SOON AFTER JOINING al Shabaab, Ibrahim met the most famous American fighter in Somali history — a young U.S. citizen from Alabama, Omar Hammami, known in Somalia as Abu Mansour al Amriki. “He was a happy, young guy — typical Western,” Ibrahim recalls.

Ibrahim viewed Hammami as a mentor and a leader within the contingent of foreign fighters. Hammami had traveled to Somalia in 2006 and joined fighters from the Islamic Courts Union as they battled a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of the country. The ICU, a populist coalition that expelled CIA-backed warlords from Mogadishu in the summer of 2006, sought to create a government based on Shariah law. But the ICU’s time in power would be short lived. U.S. and Ethiopian troops began assassinating and imprisoning its leaders, and Ethiopian troops occupied Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia for two years.

As the Islamic Courts disintegrated, al Shabaab emerged as the only remaining resistance force against foreign occupation. Overnight, the group went from being a small part of the Islamic movement to “liberate” Somalia to the vanguard of that struggle. It solidified its affiliation with al Qaeda and began aggressively recruiting foreign fighters. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, saw potential in Somalia as a future base of operations.

In early January 2007, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, addressed the situation in Somalia in a recording released online. “I speak to you today as the crusader invader forces of Ethiopia violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia,” he began. “I call upon the Muslim nation in Somalia to remain in the new battlefield that is one of the crusader battlefields that are being launched by America and its allies and the United Nations against Islam and Muslims.” He implored the mujahedeen, “Launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions eat their prey.”

Hammami had won street credibility within al Shabaab for being among the first to answer that call. He was there during a period of legendary battles, had a Somali wife and quickly became the prized English-speaking ambassador for Shabaab’s effort to attract Western youth. He would post YouTube videos describing the joys of the jihad and the comfort of an Islamic lifestyle. He even produced hip-hop songs predicting his demise by a drone strike or cruise missile. “He was a kind of symbol for the foreign fighters — he was here since the end of 2006 and he fought in a lot of battles and he was well educated. He was very smart,” says Ibrahim.

In late 2007, a year after he first arrived in Somalia, Hammami appeared on Al Jazeera — with a keffiyeh covering much of his face — explaining why he had joined al Shabaab. “Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia,” he declared. “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.” By that point, Somali officials estimated that more than 450 foreign fighters had come to Somalia to join al Shabaab in its struggle.

Following Hammami’s lead, after receiving basic training from Shabaab, Ibrahim began to engage in regular attacks against AMISOM troops — mostly from Uganda and Burundi. “I took part in a lot of battles, mostly within Mogadishu. I don’t think any battles had a name,” he recalls. “When I came, I stayed with foreign fighters known as muhajireen.” He said there were fighters from the United States, Canada, the U.K., Denmark, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and East African countries.

Soon, however, powerful Somali leaders of al Shabaab came to see the flood of foreign fighters as a threat to their own fiefdoms. By 2011, a rift had emerged within the group — one that would pit the foreign fighters against the Somali leadership in bloody conflict, and would ultimately lead Ibrahim to regret coming to Somalia to join Shabaab.



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