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ON A WARM, cloudy day in the fall of 1999, the town of Daphne, Ala., stirred to life. The high school band came pounding down Main Street, past the post office and the library and Christ the King Church. Trumpeters in gold tasseled coats tipped their horns to the sky, heralding the arrival of teenage demigods. The star quarterback and his teammates came first in the parade, followed by the homecoming queen and her court. Behind them, on a float bearing leaders of the student government, a giddy mop haired kid tossed candy to the crowd.

Omar Hammami had every right to flash his magnetic smile. He had just been elected president of his sophomore class. He was dating a luminous blonde, one of the most sought after girls in school. He was a star in the gifted student program, with visions of becoming a surgeon. For a 15 year old, he had remarkable charisma.

Despite the name he acquired from his father, an immigrant from Syria, Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like “sugar” and “darlin’.” Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve. As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. “It felt cool just to be with him,” his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. “You knew he was going to be a leader.”

A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

More than 20 of those fighters have come from the United States, many of them young Somali Americans from a gritty part of Minneapolis. But it is Hammami who has put a contemporary face on the Shabab’s medieval tactics. In a recent propaganda video viewed by thousands on YouTube, he is shown leading a platoon of gun toting rebels as a soundtrack of jihadi rap plays in the background.

He is identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al Amriki, “the American,” and speaks to the camera with a cool, almost eerie confidence. “We’re waiting for the enemy to come,” Hammami whispers, a smile crossing his face. Later he vows, “We’re going to kill all of them.”

In the three years since Hammami made his way to Somalia, his ascent into the Shabab’s leadership has put him in a class of his own, according to United States law enforcement and intelligence officials. While other American terror suspects have drawn greater publicity, Hammami exercises a more powerful role, commanding guerrilla forces in the field, organizing attacks and plotting strategy with Qaeda operatives, the officials said. He has also emerged as something of a jihadist icon, starring in a recruitment campaign that has helped draw hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia. “To have an American citizen that has risen to this kind of a rank in a terrorist organization we have not seen that before,” a senior American law enforcement official said earlier this month.

Not long ago, the threat of American bred terrorists seemed a distant one. Law enforcement officials theorized that Muslims in the United States by comparison with many of their European counterparts were upwardly mobile, socially integrated and therefore less susceptible to radicalization. Perhaps the greatest proof of this came with the absence of domestic terrorist attacks following 9/11, a period that has brought Europe devastating homegrown hits in Madrid and London.

America is now at a watershed. In the last year, at least two dozen men in the United States have been charged with terrorism related offenses.

These cases have sent intelligence analysts scurrying for answers. The American suspects come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, but they share much in common with Europe’s militants: they tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world. Others may see them as rigid or zealous, but they envision themselves as deeply principled, possessing what Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, calls “an altruism gone wildly wrong.” While their religious piety varies, they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America’s war against terrorism endures its ninth year.

The presence of Western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought those conflicts closer for many Muslims in America. Through satellite television and the Internet, the distance between here and there between Fort Hood, Tex., and Yemen, between Daphne, Ala., and Somalia has narrowed. For Omar Hammami, the war in Iraq provided a critical spark as he turned toward militancy.

In an e mail message in December, Hammami responded to questions, submitted to him through an intermediary, about his personal evolution and political views. “We espouse the same creed and methodology of Al Qaeda,” he wrote. Of Osama bin Laden, he said, “All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands.” Did Hammami, like bin Laden, consider America a legitimate target for attack? “It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target,” he wrote.

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is a petite 28 year old woman with silky brown hair and a graceful manner. She lives with her husband and their baby daughter in an airy house overlooking a small American city, which she asked that I not identify for their protection. The walls are decorated with Dena’s whimsical paintings, which draw inspiration from Kandinsky. Wind chimes dangle over the front porch, by a sign that reads, “Hippies use side door.”

One morning in September, she was sitting in her kitchen when she opened her laptop, logged on to Facebook and saw a message that read, “Rolling farting leotard.” Her heart began to race.

Years earlier, Dena had put a note in her little brother’s school binder, trying to crack him up. She told him to picture a fat girl in a leotard, rolling across the floor and passing gas. It had become one of their many inside jokes. Now, she realized, it was her brother’s way of reaching out from Somalia, of saying, “It’s really me.” He had created a fictitious Facebook profile, listing his alma maters as Stanford and Harvard.

