First Look : American Jihadi

An in-depth look at the recently released podcast series American Jihadi, about an all-American kid from the Bible Belt who went on to become the head of the terrorist organization Al Shabaab…

by: Jennifer Parker

Omar Hammami is infamously remembered as the “terrorist next door.” You know, the all American kid from the Bible Belt who was raised as a Baptist, converted to Islam as a teenager, radicalized, upped and moved to Somalia, and became the head of the terrorist organization Al Shabaab. What makes Hammami’s story remarkable is that he managed to do what no other American had done before him by using propaganda in the form of rap music and YouTube videos to recruit other Americans. Journalist Christof Putzel believes Omar’s story is more nuanced than, “small town boy breaks bad.” The first two episodes of his podcast, “American Jihadi,” released just this week, and the best part is that you only have to wait until next week for episode two of this stunning and addicting podcast to be released.

In 2010, Putzel made a documentary film called American Jihadi. Christof had never met Omar nor his family while making the film, and relied instead on Omar’s best friend to tell the story of how a high school homecoming king became a top leader of Al Shabab in Somalia. Putzel’s podcast, American Jihadi, fills in the unknowns because he was able to develop a relationship with Omar and his parents. What makes the podcast so tantalizing is that Putzel allows us into his own head as a journalist and as a human being. He questions not only who Omar was, but how he became someone his parents could no longer understand. Putzel finds himself empathizing with Omar not for his politics, but as a scared young man in way over his head.

Podcast Curated From:

  •           10 hours of recorded phone calls between Omar and Christof
  •           Hundreds of pages of decrypted emails between Omar and Christof
  •           12 Al Shabaab propaganda videos featuring Omar’s voice in English rapping
  •           1 hour of Omar recording answers to Christof’s direct questions
  •           Voicemails left for Christof from Omar and his mother, Debra
  •           Home movies of Omar as a kid growing up in Alabama

Though Omar ended his life on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, the former Sophomore class president, athlete, academically-gifted student, and homecoming king was popular among his peers, adored his older sister, and was known as a total perfectionist. Omar was a passionate speech and debate kid, loved to read, and for a brief time found an academic home with one of his middle school English teachers who ran her classrooms like a salon. Though it is absolute conjecture on my part, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists had spent time reading some of Winston Churchill’s speeches from WWII. I’m not saying that Omar’s linguistic skills rivaled the Nobel Prize winner, but I am saying that he knew his audience and how to capture their attention.

“Drip by drip, shot by shot, only gonna  get us the death we sought,” rapped Omar in a music video he crafted which depicts in slow motion a bunch of young men with assault rifles running through the African bush looking like they are having the time of their lives. It isn’t a huge leap to see how a marginalized American who feels like he has nothing, and nothing to lose, might be called to arms.

“Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English — usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean,” says Andrew Roberts, author of a history of World War II called The Storm of War. “He also had an incredibly powerful delivery. And he did it at a time when the world was in such peril from Nazism, that every word mattered.” But what if you flip that narrative? Omar used rap and YouTube videos as a call to Jihad. He recruited American and some Canadian young men to join Al Shabaab in their fight against the fragile government that had formed after decades of civil war. It wasn’t a hard sell. Somalia, which is a Muslim country, had a fragile coalition of Islamic factions that had formed a government that had committed to peace. Their Christian next door neighbors in Ethiopia weren’t comfortable with an Islamic government so they invaded. Ethiopia had U.S. support and Omar was personally offended.

It is easy to say that we live in a post truth world but that is a disingenuous aphorism at best, and a lazy sound bite at worst. A more honest assessment of anything nuanced and complicated is that we don’t know what we don’t know and that to pretend to have the audacity to understand why someone becomes a doctor or a poet and someone else becomes an artist, a cop, a robber, a fisherman, and another becomes a terrorist is akin to having a crystal ball. What is different about our world now than it was before the Internet became ubiquitous is that information is no longer retail. It is wholesale, it is cheap, and we no longer no how or even perhaps care how to discriminate between what is real and what is propaganda. What is true is that the delivery system of information is what we have to consider when we distill information. This is not original thinking. It is an idea that has pervaded my thinking since I heard it the first time in a college documentary film class as a teenager. “The medium is the message,” cautioned Marshall McLuhan about the medium of television. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the internet but it deserves to be treated with the skepticism we reserve for the supermarket checkout lines.

One of my favorite things about podcasts is that it’s not just a free choice of how to acquire information but a deliberate choice. There are over 700,000 active podcasts and over 1.9 million episodes available to listen to. You could do yourself a solid and check out any from Across the Margin and I promise that you will be delighted by someone else’s curiosity that aligns with your own. This isn’t a shameless plug. I meant what I said, information like what you are reading is wholesale. You can, if you desire, do as I did and dive into the New York Times archives and read Andrea Elliott’s 2010 article, “The Jihadist Nextdoor.” You can watch Putzel’s documentary on YouTube from the defunct news network, Current TV. Last I checked it had less than eight hundred views, which is a shame. It’s a primer on investigative journalism, remains dispassionate, and is entertaining. And I couldn’t recommended more getting hooked on American Jihadi. I am.

Christof Putzel (Host) Bio: 

Christof Putzel has spent the past fifteen years covering conflicts around the world, including the wars in Iraq and Somalia, the drug war in Mexico, political turmoil in Yemen and Egypt, and gun violence in Chicago. His work has won two Columbia DuPont Awards, a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, an Overseas Press Club Award, and nominations for five News & Documentary Emmys. Most recently, he was a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera America.

Release Schedule:

Monday, December 2nd —   Episode 1: “The Matrix”
Monday, December 9th —    Episode 2: “Omar”
Monday, December 16th —  Episode 3: “Omar In Paradise / Somalia”
Monday, December 23rd  — Episode 4: “Omar As Al Shabaab”
Monday, January 13th  —     Episode 5: “Friendship”
Monday, January 20th —      Episode 6: “Omar Online”
Monday, January 27th —      Episode 7: “Aftermath”
Monday, February 3rd —      Episode 8: “Epilogue”



Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer, photographer, and mother. The editor in chief of StatoRec, Jennifer’s work has appeared in At Large Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pank Magazine, Quiet Lunch, Fjords Review, and Honeysuckle Magazine. She is the producer of several film projects.

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