A week ago, J.M. Berger posted an important piece in Foreign Policy
entitled "Omar and Me."
American jihadi-terrorist, Omar Hammami, with whom Berger corresponded for over a year might have been killed in Somalia last week by his former allies, the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.
Berger's lengthy article in an important journal from an important figure has relatively little to say. It seems more a personal apology and cry for help from his readers, than an advance in understanding. How pressing is the need to grasp the making of a jihadi-terrorist especially from an all-American boy. Berger who describes himself as an "anti-terrorist analyst," a Western writer and analyst working to shine a light on terrorist operations and violent ideologies, carefully cultivated the trust of Hammami and corresponded with him for over a year.
This all began in May 2012, when Alabama born Omar Hammami published an autobiography through a twitter account while sitting in Somalia as an operative in the violent insurgent group al-Shabab. Berger describes Omar's published life story as "by turns, fascinating and funny. Much of the humor was intentional, not all. His tone vacillated between wryly self-deprecating and unselfconsciously self-aggrandizing."
According to Berger his published mocking of Omar's story annoyed the latter and so Omar wrote to express his disappointment. Thus began a year long, on again off again email and twitter conversation between Berger and Omar.
To Berger's credit, it was not merely lucking into a correspondence by mocking and annoying an American jihadist. It was Berger's special interest in, and being keen enough to spot a March 16, 2012 YouTube video of Omar "speaking directly to the camera in Arabic and then repeating the message in English, a grim-faced Omar made a shaky plea for help." Al-Shabab, of which Omar, also known as Al-Amriki, "the American" was once a member, now wanted Omar dead, and Berger wanted to know why. Berger "DM'd" (direct messaged) Omar on twitter to ask why. This gave rise to a year of a truly uncommon moment in journalism, one that seems to have just ended with the death of Hammami. On Thursday, September 12, Berger received a tweet:
We must be sympathetic to Berger. He confesses openly that he grew fond of Hammami, even though an ideological opponent, and explains in detail how he labored to rescue Hammami both from his violent life, as well as from his own death. Perhaps a simple telling of the tale of this correspondence void of interpretation or analysis is needed for Berger to process his grief and gain catharsis. Perhaps after some time needed to digest the shock, Berger can translate his uncommon journalistic accomplishments into analysis that serves anti-terrorism more fully and more acutely.
The problem with Berger's FP piece is that jihadist-terrorism is a serious matter. It is not a story about somebody tweeting with Mick Jagger, or the inventor of Silly Putty. It is not a story about J.M. Berger's personal confusions as he struggles with the dictates of his profession and the onset of personal feelings of fondness. Jihadist-terrorism is one of the central problems of our time, and J.M. Berger realized a truly significant journalistic achievement in this all important arena. He sustained an enduring dialogue with an American born Jihadi caught in the throes of internecine conflict inside the terrorist world. He invested in psychological and ideological dialogue, and even sought to arrange ways for Hammami to extricate himself from his violent commitments.
The question of radicalization on American soil became extremely acute after the Boston Marathon bombing perpetrated by college student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The NPR summary of the Berger article
isolates these facts about Hammami:
Omar was a very popular young man. He grew up in Daphne, Alab. His father was a Syrian Muslim who was not very observant at the time that he was born, and his mother was a Christian of Irish descent. And basically he grew up in a fairly secular, Christian-leaning kind of environment and took an interest in his father's religion as he started to get older. He went from being a very popular kid — he had been class president and he was very bright, and very socially adept. And he went from that to being kind of an outcast, as he became very serious about Islam.
The more he got into it, he sort of approached it with the zealousness of a convert. Over the course of time, he drifted into a more and more militant reading of the religion and began to associate with people who had more militant readings. There wasn't any one dramatic moment for him where he suddenly became radical; it was more of a steady trip from being an enthusiastic convert to the religion to being somebody who felt that he had to take part in the idea of jihad as he understood it.
The Hammami case raises many important questions. Here are some that seem worth asking.
Is there something about American life and the religious options in the establishment that fail to meet the needs of bright, energetic, charismatic seekers in search of meaning in deep and gripping ways? Does American society permit of religious devotion only when weak enough not to confront, not to engage? Hammami's mother was a Christian, his father a moderately non-religious Muslim. At some point Hammami sought an all consuming encounter with something transcendent that neither could understand nor provide.
Does American society lack sufficient integration intergenerationally in real and substantial ways that would help parents, uncles, aunts and "the village," see and know deviant directions in youth early enough to intervene and help? Are families not sufficiently bound, engaged, open, educative? Is healthy authority crippled? Timid?
Does there lack a deep and clear enough religious base in American society and its leaders, its media, and its educators to spot and recognize the shades of religious phenomena and commitment, and so to be able to assess positive or dystopic directions in nascent stages?
Are there parts of American behavior as a nation in the equation involving international relations, asymmetric assaults on Western civilization, and violent militants, that is sufficiently culpable to be exploited by hostile, militant ideologues?
As Berger so nobly and seriously invested in Hammami, I would hope more to see questioning along these lines, and less to know if Hammami's tweets were snarky, or if Berger in turn was capable of clever repartee.