by pecan trees and Southern maples. At dusk, the tide slaps the docks as fishermen loll, casting silhouettes against a golden sky.

Shafik Hammami was searching for a quiet American town when he left Syria in 1972. He was reared in Damascus, the oldest of nine children whose father ran an import-export business. Shafik wanted to study medicine and heard that small colleges in less-populated parts of the United States were best suited for immigrants, “so you don’t get lost in the shuffle,” he told me recently. By chance, a translator working in Damascus handed him a brochure for Faulkner State Community College in Bay Minette, not far from Daphne. He looked no farther.

At Faulkner, Shafik, then 20, stuck close to the handful of other Middle Eastern students, part of a wave of Arab immigrants who were ushered into the United States by looser immigration laws. With wavy black hair and halting English, he stood out in a place that was historically suspicious of outsiders. One evening, while driving through nearby Mobile, he came upon a group of men wearing white cones on their heads and asking for money, his first brush with the Ku Klux Klan.

But Alabama’s conservative Christian culture agreed with him. Most of the women he encountered didn’t drink or smoke. Those were the first things he liked about Debra Hadley, a perky high-school senior he met through friends. The daughter of a butcher, she had rosy cheeks and a fluttering laugh and rarely missed a Sunday service. Soon Debra and Shafik were engaged.

It did not violate Shafik’s Muslim faith to marry a Christian. Debra got her mother’s blessing after promising never to convert to Islam. They had a church wedding, followed by a Muslim ceremony in the reception hall. They each wondered if, eventually, the other might cede ground.

By the time Omar was born eight years later, his parents and sister had moved into a ranch house in Daphne, a town of 19,000 where cotton fields have given way to subdivisions with names like Plantation Hills. Shafik had become a civil engineer and was working at the Department of Transportation. Debra taught elementary school.

The first years of Omar’s life followed the cues of his mother’s Southern upbringing. Freckled and blond, he answered to Omie. He spent summer afternoons on his grandparents’ farm in nearby Perdido, shelling peas and eating watermelon on the porch. He lost himself in “Tom Sawyer.” His uncles taught him to hunt deer.

On Sundays, Omar, Dena and their mother settled into the wooden pews of Perdido Baptist Church, a tiny congregation whose preacher warned of hellfire and damnation. At first, Shafik had no idea. Debra told the kids to keep their churchgoing a secret. They also attended Bible camp in the summers (Omar won $10 for rattling off the names of all the books of the Old Testament). When he was 6, he voluntarily walked to the front of the church to be baptized. “I believed it; I wanted it,” he later told his friend Trey Gunter.

Shafik tried to teach his children Arabic and later Islam, but the lessons held little resonance. Syria remained a distant backdrop amid the Fourth of July fireworks, Halloween costumes and shrimp gumbo of their American youth. Omar had gone from calling his father Babba — Arabic for “father” — to Bubba. Still, the Hammami home remained culturally Muslim. They left their shoes at the door. Koranic inscriptions decorated the walls. Pork was forbidden. “It was like two different schools of thought under one roof,” Dena says. “Thunder and lightning.”

The children learned to adapt. So did their parents. In one of the family’s home videos, shot on Oct. 8, 1992, Shafik points the camera at a cake. “Today is Debra’s birthday,” he says in a Syrian accent that has acquired an Alabaman lilt. “We’re fixin’ to celebrate her birthday in a few minutes.” In the next shot, Debra stands by the cake, smiling brightly, as a Lebanese love ballad echoes through the house. Eight-year-old Omar licks frosting off the candles as his mother opens presents. She lifts a bottle of perfume to her nose.

“That’s worth getting old for, ain’t it?” Debra says with a laugh.

“I reckon,” Shafik answers from behind the camera.

A smirk crosses Omar’s face as he repeats, mockingly, “Ah reckin.”

That trademark smirk — the same one that would later appear in the Shabab’s propaganda — hinted early at Hammami’s delight in causing trouble. He was exceedingly smart but easily bored and short-tempered, once turning over his desk in second grade. His teachers tired of his endless questions. “He had a big mind in a small-minded place,” Dena says.

