NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - Will the allure of a $5 million reward be the downfall of a tweeting, rapping American jihadi who once fought alongside the Somali militant group al-Shabab but now denounces their methods and motivations in online feuds?
A U.S. State Department official who specializes in Somalia said Thursday that the new $5 million reward offered for the arrest of Omar Hammami could exploit what are believed to be fault lines between extremist groups in Somalia that may be for and against Hammami. The Alabama-born American was once close to al-Shababab's leadership, but has since had a falling out with the group's leader.
"I think that this kind of (reward) program is designed precisely to elicit those who have information and those who are willing to respond to that offer," Pamela Friest, the State Department Somalia expert, said in a telephone news conference. "As far as the internal dynamics to where Hammami is, etc., I think it's anyone's guess as to whether he's sheltered by anyone in particular."
Hammami, whom the FBI named as one of its most-wanted terrorists in November, "has always been a controversial figure inside Somalia. He's certainly been a controversial figure for the United States," Friest said.
Part of that controversy stems from Hammami's high Internet profile. The star of several YouTube videos where he raps about jihad or fights on the front lines of Somalia's insurgent battles, Hammami over the last year has become a mini-star on Twitter, where he engages in running conversations with militant fighters and even U.S.-based terrorism experts.
Hammami appeared to confirm last week in a Twitter conversation with terror analyst J.M. Berger what intelligence experts have long suspected - that he posts on Twitter using the handle @abumamerican. Hammami's nom de guerre is Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, or "the American."
While he's made his interest in global jihad well known, Hammami hasn't made public threats against the U.S. Berger, who runs the website Intelwire.com, said in an interview Thursday that the $5 million bounty is "an awfully large reward" for someone who "hasn't taken direct violent action against the U.S. or worked with al-Qaida proper in any meaningful capacity."
Kurt R. Rice, a top official at the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said the reasoning behind reward levels are classified but that the threats posed by individuals to Americans and U.S. property are taken into account. The U.S. announced the $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Hammami and another $5 million reward for a second American fighting in Somalia, Jehad Mostafa, on Wednesday.
"The fact that these rewards are at the $5 million level should give you some understanding where they are with regard to the threat that they pose," Rice said.
Along with Adam Gadahn in Pakistan - a former Osama bin Laden spokesman - Hammami is one of the two most notorious Americans in jihad groups. He grew up in Daphne, Alabama, a bedroom community of 20,000 outside Mobile. He is the son of a Christian mother and a Syrian-born Muslim father.