After reading about an American youth who converted to Islam and joined an extremist insurgency in Africa, I realized he and I had unwittingly crossed paths a few years before. In Current TV’s “American Jihadi,” a new episode of the Vanguard documentary series airing Wednesday, I go looking for the young man pictured above. I wanted to find him, if not in the flesh, at least to trace his route from small-town high school boy to anti-American warrior.
I was in the war-ravaged city of Mogadishu in 2006, one of the first American TV correspondents to see the place in years. An Islamic coalition calling itself the Islamic Court Union had seized control of the Somali capital and imposed an uneasy peace that at least possible to get inside the chaotic “failed state.”
To me and many other Americans, Mogadishu was best known as the site of the military tragedy and movie “Black Hawk Down.” Twenty-six years old and no stranger to hot spots around the world, I was drawn by the spirit of adventure and a journalist’s curiosity, despite warnings from others—including my father, a seasoned war correspondent, that the story wasn’t worth the risk.
It was. My colleague, Kaj Larsen, and I found Somali expatriates streaming back to their homeland by the thousands to pick up their lives in a spirit of hope and renewal, despite the ruins and hair-trigger tempers that were the legacy of a 15-year civil war. I interviewed Islamist leaders who had captured the city and listened to their pleas for peace and a chance to re-establish a nation. Accusing the Islamic Courts of having ties to Al Qaida, the U.S. government branded them as terrorists.
Shortly after my return to the United States to put together my piece, “Mogadishu Madness,” Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia with U.S. military support and drove the Islamists into hiding. Somalia plunged back into war.
As it turned out, in the flow of people arriving at the reopened international airport in Mogadishu during that brief period of peace was another twentysomething American. Drawn by a passion to help establish an Islamic state in Somalia, Omar Hammami had left his wife and family in Egypt and arrived in Mogadishu shortly after I did. Like many Somali Muslims who answered a call for jihad to fight off the Christian invaders from Ethiopia, Omar joined Al Shabaab, one of the most ruthless and determined factions that had previously fought each other but were now united against the foreigners.
After rising to become a top field commander, Omar is now a prominent Internet propagandist for the Somali allies of Al Qaida who helps recruit other young Muslims from the West to enlist in the cause. In the past three years, at least 30 American and Canadian citizens have turned up fighting in Somalia with Al Shabaab, more than have joined any other extremist group affiliated with Al Qaida.
In “American Jihadi,” I retrace Omar’s path from Bible Belt Christian to Islamic extremist. I flew to Daphne, Alabama with practically no leads and spent three days cruising bars and restaurants—local hangouts where I thought people Omar’s age might hang out. At a Hooters, I met a patron who vaguely remembered playing soccer with Omar as a kid, then another who believed her fiancé may have taken a class with him sophomore year.
Discouraged, I mentioned my quest to a waiter at a sports bar and grill on my last day in town. He had recently run into Omar’s best friend, a man named Bernie Culveyhouse, at a Walmart and remembered the street where he lived.
I went there, looking for a house that might offer some clue, and asked a 14-year-old playing outside if he knew the Culveyhouse family.
“You mean the people with rags on their heads?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I guessed.
“They stick out because we don’t have that many Jews around here.”
No one was home so I left a letter on the doorstep with a DVD of my work and requested that we meet to discuss my assignment.
As I was boarding a flight home to the West Coast with no story in hand, Bernie called my cell phone. He said he’d turned down every request for an on-camera interview but liked what he’d seen of my work and would agree to meet. I walked out of the airport and spent that evening with him, watching “Lost” and talking about “Mogadishu Madness”—and his dear friend Omar.
It was the first of many visits, including a trip to Toronto to meet Omar’s ex-wife, a Somali-Canadian, and the sister of Bernie’s wife. Bernie had taken much of the journey with Omar, beginning with their conversion to Islam in Daphne, to the Somali community in Toronto, and ending in Alexandria, Egypt, where they expected to find comfort and happiness in an Islamic country.
Bernie went home to Daphne with his family; Omar slipped away and was next seen on the Internet as a guerrilla fighter in Somalia.
Bernie and I still struggle to understand why.
Vanguard’s “American Jihadi” premieres Wednesday, June 30 at 10 p.m. on Current TV. Watch the trailer below.