News that U.S.-born terrorist Omar Hammami died in Somalia was met with sadness and relief by people who knew him in the Mobile, Alabama, suburb of Daphne. Many people there were shocked that a local boy had taken up with an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, and Hammami's activity with al-Shabab created some friction with Muslims in his hometown. But, some remember him as a good guy.
People in southern Alabama received the reports that al-Shabab gunmen killed Omar Hammami in Somalia with some caution, because there had been previous false reports. But most people following the news from far-away East Africa knew he was in great danger after breaking away from the Somali militant group and criticizing its leader.
His father, Shafik Hammami, spoke to VOA shortly after learning his son was dead.
"I was shocked and of course did not believe it, because we’ve been through this before many times. And I was hoping and praying this would be like the news in the past and would not be true," he said.
The elder Hammami immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1972. His son, Omar, was born in Alabama in 1984. Shafik Hammami says his son became a devout Muslim, but he does not know how he became a radical.
"My own judgment is that he had good intentions to fulfill his Islamic principles, but he was deceived by the al-Shabab and their murderous ways. He rebelled against them because he did not approve of their ways, that is, not in the Islamic tradition and Islamic teachings," he said.
Mike Faulk went to high school with Omar Hammami and was in an international studies class that often produced heated debates. In one incident, Hammami attacked him and tried to choke him. The honor student was suspended for a few days, but Faulk says when Hammami returned, all was well.
"He came back to class and apologized. We got along. We had very big disagreements, but he was intelligent and he could have done good things with his life," said Faulk.
Faulk now works as a reporter for the Yakima Herald newspaper in Washington state. He says the Alabama community on the east side of Mobile Bay where he and Omar grew up was typically American, steeped in the music and movies that were popular in the rest of the country. From time to time, this influence would show in cultural references that Hammami made in his promotional messages on behalf of al-Shabab.
Faulk says it is sad that his classmate turned his back on the good life he could have had.
"He chose to be - he became, for lack of a better term - one of the bad guys, but for some time in his life he was one of the good guys," he said. "It is tragic that he made these choices so that he will never be remembered for the person he was before that: the kid who had sleepovers, played soccer, ate popcorn and watched, in quotes, 'all the movies everyone in our town grew up watching.'"
Because of his activities with al-Shabab, the U.S. government had charged Omar Hammami with providing material support to a terrorist organization and offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.