DAPHNE, ALABAMA — While others enjoy the approaching summer, barbeques and baseball, one American family scours the internet looking for clues to whether their son is alive.U.S. authorities also want to find him but not to secure a happy family reunion.
Now after an apparent assassination attempt on their son, the family opens up in an exclusive CNN interview about how their son grew up to be a terrorist, how their lives are changed forever and how their joint faith has seen them survive burdens that could have destroyed other families.
Shafik Hammami opens the door to his Daphne home wearing a University of Alabama football t-shirt. He was born in Syria, but after more than 40 years in the United States, he’s as much a homegrown Alabama football fan as any other local resident. I ask him if he thinks ‘Bama’ will win the National Title again this year. He holds up his hands and proudly smiles: “Roll Tide.”
He’s not what I had expected him to be. He’s an older man with a mild-mannered nature — a stark contrast from what I knew of his son, whose personality had won him recognition from a young age. But somehow the boy living the American dream grew up to be a propagandist for al Qaeda-backed militants looking to wage global jihad.
Born and raised in Daphne, a quintessential Southern town nestled along Mobile Bay, lined with strip malls, subdivisions, and churches, Omar now goes by the name of Abu Monsour Al-Amriki, or The American. Western and Somali authorities have named him as a leading member of Al Shabaab, a group known for its ruthlessness in the fight for an Islamic Caliphate in Somalia.
His mother Debra, a retired school teacher, had explained earlier by phone how hard it was for her husband to talk about their son. He has quit talking to the media, she says, because it hurts too much.
“Darlin’, we have been through hills and valleys,” she said in a genteel southern accent. “All I know is that I ask everyone I meet, ‘Do you go to church?’ and if they say yes, I ask them, ‘Please put us on your prayer list.”
In Daphne, a community of roughly 22,000, everyone we meet seems to know Omar Hammami. Or if they don’t know him, they know of him as, “that terrorist from here.”
Debra Hammami, who comes across as bubbly and friendly, says she knows that some people judge the family because of the son’s choices.
“But, darlin’, I’m lucky to live in a community with such wonderful friends,” she says.
Just the other day, she says, a friend of hers met someone who said, “Just what kind of parents could raise a child like that? They must have been terrible parents for him to turn out that way.”
“You hush your mouth,” her friend said in response, Debra Hammami recounts. “I know that family. And his mother is a good Christian woman, so you be quiet about something you know nothing about.”
She says that even though she is a Christian and her husband is a Muslim, that throughout this seemingly never-ending ordeal, it is that individualized faith, and a shared belief in God that has seen them through the toughest of moments.
After what seems like hours of pained silence, but is probably merely a matter of several uncomfortable minutes, Shafik Hammami agrees ever so tentatively to talk about his son.
“Omar was a very sweet, intelligent child, very bright and inquisitive about everything,” he says. “He excelled at education, sports, just about everything he attempted. I always had high hopes for him. I would have loved for him to be engineer or a doctor but that wasn’t in the cards.
“As a parent I would like for him to follow my instructions. But in life that doesn’t always happen, especially with a strong-willed child. And of course I tried my best, and so did my wife, to raise him the best we could. He chose the path he did, and I do not approve of it. But there is nothing I can do to change it.”
“But surely there were clues?” I ask him.
“No, not at all. There were no alarms or anything that I could see,” he recalls. “As a matter of fact, when he was in college, he was the President of the Muslim Student Association, and he had several media interviews, and he condemned the attacks of 9/11 and saw that those actions were un-Islamic, so there was nothing for me to worry about.”
The MSA is a Muslim Brotherhood group. That ought to have raised alarm bells.
But that would change and soon there would be a lot to worry about.Despite his gifted intellect, Omar dropped out of college at the University of South Alabama and moved to Toronto, Canada, where he met and married a Somali woman. Soon after, the couple moved to Egypt, where Omar hoped to deepen his study of Islam.
Shafik Hammami remembers the last time he saw his son. He and Debra had traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, to visit with Omar, his wife, and their new grandchild.
“We went to spend a couple of weeks with him,” Hammami says. “And there was no inkling of anything that we could see, feel, anything that had changed.
“But shortly after we left we got a call from his wife, and she told us she thinks he is in Somalia, and that’s when I realized that things are not normal.”
“I was furious,” he adds. “And I tried to contact him to find out what was going on.”
Omar’s wife said he had gone to Somalia to visit her relatives. But when Hammami finally reached his son, Omar told him someone had stolen his passport, and that he couldn’t leave the country.
At the time, 2006, Somalia was in the grips of an Islamic insurgency.