Hammami finally found a kindred soul in middle school. Kathleen Hirsch, his teacher in the gifted-student program, was a quirky Jewish woman who wore Ugg boots before they became popular and drove a bottle green Jaguar convertible. She turned her classroom into a salon, replacing the desks with sofas, brewing coffee and filling the shelves with Dylan Thomas and Gertrude Stein. She taught Hammami to “think outside of the box,” he later wrote.

He began to read voraciously, losing himself in “The Catcher in the Rye” and “1984” and even the dictionary. A natural debater, he was fiercely competitive, chiding himself for finishing second in a countywide speech contest. “He went over and over every minute detail, continually asking me what he had done wrong: How was his posture? Eye contact?” Hirsch, who taught Hammami for six years, recalled in a recent e-mail message. “He hated to lose.”

She found him introspective for his age; a seeker of weighty subjects. In a journal he kept at school, Hammami wrote: “I don’t believe war should exist. It doesn’t have a point.” In a later entry, on April 13, 1996, he described the Oklahoma bombing as “stupid,” adding, “I wish violence would vanish clear from the earth.”

LOOKING BACK ON their childhood, Dena remembers a pestering little brother who followed her like a shadow. She wore hemp necklaces and Birkenstocks and thought nothing of cutting class. Hammami, who idolized her, soon followed her lead, getting high on marijuana and mushrooms by eighth grade, friends recalled.

Shafik was always a strict father (he once washed out his son’s mouth with detergent, causing him to throw up). But as the kids entered adolescence, Shafik became consumed with trying to keep his daughter on what he saw as a respectable path. He forbade her from talking on the phone unsupervised. He ruled out prom and even insisted that she wear leggings during soccer practice to avoid exposing her legs.

Dena did her best to flout the rules, with her brother as her ready accomplice. He helped her trade phone calls with boys and sneak out of the house. She and Omar shared the intimacy of twins; each was the other’s witness to an upbringing that only they could understand.

Finally, when she turned 16, Dena decided she could no longer bear her father’s rules. She hugged her brother tightly as she left.

“Sorry I can’t take you with me,” she told him.

She moved in with a friend’s family and returned only years later, to visit. The episode forced Hammami, he later wrote, “to think for myself and make my own way.”

That fall, Hammami claimed his place as one of the more popular kids at Daphne High School. The jocks found him funny; the nerds, literary; the skateboarders, alluringly rebellious. Though he was short and rail thin, girls were drawn by his cocky bravado. He soon won over Lauren Stevenson, one of the most beautiful girls in school. “He could just command people with his energy,” she says.

Yet for all of his social triumph, Hammami was consumed with a profound internal conflict. He didn’t know whether to be Muslim or Christian. On rare trips to Damascus when they were little, Omar and Dena were warned by relatives that they would go to hell if they weren’t Muslim, Dena recalled. In Perdido, their mother’s family insisted that hell was reserved for non-Christians.

When he was 12, Hammami wrote in his journal, “Sometimes I get confused because the Bible says one thing and our textbooks and Darwin say another.” He had a hard time understanding how God could have a son. That same year, his father began urging him to study Islam.

Shafik had experienced his own religious renewal after drifting from his practice during college. There were no mosques in Daphne (the Chamber of Commerce lists 43 churches). But in nearby Mobile, the University of South Alabama had given rise to a small Muslim community of Palestinian, Pakistani and Egyptian professionals. By the time Omar was in high school, his father had become an active member of a growing mosque, the Islamic Society of Mobile, and helped found the area’s first Islamic school.

A trip to Damascus the summer before Hammami’s sophomore year would make a lasting impression on him. He loved the order of things: how his aunts waited on him, how his male cousins shared a “cohesiveness of brotherhood,” Stevenson, his high-school girlfriend, recalled. In photos of the trip, Hammami had traded in his khakis and polo shirts for a long cotton tunic and a prayer cap. A family video shows him bowing to Mecca in prayer one evening.

When he got back to Daphne, Hammami remained conflicted. One night before he went to sleep, he turned to God for guidance. “Slowly I started to incline toward Islam,” he later wrote to his sister, “and my heart became tranquil.”

