MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) Before September 11, 2001, terrorism was a word you heard on TV newscasts. Deadly explosives and suicide bombs were foreign, crazy talk, something that would never happen here. But on 9/11, Americans got a taste of terrorism first hand. For one boy in Daphne, Alabama, it changed his life.
His name is Omar Hammami. He grew up in world of high school football and homecoming dances. But now he's a terrorist himself, seen worldwide in terrorist propaganda videos.
One of those videos show a bearded white man dressed in camouflage, speaking to men with guns. He is confident and calm, delivering a message many would find terrifying:
"The only reason we're staying here away from our families away from the cities... away from, you know, ice, candy bars all these other things - is because we are waiting to meet with the enemy."
Abu Mansour Al-Amriki is a leader of a terrorist group known as 'Al-Shabaab', based in southern Somalia. Terrorism experts say the group is like Al-Qaeda. The group kills with the hope of establishing their ideal Islamic state.
Al-Amriki, a ringleader and propagandist, was once known as Omar Hammami.
A woman who says she was one of Hammami's close friends talked to FOX10 about him. She says he was a cool kid who got involved with the wrong crowd. She wanted to keep her identity secret.
"Everybody loved him. The nerds liked him because he was smart, girls loved him because he had such a charisma about him, and he was just funny, everybody loved him," she said.
She and Omar first met at Daphne Middle School and became good friends. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, Omar was a normal kid. The woman said his loves included friends, Friday night football games, and Nintendo. She was immediately struck by his brilliance.
"Anything that had a heavy subject, he looked for concrete answers and he just got consumed with it. And would do anything to find his side and then he'd debate his side, he'd convince himself and then convince others."
Omar excelled in his classes.
"In our gifted class, we had a cardboard boat race, where we had to make boats out of cardboard and duct tape and his was ingenious, and of course he won. I just remember him paddling his little heart out and he won and broke the record. Like four minutes, I think it was," she recalled.
The woman saved a poem that Omar wrote called 'A place to think'. The poem read:
Transparent blue water
washed over my toes,
paralyzed them, wrapped them
with its cool sensation, with hands I
tasted the now shimmering
yellow water, soothing my dry throat,
like a forever running faucet, a never
closed dam, the water never
ceasing, it's all of these things and more,
it is a refreshing drink of water
on a summer day, a place to dream,
a place to think.
"He wanted something else, another purpose in life and for me, that's what he's saying," the woman said.
Omar was raised by a Baptist mother and Muslim father, and the boy chose his side.
"He hated his dad's religion. At first he was completely rebellious against it," she said.
But Omar had an open mind. The woman said as they grew up and approached high school, he began studying more about the Islamic faith and soon converted. Then, on September 11, 2001 his world, along with the rest of the world, changed dramatically.
The woman said the attacks left Omar conflicted. Shortly after the tragedy, Omar Hammami spoke with FOX10 News.
"Islam is a diverse religion with a lot of misconceptions surrounding it," Hammami said in the 2001 interview.
"He wanted to know why a Muslim could possibly do this and that's when he started just doing everything he could to find out," the friend said.
Fox News reported that Hammami dropped out of the University of South Alabama and traveled the world as he grew deeper and deeper into Islam.
A terrorism expert tells us Hammami eventually became enamored with the idea of jihad, or a Muslim holy war, and made his way to Somalia where he joined a group called Al-Shabaab.
"They have a similar vision to groups like Al-Qaeda, which see this as a worldwide conflict against non-Muslim powers," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.
He added Al-Shabaab had a deep commitment to implement 'Sharia law', a very strict version of Islamic law.
The Council on Foreign Relations says under Sharia law, if a person is caught in adultery or drinking alcohol, the person could be stoned, amputated or executed.
Al-Shabaab is an extremist group located in southern Somalia. But the group hopes to expand. They are a very capable fighting force. Using guns, bombs and suicide bombers, they've killed U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces which have tried to bring order to this lawless country. In February 2008, the U.S. Government designated Al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda has publicly supported Al-Shabaab's efforts.
"There's very explicit outreach to Al-Qaeda,