Omar al-Hammami was an American citizen born in Alabama. His mother was a Christian and his father a Syrian Muslim. Omar’s upbringing was fairly typical: middle-class, Southern Baptist, successful and popular in school. However, he was defined by his split identity: Syrian v. American, Muslim v. Christian. He felt drawn to have a closer relationship with his relatives in Syria, and a strong desire to explore Islam.
His father introduced him to Islam in 7th grade. Once, a fellow student denigrated Islam and Omar reacted violently against the classmate. By 11th grade, he saw himself as having surpassed his Syrian relatives in piety. Around the same time, his father began returning more actively to religion, including sponsoring a new mosque.
Omar, however, began to get involved with Salafism. His closest acquaintances at the mosque were not immigrants but converts who were more interested in radicalism. He withdraw from his non-Muslim friends and liberal teachers, began dressing in traditional Muslim clothing, and attempting to convert his Christian friends. His parents did not reject his spiritual and ideological search, but they did worry about his increasingly extreme beliefs, particularly toward armed jihad. As Omar became more religious, he also became more radical. He withdrew from Salafism and embraced more extreme ideologies; he wanted to engage in action, not just discussion.
Omar’s journey was also marked by his desire for recognition. He wanted to seek adventure, as well as attention and fame. He moved from Alabama, first to Toronto, then to Egypt, and continued to seek the company of more religious and more radical people. Finally, he travelled to Somalia and joined al-Shabaab. He was very active on social media, acting as a ‘poster-boy’ for al-Shabaab, until ultimately he became disillusioned with what he saw as corruption in the organization. He went public with his opinions, and was killed by al-Shabaab in 2013.