But Hammami’s conversion was neither smooth nor straightforward. He was the president of his sophomore class. He treasured his Friday-night routine — the football game, the meal at Waffle House and the marathon session of GoldenEye on Nintendo. He would smoke a cigarette and then feel guilty. He was smitten with Stevenson yet stopped holding her hand. Soon Hammami began taking off on Fridays to attend his father’s mosque. He finally got permission to pray at school, kneeling opposite a cinder-block wall in the library as students stole wide-eyed glances.

NO ONE WAS more struck by Hammami’s transformation than his mother.

On a recent morning, Debra skipped about her sun-filled kitchen fixing a plate of grits. A chatty woman with lively brown eyes, she was well into her third cup of coffee. In the next room, an oak table was permanently set for dinner, a nod to her Southern upbringing. The cranberry walls of her tidy neo-Colonial were free of Christian relics and family photographs, in keeping with Muslim tradition.

Debra learned to walk a fine line when it came to religion. But Christianity remained the compass of her life. She called Shafik’s mosque “his church” and the Koran “his bible.” She wasn’t going to let her son defect without a fight. “Where are the verses about love in your bible?” she prodded him. They “argued and argued and argued,” she recalled. “Then he said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”

Like his mother, Hammami was stubborn. When he became convinced of something, he turned to convincing others. At Daphne High, he managed to persuade a handful of students, including his girlfriend, to explore Islam — a striking development at a school where Christian teenagers routinely gathered at the flagpole for prayer.

“He would say, ‘So if Jesus is God, who does he pray to?’ ” recalled his friend Bernie Culveyhouse. “And if you said, ‘God,’ he’d say, ‘Doesn’t that make Jesus a narcissist?’ ”

Culveyhouse soon converted. Stevenson decided it was not for her, and Hammami broke it off. His other friendships were already strained when, one afternoon in 2000, the subject in class turned to Osama bin Laden. Then a relatively obscure terrorist, bin Laden had claimed responsibility for the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. One boy in the class 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, a Christian, recalled saying. “Osama bin Laden is a terrorist.”

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Hammami replied.

By his junior year, Hammami had become a spectacle. He made a point of praying by the flagpole outside school yet refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, friends recalled. In class, he swore at Hirsch, his longtime teacher, assailing her for being Jewish. That spring, in another class, Hammami tried to choke a student who interrupted him as he was reciting the Koran, students recalled. Hammami was promptly suspended. With high grades and an A.C.T. score in the 93rd percentile, he skipped his senior year and enrolled at the University of South Alabama. There, he no longer prayed alone. He could walk to the mosque from campus, and he soon took over as president of the fledgling Muslim Student Association.

Soon after, the hijackers struck on 9/11, and local reporters began calling Hammami for comment. Publicly, he struck a measured tone, telling the school paper, “It’s difficult to believe a Muslim could have done this.” But he was caught off guard by the attacks and felt insufficiently knowledgeable about Islam, friends recalled. He set out to deepen his study and soon fell under the influence of Tony Salvatore Sylvester, a 35-year-old convert and preacher who was new in town.

Sylvester wore a thin blond beard and was missing his two front teeth. Brought up Catholic in the rural town of Doylestown, Pa., he found Islam in his early 20s while working as a jazz-fusion guitarist in Philadelphia. He had come to Mobile with his wife and six children, hoping to land a job at the Islamic school. By then, he was considered a prominent voice in the American Salafi movement.

SALAF, IN ARABIC, means “ancestors.” Followers of the movement, who are sometimes likened to Calvinist Protestants, advocate a strict return to the fundamentals of Islam. To purge their practice of modern influences, they try to emulate the founders of the faith — the contemporaries of the Prophet Muhammad and the two generations that came after his death in A.D. 632. Young Salafis, for example, often dress in sandals and robes like those thought to have been worn in seventh-century Arabia.

The Salafist interpretation of Islamic doctrine tends to be literal and originalist. “They remind me a lot of Scalia in their approach to texts,” says Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University. The movement is most prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and Jordan but has also won adherents in the West among second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants who are seeking a more authentic Islam than that of their assimilative parents.

