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03/20/2013

$5 million bounty for American-Tim Hortons-loving-jihadi

Two.mug.shots

 

The U.S. State Department's "Rewards for Justice" program has added two Americans and $10 million in bounties to the list of wanted Al Shabab suspects (first reported by CNN's Elise Labott Wednesday).

Somalia's Al Qaeda group has diminished in membership and power in the last two years, but a suicide bombing in Mogadishu this week that killed at least 10 civilians, was a devastating reminder that the Shabab still has active members who can reach the capital.   

Omar Shafik Hammami and Jehad Serwan Mostafa both reportedly left the U.S. for Somalia in 2006, when a group called the Islamic Courts Union had briefly taken control of Mogadishu. According to the State Department: "Both are wanted for conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which includes their significant contributions to al Shabaab’s media and military activities."

The timing of the bounties is curious. Labott quotes an unnamed FBI source stating that the two "had a persistent interest in targeting U.S. interests." But it appears it is not an imminent threat but that the reward is based "on actions (Hammami) has already taken." Hammami is generally not regarded as leader in the group - especially since his very public fallout with the Shabab last year.

Millions in bounties for the Shabab leadership was first offered in June - the greatest reward of $7 million (U.S). for Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed Godane, the group's leader, who also goes by the name Mukhtar Abu Zubair. The elusive and influential Ibrahim Haji Jama, also known as Ibrahim al-Afghani (a nickname because of his training in Afghanistan), was also listed.

But it was the Shabab leaders who were not listed that was most intriguing - and the widely-held theory among analysts was that the bounties were less about the bounties themselves and more about the U.S. trying to further divide the leadership. At the time, there was a split between members who believed in Al Qaeda's global aspirations and those who were more Somalia-focused. There were also an effort by the government to get certain leaders to defect. As always in Somalia, clan played a role too.

So why now for the two Americans?

Hamammi is the better known of the two. He is a difficult character to take seriously - an Alabama-born "rapper," with a taste for Tim Hortons, who waxes poetically in the tortured language of jihadists.

Most analysts, counterterrorism experts and journalists are fans of dark comedy (mea culpa), thus his story has been widely covered. He seems to consume it all.

Last Friday, he apparently read a blog I wrote about the latest act in Terrorism's Theatre of the Absurd,  mentioning his Twitter feed (although there has been some doubt as to whether it is really him). The blog stated: "Lately, his tweets have been about as exciting - and frequent - as the teenager who wants to tell you about the bagel she had at lunch, or when she's off for a mani-pedi."

He responded the next day on Twitter: "bagel? Canadian feminist humor?"

Then again Wednesday "he" - if @abumamerican is indeed Hammami - was busy again, responding to various national security and foreign policy Twitter types. He seemed eager to compete in Twitter Fight Club (#TFC13.. think, like, nerd online Olympics).

This was his last tweet before the bounty was announced:

Screen shot 2013-03-20 at 6.18.23 PM


 

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm

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