An Alabama-born militant who ascended the ranks of Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab and found himself on the FBI's Most Wanted list with a $5 million bounty was killed Thursday in a dawn ambush ordered by the rebel group's leader, it was claimed.
Omar Hammami, a native of Daphne, Alabama, who was known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, or "the American," died in southern Somalia following several months on the run after a falling-out with al-Shabaab's top leader, the militants said.
Reports of Hammami's death crop up every few months in Somalia, only for him to resurface a short while later. But a U.S. terrorism expert who closely follows the inner workings of al-Shabaab says he thinks that the current reports of the death are accurate.
"I think it's very likely true based on the sources I am seeing," said J.M. Berger, who runs the website Intelwire.com.
Berger, a specialist in extremist activity on social media, bases his assessment on "highly reliable" al-Shabaab sources in Somalia. Previous rumors of Hammami's death originated from African government and military sources, who Berger says were not reliable.
Militants did not immediately present proof of Hammami's death.
A member of al-Shabaab who gave his name as Sheik Abu Mohammed told The Associated Press that some of his associates killed Hammami in an ambush in Somalia's southern Bay region.
Along with Adam Gadahn in Pakistan -- a former Osama bin Laden spokesman -- Hammami is one of the two most notorious Americans fighting in radical armed groups. He grew up in Daphne, a community of 20,000 outside Mobile, the son of a Christian mother and a Syrian-born Muslim father.
His YouTube videos, that featured him rapping, and his presence on Twitter made him one of the most recognizable and studied U.S. foreign fighters. The U.S. put Hammami on its Most Wanted terrorist list in March and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
U.S. prosecutors had charged Hammami with providing material support to terrorists.
Hammami moved from Alabama to Somalia, by way of Toronto and Egypt, and joined al-Shabaab in about 2006.
He fought alongside al-Shabaab for years until they had a falling out amid signs of increasing tension between Somali and foreign fighters in the group. His public criticisms of the militant group over the Internet may have been the reason for his targeting.
Hammami accused al-Shabaab's leaders of living extravagant lifestyles with the taxes fighters collect from Somali residents. Another Hammami grievance is that the Somali militant leaders sideline foreign militants inside al-Shabab and are concerned only about fighting in Somalia, not globally.
Hammami first expressed fear for his life in a web video in March 2012 that publicized his rift with al-Shabaab.
The first serious attempt on his life was made in April, according to Hammami's Twitter account.
"Just been shot in neck by shabaab assassin. not critical yet," he tweeted after the April attack. He later wrote on Twitter that the leader of al-Shabaab was sending in forces from multiple directions. "we are few but we might get back up. abu zubayr has gone mad. he's starting a civil war," Hammami posted.
The leader of al-Shabaab, Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, also known as Godane, is reportedly on a mission to silence an alliance of dissenters that has coalesced around Hammami. With his active social media presence and considerable Western audience, Hammami is "a visible face to the outside world," Berger says.
Berger said that Hammami has been "a thorn in the side of al-Shabaab" for more than two years and "one of the few surviving dissenters after Godane's bloody purge over the summer."
Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu commented over Twitter that if Hammami has in fact been killed, “it’d mean that anti-Godane alliance is almost neutralized.”
Dissenters have been voicing their grievances with al-Shabaab over social media for years now, Berger says, but they remained under the radar in the West until Hammami started tweeting.
The Somali government has been known to overplay the role of foriegn extremists like Hammami in al-Shabaab in a bid for more funding from Western countries. In this regard, Godane viewed Hammami as a liability.
Militants in Somalia have long hosted foreign fighters in the country. U.S. officials say that al-Shabaab, which has been around since about 2006, counts several hundred foreign fighters among its ranks, including several dozen Somali-Americans from Minnesota.
Al-Shabab and al-Qaeda announced formal merger in February 2012, but the Somali militant group maintained a reputation as being hostile to foreign fighters.
"Hammami brought a lot of unwelcome outside scrutiny on Shabaab from the international jihadist community. His story will likely be a case study on what can go wrong when Westerners join jihadist movements," Berger said.
Al Jazeera with wire serrvices