(SomalilandPress)One of the most visible leaders of an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist militia in Somalia spent a year in Toronto ingratiating himself into the Somali immigrant community as a convert to Islam.
Omar Hammami – known to followers as Abu Mansour “Al-Amriki” (the American) – ate at Somali restaurants and prayed in Somali mosques. He married a Toronto woman of Somali origin and had a daughter with her.
Then, after learning Somali ways, he left to join the Horn of Africa’s top terror group, Al-Shabab, to wage Islamic jihad and recruit other foreign nationals to the cause, say former friends and relatives speaking publicly of the terrorist’s Toronto connections for the first time.
“He betrayed us,” says a former friend who worked with Hammami at a Weston Rd. pizzeria. “For a man to be saying that, Islamically, it is okay to be killing innocent people – and yesterday you fed him bread and welcomed him into your houses – it kind of shatters you.”
Five ethnic Somali men disappeared from Scarborough this fall, all friends believed recruited into Al-Shabab. Three are said by family associates to have since phoned home from Somalia. No direct connection to Hammami is known but in the Somali community his Internet postings are notorious.
On a 2008 recruitment video, referring to one of his dead fighters, Hammami says, “We need more like him.
“So if you can encourage more of your children and more of your neighbours, anyone around, to send people like him to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us.”
A least 20 young men have left Minneapolis, Minn., for Al-Shabab in the last 18 months. One of them is confirmed to have blown himself up with a car bomb in the Somali port town of Bosasso. Five others are said by relatives to be dead.
Other young men have left from Boston, Columbus, San Diego and Seattle. Others have joined from Australia and the United Kingdom.
The suicide bomber who killed three government ministers and at least 16 others at a graduating ceremony for doctors and engineers last month in Mogadishu was recruited from Denmark.
Hammami himself is said to have been wounded in fighting late last year.
Al-Shabab’s stated goals are to take power from the fragile government backed by African Union troops and turn Somalia into an Islamic state friendly to Al Qaeda. Ultimately, its leaders say, the aim is to establish a global Islamic state.
“We are striving to establish the Islaamic Khilaafah from East to West,” Hammami writes in an Internet posting of Jan. 8, 2008, “after removing the occupier and killing the apostates.”
For Torontonians, al-Shabab recruitment presents another terrifying possibility: A fanatic returns to explode himself in a crowd.
Or as RCMP Commissioner William Elliott put it in October: “The potential follow-on threat is Somali-Canadians who travel to Somalia to fight and then return, imbued with both extremist ideology and the skills necessary to translate it into direct action.”
Omar Hammami is 25 years old. He grew up in Daphne, Ala., just outside Mobile.
His mother is Baptist by religion. His father is Shafik Hammami, a Syrian-born engineer with the Alabama transportation department and president of the Islamic Society of Mobile. Reached by phone last week, he refused comment.
Although Hammami grew up Baptist, he converted to Islam in the late 1990s while attending Daphne High School.
“He had tons of friends,” fellow student Shellie Brooks told Fox News four months ago, “and of course things changed a bit when he converted because his beliefs changed.”
In September 2001, Hammami had just started computer science studies at the University of South Alabama – and been elected head of the Muslim Student Association – when Al Qaeda launched its suicide attacks on the United States.
“It’s difficult to believe a Muslim could have done this,” he told the campus newspaper at the time.
At the end of 2002, he dropped out of school.
How he spent the next two years is not known but in the fall of 2004 he arrived in Toronto from Ohio, says one of his best friends from the period.
“He was interested in finding a large Muslim community,” says the friend, a Somalia-born Torontonian who asks to be identified only as Abdi, because he says he fears Al-Shabab.
Of any Toronto immigrant community, the city’s 80,000 Somalis are the most visibly Muslim, he says, especially the women who copiously cover themselves.
Together, Abdi and Hammami took jobs briefly at a dairy distribution company. Afterward they moved to 1 Pizza & Fish & Chips, on Weston Rd. north of Lawrence Ave. W.
“I became very close to him,” Abdi says. “We talked a lot about religion. I knew a lot of his beliefs and ideology.”
Hammami considered himself a Salafi Muslim, seeking to practise Islam as people did in the seventh and eighth centuries. But he was not extremist, Abdi says.