“Things are pretty good,” he wrote. He and his new Somali wife (“the wifey,” he called her) had a baby girl. “Sometimes marriage is up,” he wrote. “Sometimes it’s down. The lifestyle is not exactly normal for most.”

Hammami wouldn’t say where he was, but he urged Dena not to worry about him. He was prepared to meet death, he said. “I don’t do anything too dangerous except once every month or so,” he added. “It’s all in God’s hands.”

Hammami’s life in Somalia appears to be more precarious than he let on. He spends much of his time shuttling between villages in southern Somalia, where many of the Shabab’s camps are based, according to Somali intelligence officials. In addition to his role as a military tactician, they said, Hammami helps guide the Shabab’s recruitment strategy and management of money exercising surprising power after landing in Somalia as a 22 year old rookie. The Somali government is seeking increased American aid to fight the Shabab and may have reason to play up the threat of foreigners like Hammami. But they were adamant about his role. “This guy is dangerous,” says Abdullahi Mohamed Ali, the Somali minister of national security. “He’s a threat to the region. I want him to be eliminated.”

When Hammami engages in combat, he makes an impression on other militants, said a former Shabab commander, Sheikh Mohamed Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Mohamed. “He doesn’t blink in the face of the enemy,” said Mohamed, who recalled four battles in 2008 and 2009 in which he and Hammami took part. In combat, Hammami used a sharpshooter’s rifle, firing calmly and with precision, said Mohamed, who spoke to me by telephone this month from a government compound in Mogadishu after defecting to the government’s side. Somali officials said they were keeping him there for his protection.

Until recently, the few visible images of American jihadis were of young men on the margins: John Walker Lindh, a Californian loner who wandered into Afghanistan to join the Taliban; or Adam Gadahn, now a Qaeda spokesman, who grew up home schooled on a goat farm and channeled his teenage energies into death metal music. If Omar Hammami followed his own compass, others followed him. Years later, more than one of his classmates compared him to the incongruous high school hero of the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Hammami’s journey from a Bible Belt town in America to terrorist training camps in Somalia was pieced together from interviews with his parents, sister, best friends and law enforcement officials, as well as hours of home videos and passages from his e mail messages, journal entries and hundreds of his postings on an Internet forum. If anything has remained a constant in Hammami’s life, it is his striving for another place and purpose, which flickered in a poem he wrote when he was 12:

“My reality is a bore. I wish, I want, I need the wall to fall and the monster to let me pass, the leash to snap, the chains to break. . . .

“I’ve got a taste of glory, the ticket, but where is my train?”

DAPHNE SITS ALONG Alabama’s serene Mobile Bay, just north of the Gulf of Mexico. The town seems stopped in time. Colonial style cottages and gazebos dot the bluffs. The wide, blacktopped streets are shaded by pecan trees and Southern maples. At dusk, the tide slaps the docks as fishermen loll, casting silhouettes against a golden sky.

Shafik Hammami was searching for a quiet American town when he left Syria in 1972. He was reared in Damascus, the oldest of nine children whose father ran an import export business. Shafik wanted to study medicine and heard that small colleges in less populated parts of the United States were best suited for immigrants, “so you don’t get lost in the shuffle,” he told me recently. By chance, a translator working in Damascus handed him a brochure for Faulkner State Community College in Bay Minette, not far from Daphne. He looked no farther.

At Faulkner, Shafik, then 20, stuck close to the handful of other Middle Eastern students, part of a wave of Arab immigrants who were ushered into the United States by looser immigration laws. With wavy black hair and halting English, he stood out in a place that was historically suspicious of outsiders. One evening, while driving through nearby Mobile, he came upon a group of men wearing white cones on their heads and asking for money, his first brush with the Ku Klux Klan.

But Alabama’s conservative Christian culture agreed with him. Most of the women he encountered didn’t drink or smoke. Those were the first things he liked about Debra Hadley, a perky high school senior he met through friends. The daughter of a butcher, she had rosy cheeks and a fluttering laugh and rarely missed a Sunday service. Soon Debra and Shafik were engaged.

It did not violate Shafik’s Muslim faith to marry a Christian. Debra got her mother’s blessing after promising never to convert to Islam. They had a church wedding, followed by a Muslim ceremony in the reception hall. They each wondered if, eventually, the other might cede ground.

By the time Omar was born eight years later, his parents and sister had moved into a ranch house in Daphne, a town of 19,
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000 where cotton fields have given way to subdivisions with names like Plantation Hills. Shafik had become a civil engineer and was working at the Department of Transportation. Debra taught elementary school.