In the United States, the trend can be traced to a handful of Middle Eastern scholars who began preaching in the 1980s, gaining a small but vocal following in places like Arlington, Tex., and Syracuse, N.Y. Their teachings spread among prison converts and found footholds in Philadelphia and Detroit, where in the 1990s Tony Sylvester managed what was then the headquarters of a leading Salafi organization, the Quran and Sunnah Society.

Several of Sylvester’s students said in interviews that he subscribed to a nonviolent school, one that represented the majority of American Salafis. They tend to believe that Muslims should remain politically disengaged and take up arms only when called to duty in a Muslim-governed country; anything else represents rebellion against the government, which violates Islamic law.

But the Salafi movement also has its share of revolutionaries — the so-called Salafi jihadis (including Osama bin Laden), who argue that rebellion is permissible. Some members of Sylvester’s original circle broke with the group over the issue of rebellion, including Ali Al-Timimi, who was convicted in 2005 on terrorism-related charges in what is sometimes known as the Virginia paintball case.

Hammami plunged headlong into Salafism, mastering its nuances and lexicon. The movement gave him a new sense of brotherhood and discipline. But it was, above all, “an excuse to disobey his father,” recalls Joseph Stewart, a Muslim convert who became close to Hammami.

Shafik Hammami was by then the president of the Mobile mosque. In many ways, he embodied the Muslim-American mainstream. He held a comfortable job and wore a suit and tie to work. His son, meanwhile, began striding around campus in a scarlet red turban and a thobe, the ankle-length gown used by gulf Arabs. He spent his free time with a group of white Salafi converts whom immigrant Muslims at the mosque dismissed as “the Dixies.” The circle included Stewart, a burly 29-year-old who had started a carpet-cleaning business, and Bernie Culveyhouse, Omar’s friend from Daphne High.

A towering, lanky boy with sky blue eyes, Culveyhouse met Hammami playing basketball in fourth grade. He was brought up by a single mother who drank heavily and fashioned herself a “Harley honey,” disappearing into the night dressed head to toe in black leather. By the time Culveyhouse came to Islam, he was fighting marijuana and Ecstasy habits and failing out of school.

Everyone in the group took a new name. Culveyhouse chose Suhayb. Stewart called himself Yusuf. Hammami sometimes went by Abu Hafs, one of the venerated companions of the prophet. They distanced themselves from the mosque, meeting weekly with Sylvester to parse theology and questions of moral conduct.

Hammami soon began denouncing the militant Islamists he once defended. He came to believe that Muslims were suffering because they had lost their religion, Culveyhouse and Stewart recall. The solution, Hammami now argued, was not to take up arms but to engage in a spiritual jihad, practicing the faith with greater devotion. He and his friends ordered their lives around a strict code: they could not look at women, listen to music, be photographed or sleep with their backsides facing Mecca.

No one in the group was more dogmatic than Hammami. He insisted on eating with his bare right hand, as the prophet had, and wearing his pants above the ankle, a popular look among Salafis. Shafik found some of his son’s new convictions theologically debatable. The conflict between them, which had been simmering for some time, blew open when Omar refused to pose for a family photograph in April 2002. Shafik ordered him to move out.

In a town where 9/11 had prompted a thick canopy of American flags, Omar devoted himself to da’wah, the practice of spreading the Islamic faith. His style was to provoke inquiry. He strolled through Wal-Mart and Arby’s in his robe, hoping to attract questions from strangers. He drove a red Honda Civic with a sign on the back that read: “As Muslims we believe in one God. We don’t worship rocks, trees or men.”

More often than not, he and his fellow converts were met with disbelief.

“Everybody looked at us as if we were Satan,” Culveyhouse recalls.

One afternoon, a group of young men in a pickup truck approached Hammami and Culveyhouse near a pier south of Daphne, where they sometimes read the Koran.

“This is the stick I have for boys who wear dresses,” one of the men warned them, waving a miniature baseball bat.

In a flash, Hammami reached into his car and grabbed the broken-off handle of a wooden shovel, Culveyhouse recalls.

“And this is the stick I have for faggots,” he shot back.

Throughout his religious transformation, Hammami kept much of his former self intact. Some nights, he and Culveyhouse darted around the mosque in their robes, sparring with invisible light sabers in homage to “Star Wars.” He continued to run red lights and rack up speeding tickets, refusing to rise for a judge in traffic court.