“The man I knew did not believe in suicide bombings,” he says. “He did not believe in carrying weapons and fighting among the Muslims. He did not believe in calling people disbelievers just because they had a dispute with you.”
On the other hand, Hammami was “easily irritated,” the former friend recalls.
“There was one incident at the pizza place when a Somali singer placed a (concert) poster in the window,” he says. “In a split second, (Hammami) removed it.
“To me, that is immaturity, not extremism,” Abdi says. “Rather, he should ask permission to the owner saying, `You know, brother, (music and partying) is not according to tradition.'”
At some point early on, at an Islamic conference, Hammami met Sadiyo Mohamed Abdille. He was 20, she was 18.
“His face, it was a bit fanatic,” recalls Mohamed Salad, the girl’s father, of the day Hammami asked permission to marry her.
Salad despises fanatics. In Somalia, he rose to become an army colonel under military dictator Siad Barre. He was training in San Antonio, Texas, when Barre was ousted in 1991 and with no reason to return home Salad came to Toronto.
“If we had been in Somalia, I would have refused (permission to marry),” says Salad, now a coffee house owner on Lawrence Ave. W. “But I thought, `This is Canada. I am Canadian. Daughters decide what they like.'”
In June 2005, the couple left for Cairo. Hammami told people he wanted to study Islam at Al-Azar University.
That summer the baby was born. In September, Hammami told his wife they were going to Somalia but she balked. She phoned her father, who helped her and the baby return to Toronto.
Speaking for the woman, Scarborough lawyer Faisal Kutty would say only that his client legally separated from Hammami in June 2007, has had no contact with him for more than two years and “has fully co-operated with Canadian intelligence officials on this.”
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The RCMP, CSIS and Canada Border Services Agency refused comment on the case, other than to say, in the words of a CSIS spokesperson, “We are well aware of the situation in Somalia and its impact on Canada.”
Hammami arrived in Mogadishu in late 2005, only to be arrested as a spy by leaders of the Islamic Courts Union, says Abdi, who has been tracking his former friend through personal networks.
But Hammami’s credentials checked out. The Union, on its way to controlling much of the south in 2006, assigned him to its youth wing – Al-Shabab. Its leader, Aden Hashi Ayrow, sent him to Raas Kamboni training camp at the Kenyan border.
“He began to rise in the ranks,” Abdi says. (A U.S. air strike killed Ayrow on May 1, 2008.)
In October 2007, Hammami appeared, his face covered, on an Al Jazeera TV report, still accessible on YouTube, about Al-Shabab’s and Al Qaeda’s “common goal.” The report identified him as fighter and military instructor “Abu Mansour the American.”
In May 2008, he starred in a 31-minute Al-Shabab video, face plainly visible, leading what he called an ambush against invading Ethiopian troops near the south-central city of Baidoa.
“The only reason we are staying here away from our families, away from the cities, away from, you know, ice, candy bars, all these other things, is because we are ready to meet with the enemy,” he tells his fighters, presumably English-speaking foreigners like himself.
In April 2009, the ambush video went mainstream. Fox News and other media outlets reported on it. In September, Al-Amriki was identified as Hammami, prompting his indictment in Alabama on terrorism charges.
By then, Hammami had issued an anti-Western diatribe called “The Beginning of the End,” still on YouTube, his answer to U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, “A New Beginning.” Human rights, Hammami claimed, go against Islamic traditions such as stoning, cutting off hands and giving a woman no choice but to wear a headscarf.
Also by then, Kenya’s Daily Nation had reported that “Abu Mansur al-Meriki” had become No. 2 commander of an Al-Shabab unit of 180 foreign fighters led by Kenyan national Saleh Nabhan. (A U.S. helicopter raid killed Nabhan on Sept. 16 near Barawe.)
In September, an undated Al-Shabab video “At Your Service, Osama,” showed Hammami leading military exercises.
Abdi says he heard in October that Hammami had been fighting near the Ethiopian border, and is recovering in hospital from bullet wounds and mental problems.
In Toronto two weeks ago, the Somali Canadian National Council brought together 150 community members to condemn Al-Shabab recruitment in Toronto.
“Until now we’ve been afraid to speak out,” the group’s president Abdurahman “Hosh” Jibril said in an interview. “Now we’ve reached the point of no return.”
Kawnayn “U.K.” Hussein, host of “Midnimo (Unity)” Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Radio AM530, provided key research for this story.