The stories behind the story – US jihadist in Somalia finally kicked out of al Shabaab ranks
This just in: The al Qaeda-linked Somali jihadist group, al Shabaab, has officially sacked US-born militant, Omar Hammami, also called Abu Mansour al Amriki – or “the American”.
In a written statement released Monday, al Shabaab declared that, “Abu Mansour al-Amriki does not, in any way, shape or form, represent the views” of the group.
The message – titled “A Candid Clarification” – was posted on the media-savvy al Shabaab’sTwitter feed [@HSMPress] in Arabic and English.
What can I say? He had it coming, he only had himself to blame.
Since 9/11, there have been a fair number of news reports, studies, books, films – even the odd farce – on the sort of misfits in Western societies who get attracted to the jihadist cause.
But what about misfits who quit the country of their birth – only to become misfits in jihadist misfit-istan?
‘Childish petulance’ in the ‘narcissistic pursuit of fame’
This one has been brewing over the past year, as al Shabaab has steadily lost ground to an African Union (AU) interventionist force in Somalia.
In late September, months after the capital of Mogadishu fell from al Shabaab control, the jihadist group withdrew from the southern port of Kismayu, their last major urban stronghold, in a retreat that signaled their demise as a quasi-conventional military force.
The troubles between al Amriki and al Shabaab have been playing out very publicly on jihadist media circles since both parties are tirelessly self-promoting, jihadist content-creating machines.
The first sign of trouble came in March, when al Amriki released a video statement disclosing that his life was under threat from fellow al Shabaab fighters due to “differences that occurred between us regarding matters of the sharia and matters of strategy.”
Shortly after that clip was released, I wrote a blog wondering if this was a sign of dissent in al Shabaab ranks. More likely, I surmised, it was merely an indication of just how insufferable the Alabama native, born to a Muslim father and Christian mother, was to live with, much less fight with.
Turned out I was right. In their latest statement, the “press office” of the “Harakat al-Shabaab al Mujahideen” (that’s the official al Shabaab name) accused al Amriki of “childish petulance” and that “the alleged frictions and the video releases are merely the results of personal grievances that stem purely from a narcissistic pursuit of fame and are far removed from the reality on the ground”.
Phew – tough crowd!
Al Shabaab’s Comedy Central-worthy Twitter war
Al Amriki apparently released a second video clip – in October – moaning about his fate. According to the latest al Shabaab statement, the timing of these releases – and this is interesting – were calculated to “cultivate the seeds of disunity” at a time when the group was “most likely to be under pressure from their enemies”.
Now that is indeed a candid acknowledgment of the group’s sinking fortunes.
The March video clip, according to al Shabaab, came just as AU forces were preparing to launch military operations in the southern Somali Lower Shabelle region. The October clip came as Kenyan forces invaded Kismayu.
Now that’s a bit rich, if you ask me. Al Shabaab has been under siege ever since Kenyan troops launched a military operation in Somalia in October 2011 – not long after, as some of you may remember, the cancer-stricken, wheelchair-bound Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu was kidnapped from her beach hut in the Kenyan island of Lamu.
The launch of that operation sparked a media war – played out on Twitter – between al Shabaab and a Kenyan Defence Forces press officer that’s worthy of a segment on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
In the early days of the operation, the al Shabaab “press office” waged a battle of words against then Kenyan military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir that often had some of us journalists in stitches.
In one post, Major Chirchir [@MajorEChirchir] threatened to bomb concentrations of donkeys that might be moving weapons for the insurgents.
Al Shabaab promptly responded: “Your eccentric battle strategy has got animal rights groups quite concerned, Major.”
My favorite though was a response to one of Major Chirchir’s claims that Kenyans were blasting their way through al Shabaab terrain. “Your boys are a grotesque parody of an army!” scoffed al Shabaab. “They can outpace ur world-class runners by far. Indeed, they ‘Run like a Kenyan’”.
Kenya orders Somali refugees back to cramped camps
In the end, it was al Shabaab militants that did the running. But although the group has lost control of its former southern Somali stronghold, they still manage the odd attacks in the newly bustling capital of Mogadishu.
Last week, the group claimed responsibility on its Twitter account for a suicide car bombing on Mogadishu’s Maka al-Mukaram road.
In characteristic Twitter bluster, al Shabaab claimed all sorts of things – that it targeted AU troops, damaged a military convoy, killed a “top US counterterrorism official” – a jihadist dream-come-true scenario.
But the reality is a lot less grandiose – and a lot sadder.
The three victims of the latest suicide bombing in Mogadishu were the suicide bomber himself and two civilian bystanders.
Somali civilians have borne the brunt of al Shabaab’s hubris – from its military assaults to its non-existent agricultural policies that led afamine in 2011, which killed tens of thousands in the once-fertile southern Somali Shabelle region – formerly called “the breadbasket of Somalia”.
The truly insidious effect of all this media bluster is not just that some folk believe it, but that some exploit it to worsen the plight of ordinary Somalis.
A day after al Shabaab announced that it had kicked al Amriki from their ranks, the Kenyan government announced that “all asylum-seekers and refugees from Somalia” should return to remote and overcrowded camps – such as Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp – near Kenya’s northern border with Somalia.
The order follows a spate of attacks in the largely ethnic Somali district of Eastleigh – often called “Little Mogadishu” – in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Nairobi alone is home to more than 33,000 Somali refugees. This number does not include unregistered Somali migrants who make a living on Eastleigh’s potholed, vendor-choked streets.
I get the shivers just thinking of how Kenya plans to implement this new measure.
Kenyan police – overwhelmingly distrusted and disparaged – are widely suspected of being responsible for a spate of killings and disappearances of al Shabaab-linked suspects.
I predict crackdowns, backlash and widespread fear among Kenya’s Somali community.
Faced with these sorts of hardships on an epic scale, the exploits of egotistical, foreign-born al Shabaab jihadists – also called muhajirin (foreigners) – in a country they barely know and certainly don’t care about are really not funny.
There was a time when Somalia was a hotspot on the jihadi tourism trail, with US intelligence officials estimating that dozens of Americans – including Americans of Somali origins – joining al Shabaab ranks.
Figures on the inflow and outflow of jihadists are hard to come by, but I suspect al Shabaab’s recruitment drives these days aren’t as successful as they used to be.
For the Somali jihadist group to kick out one of their longtime fighters in these depleted times is an indication of the level of al Amriki’s repugnance.
In one of his odious postings, an “online autobiography” released in May, al Amriki noted that, “I knew that I was going to become a fugitive for the rest of my life when I made that decision [to fight in Somalia]” before adding, “Someone seeking a thrill or a hippy’s midsummer’s night dream doesn’t normally consciously burn his bridges like that.”
You cracked it kid. You “normally consciously” burnt your bridges – on both ends, I might add. Now we’ll see how – and if – you get out of this latest twist. Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, whatever al Amriki does, we’ll hear about it.
Leela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter who has doggedly pursued stories across the globe. Along the way, she has harangued some officials, wined and dined with others, but has always kept her eyes on what’s in it for ordinary folks. A graduate of New York University, Leela has previously worked for ABC News in New York before joining FRANCE 24. In this blog, she provides insights on things you don’t necessarily see in the news bytes.
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