Above all, he remained close to his sister, Dena, who was dating a dreadlocked Deadhead (she later married him barefoot, wearing a crown of daisies). When Dena and Omar spent time together — he in his tunic, she in her “Jesus sandals” — they seemed blind to their differences, reverting to their sibling code of inside jokes and silly songs. “I wanted to keep how we always were,” she says.

But aside from his sister and mother, Hammami had nothing to do with women. Much of the time, he and his friends were tormented by sexual frustrations, two of them recall. Hammami would stare at a woman on the street and then chastise himself for hours, Stewart says. He surfed Islamic Internet forums in search of a wife. His father promised to help him marry a Syrian woman provided that Hammami completed his degree in computer studies. But in December 2002, he dropped out of college, 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. Their boss, an ex-Marine, tolerated their odd look (they tucked their pants into their socks), but he was frustrated by their demands: they refused to touch alcohol, pork, Christmas cards and even dolls. The boss finally assigned them to the women’s clothing section.

“I looked at Omar and said, ‘Man, we can’t do anything in life, can we?’ ” Culveyhouse recalls. They quit that day. Soon after, Culveyhouse left for the bustling Muslim crossroads of Toronto, where he had found a wife. The following year, Hammami joined him, hoping to do the same.

HAMMAMI FOUND TORONTO — with its labyrinth of mosques, Islamic bookstores and halal grocers — enthralling. He took an apartment near Culveyhouse in the western part of the city and found a job delivering milk to Somali housewives. 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.

For years, Hammami had tuned out current events, dismissing politics as dunya — a worldly distraction from his Islamic practice. 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.

“What’s going on?” Hammami said.

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.

“Once you’ve made that step, it’s a gateway,” Culveyhouse says. “Once you’ve legitimized the jihad in Chechnya, you’re compelled to legitimize the jihad in other places as well.”

Back then, Hammami and Culveyhouse talked about jihad in the way that star football players at Daphne High School dreamed about the N.F.L. The idea remained romantic and hypothetical. Hammami assured friends, for instance, that he would go to Syria to fight if the United States ever invaded.

But action required the right set of circumstances. Hammami remained unimpressed by most of the militant Islamist groups he studied: he still disapproved of how Al Qaeda attacked civilians, and he saw the insurgency in Iraq as too secular, Culveyhouse said. Only a “pure jihad” ­— one that was carried out in defense of Muslim land with the purpose of creating an Islamic state — met Hammami’s standard.

Besides, Hammami had more pressing matters at hand. He was desperate to marry. Culveyhouse arranged an introduction to his Somali sister-in-law, Sadiyo Mohamed Abdille. A tall, wisecracking 19-year-old who wore skinny jeans and played basketball, Sadiyo grew up in Toronto with Culveyhouse’s wife, Ayan, after their family fled Somalia’s internecine violence. Hammami found her amusing and eager to learn more about Islam, Ayan recalled. Within a matter of weeks, he persuaded her to socialize with only women and to wear the abaya, a cloaklike garment. In March 2005, just two months after their first meeting, they married in a small, spartan ceremony.

With limited prospects in Toronto, Hammami and Culveyhouse talked quixotically of making hijra — migration — to a Muslim land. Culveyhouse proposed Egypt, where they could study Islam at the revered Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In September, Hammami and his pregnant wife boarded an airplane with Culveyhouse’s family, including his formerly Harley-riding mother, who had also converted to Islam.

The two families settled in Alexandria, Egypt, which they found disappointingly secular. When the applications to Al-Azhar fell through, Culveyhouse and his family returned to the United States. “I didn’t want to continue down this fool’s path,” he says. Hammami felt betrayed, Culveyhouse recalls, and they drifted apart.

Alone with his young wife and newborn daughter, Hammami seemed overwhelmed, Dena recalls. He found freelance work translating Islamic texts into English but had trouble supporting his family. In the December e-mail message, he wrote that he was yearning to live in a country “where Shariah was being implemented completely.”

In April 2006, Hammami joined an online discussion forum called Islamic Networking. Using the alias “al-Mizzi,” a relative recalls, Hammami began communicating with the administrator of the forum, an American convert who also happened to live in Egypt. The convert, Daniel Maldonado, was a 27-year-old from New Hampshire who moved there with his wife and children the previous year.

Hammami and Maldonado soon met in person, relatives recall, and began venturing into poor neighborhoods to attend underground mosques. That summer, Hammami wrote to two Muslim friends, saying he had met “a pious brother” and was planning “a trip.” He seemed to be communicating in code.

“Our family members to the south need doctors,” he told the friends, who described the exchanges only on the condition of anonymity.

When Hammami discussed Chechnya with them years earlier, “doctor” was their word for “those who make jihad,” one friend says. By the “south,” Hammami seemed to be referring to Somalia; he had been sending them news articles about the remarkable events unfolding there.

A BOOMERANG-SHAPED country on the Horn of Africa, Somalia had been consumed by a catastrophic civil war since 1991. What was not destroyed by famine and drought was plundered by warlords and pirates. Amid the chaos, an Islamist movement gave rise to an insurgency that took control of Mogadishu in June 2006. The insurgents — known as the Islamic Courts Union — promised a new unity under the banner of Islam and brought an unfamiliar peace to the streets of the capital.

Officials in Washington found the developments troubling. The group’s military wing — the Shabab, which means “youth” in Arabic — was said to be sheltering foreign Al Qaeda operatives. They were calling for a jihad against neighboring Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian country and longtime enemy. Ethiopian troops gathered at the border, threatening an invasion with backing from the United States. News of the conflict quickly spread in jihadist chat rooms, as bin Laden called upon Muslims to join in Somalia’s fight.

From Egypt, Hammami followed the events closely. He was convinced that “jihad had become an obligation upon me,” he wrote in his December e-mail message. He wanted to help his “captive brothers and sisters” while helping himself “obtain the highest rank available” as a Muslim. (Jihadists believe that the greatest rewards in the afterlife are granted to them.) On their Internet forum, Hammami and Maldonado made impassioned pleas for action without directly referring to Somalia.

“Where is the desire to do something amazing?” Hammami wrote on Aug. 7, 2006. “Where is the urge to get up and change yourself — not to mention the world and other issues further off?”

“Stop sticking to the earth,” he continued, “and let your soul fly!”

Secretly, Maldonado and Hammami began planning to leave for Somalia, according to a written statement Maldonado later provided to U.S. investigators. On the morning of Nov. 6, Hammami woke his mother, who was visiting from Alabama, and kissed her on the cheek. He told her that he was going to Dubai for a few days to look for a job. “I love you,” he said.

Several days later, he called his apartment in Alexandria and told his wife, Sadiyo, that he was in fact in Somalia. Sadiyo, who agreed to answer my questions through her sister Ayan, found the story odd. Hammami told her that he traveled to Somalia because he wanted to meet her relatives. Indeed he was staying with Sadiyo’s grandmother in Mogadishu. Yet he seemed in no rush to leave. In other phone calls, he told Sadiyo and his parents that he was stranded because someone stole his passport.

Shafik and Debra scrambled to help their son, contacting the F.B.I. in Mobile, a local congressman and the State Department. They were told nothing could be done because the United States did not have diplomatic relations with Somalia. They tried to arrange for Hammami to cross the border, into Kenya or Djibouti, where a new passport could be issued.

Soon after, thousands of Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and swiftly gained control of Mogadishu. Leaders of the Islamic Courts Union fled the country, while their military wing, the Shabab, retreated to the south and mounted a new rebellion aimed at driving the Ethiopians out. Without a word to his family, Hammami vanished. It is not clear who connected him to the Shabab, but in the December e-mail message, he wrote, “I made it my goal to find those guys should I make it to Somalia,” adding that he “signed up for training.” Meanwhile, his friend Maldonado, who had also enlisted with the Shabab, was picked up by a multinational counterterrorism team along the Somalia-Kenya border. He has since been convicted in the United States for receiving training from a foreign terrorist organization and is serving a 10-year sentence.

Over the next few months, Mogadishu descended into a hellish war zone. That May, Hammami suddenly reappeared at the grandmother’s apartment, asking for a phone number to reach his wife, who had moved back to Toronto. Over the phone, Hammami told Sadiyo that he was still trying to leave Somalia, Ayan said. A month later, he called with a different story. He wanted his wife and daughter to join him.

“He was saying: ‘It’s so wonderful. There’s going to be an Islamic state,’ ” Ayan recalled Sadiyo telling her. “He was making it this utopia of happiness.”

THE PROMISE OF an Islamic state, and by extension a caliphate, or Islamic world order, has long been the anthem of the global jihadist movement. It is central to the ideology of Al Qaeda, which has allied itself with smaller militant groups as its financing and core leadership have come under assault.

Al Qaeda offers these groups a powerful brand; the groups offer Al Qaeda an expanded platform. Yet the exact nature and significance of Al Qaeda’s connection to the Shabab remain unclear. The majority of the Shabab’s fighters are Somalis, many of whom were drawn to the movement by nationalist fervor (including some of the first Somali-American recruits). A smaller contingent of foreign fighters — young men like Hammami — joined as part of the global jihad. Rookie recruits from the United States and Europe would seem to offer little but cannon fodder to their battle-hardened Somali counterparts. But Westerners bring the Shabab prestige and possible financing from abroad. They also bring their passports — with which they could conceivably return to cities like Sydney, New York or London to carry out attacks.

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, he told Dena in e-mail messages and phone calls. He started reaching out to her the following summer, after his wife in Toronto asked for a divorce. He never disclosed what he was doing, but he seemed to have little power: he had to ask permission to make phone calls, he told Dena.

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. “He has that charisma,” says an American law-enforcement official. Hammami came to be seen as an asset by two Qaeda-linked militants, the official said: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.

Mohammed, who is also known as Haroun Fazul, is believed to be Al Qaeda’s longtime chief in East Africa. A native of the Comoros Islands off Mozambique, he is accused of organizing the 1998 bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left more than 200 dead. He also is wanted for the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel and the unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter jet in Mombasa, Kenya. Nabhan, a Kenyan of Yemeni descent, was also suspected in both attacks. He was killed in Somalia last September in a daylight raid by a helicopter-borne team of American Special Operations troops.

In October 2007 — less than a year after Hammami landed in Somalia — he made his public debut as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he stared confidently into the camera, a thin, green scarf concealing half of his face. “Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia,” he began in English. “After 15 years of chaos and oppressive rule by the American-backed warlords, your brothers stood up and established peace and justice in this land.”

Over the next two years, Hammami’s stature in the Shabab continued to rise as the group launched suicide attacks and ruled in fear. Where its rebels held sway, they carried out public floggings, amputations and beheadings in the name of Shariah, alienating many. Hammami gave no indication that he was troubled by such punishments. “Human rights,” he said in an audio recording released by the Shabab last July, is “the Western form of democracy which cannot be reconciled with Islam.”

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.

The Shabab continued to lose support after Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia last January, and a new president — Sheik Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the Islamist insurgency — began paving the way for a democratic Islamic state. Around that time, Hammami called Dena with a stunning announcement. “In the next video, I’m going to show my face,” he said. “It makes more of a statement if my face is uncovered.”

The 31-minute video, released by the Shabab last March, is a veritable homage to Hammami. He is shown running in slow motion, a line of fighters behind him, as a jihadist rap song plays in the background. He reads to them from the Koran, moving in and out of Arabic while stroking his beard. He then lectures them in English, with what struck his old friend Bernie Culveyhouse as an “E.S.L. accent.”

“The only reason we’re staying here,” Hammami tells the recruits, “away from our families, away from the cities, away from — you know — ice, candy bars, all these other things, is because we’re waiting to meet with the enemy.”

BACK IN DAPHNE, Debra Hammami stared at the video in shock.

She had long known that her son was “in the wrong hands.” Since Shafik first went to the F.B.I. in 2006, he had spent countless hours answering their questions.

But it was something else to see Omar on her laptop. She studied his face, replaying the same images again and again, trying to decode his mental and physical state. His cheeks were gaunt; his eyes, glassy. “He looks like a homeless person,” said Debra, whose husband first spotted the video while searching a Somali Web site for news of his son.

Emotions in the Hammami house had run like a fickle stream, from anger to grief to dread. Shafik talked about his son the way a parent talks about a child lost to a cult. Terrorism, he says, “goes against everything I taught him.”

Bernie Culveyhouse was also at a loss. He said he could understand the logic of defending Muslim land from invaders. But it was beyond him how Hammami had come to align himself with a group that attacks civilians and supports Al Qaeda. Both he and Joseph Stewart remained Muslim but not Salafi. They had “grown up,” as they put it. They were back in school, pursuing professional degrees. Like the Hammamis, they kept quiet about the F.B.I.’s investigation, but they assumed it was only a matter of time before the case became public.

The new Shabab video generated a burst of public speculation about the identity of the mysterious American. Hammami’s high-school girlfriend, Lauren Stevenson, caught a glimpse of the video on the news in April and instantly recognized him, watching aghast. He seemed like a shell of the guy who took her to homecoming, a boutonniere pinned to his lapel. “When you look in his eyes, it’s just dead,” she says.

The story finally broke on Sept. 4, with Fox News reporting that Hammami had been charged with terrorism offenses in a sealed federal indictment. Reporters descended on the Hammamis’ home and Shafik’s mosque. The local newspaper swiftly identified Shafik as a government employee. “Waterboard him!” one reader demanded on the paper’s Web site.

Shafik and Debra did their best to keep a low profile. One afternoon in October, they sat opposite each other in their living room, picking at a silver tray of dates and baklava. Their two religions, the ocean between them, had offered the same salve: the belief in God’s preordained plan. “You take solace in knowing that it’s in God’s hands,” said Shafik, sunken in his armchair, as Debra nodded. “And there is nothing you could have done to change it.”

DENA SEES OMAR in her dreams.

“Sometimes he is emaciated and about to die,” she said one recent afternoon, as her 19-month-old daughter toddled about the house. “Sometimes he is coming back to hang out with me.”

The last three years have also been something of a surreal dream. Dena has come to expect the sudden rap of F.B.I. agents at her door. She suspects that her phone is tapped. She is used to feeling exposed and, at the same time, walled off. “The fact that my brother is a terrorist — it’s not something you can talk to anyone about,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, “you can either accept him or disown him. Those are the choices.” Dena chose to stay in touch, as much as she abhors violence. She found news accounts of the Shabab deeply disturbing. On Oct. 27, 2008, Shabab militiamen dragged Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a 13-year-old rape victim accused of adultery, into a stadium filled with spectators and stoned her to death, according to Amnesty International.

Sometimes months would pass with no word from Hammami. When he reached out through Facebook in early September, he told Dena that he hoped his infamy would prompt people to ask, “How did this guy become that?”

“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”

Dena tried to temper her reply.

“I think it’s admirable to stand up for what you believe in, but it gets hairy when you affect the lives of others,” she wrote.

Hammami responded that he understood how strange it might seem to “fight for beliefs,” especially as he had once been a liberal (under the influence, he wrote, of the teacher he still referred to as “Mrs. Hirsch”). But he had come to the realization that “we don’t live in a utopian society.”

“When I came here I saw that firsthand,” he wrote. “There are villages that live in a constant state of war between rival tribes. There are roads that people cannot pass except with fear of being robbed or raped.”

He and his fellow fighters, he wrote, are helping those people. “Regardless of what the media says,” he added, “we do not kill innocents.”

Throughout the exchange, Hammami seemed to slide back and forth between the boy from Daphne and the jihadi propagandist. He asked his sister for news about his grandmother in Perdido (“Maw Maw,” he called her) and signed off “later tater” and “I love you.”

They soon lost contact again. These days, his family and friends wonder what will become of him.

“There is no out,” Dena said. “He’s in too deep.”

On Dec. 3, a suicide bomber disguised as a woman blew himself up at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu, killing nearly two dozen people, including three Somali government officials. Somali and American authorities said the attack was carried out by the Shabab. That same month, Hammami seemed more taken by his cause than ever. “I have become a Somali you could say,” he wrote in the December e-mail message. “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!”

Andrea Elliott is a reporter for The New York Times. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a series of articles about an imam in Brooklyn.

Abdi Aynte contributed reporting to this story from Washington D.C.

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