RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we just heard from Somalia's president, al-Shabab has a foothold in several parts of that country. That's where an American man named Omar Hammami had been living. Hammami left the U.S. to join al-Shabab. In 2012, the FBI put him on their most wanted list. Last week, Hammami was reportedly killed with members of al-Shabab after a falling out with its leadership. In the months before he died, Hammami posted his concerns for his safety in a video on YouTube after tensions developed within the group. And he started tweeting from a newly created Twitter account. He also began to communicate with a journalist named J.M. Berger. Berger wrote about their interaction in a piece for Foreign Policy. It was called "Omar and Me: My Strange, Frustrating Relationship with an American Terrorist." And Berger told me he first reached out to Hammami on Twitter.
J.M. BERGER: I encouraged him to email me because at first I was - didn't really want to promote this account that he had created. Basically, I didn't want to do any favors for someone who was a wanted terrorist and help him get publicity. Over time, he talked to me for a while when he was at the height of fear for his life early in 2013. He was a great attention-seeker, and I think that an audience of one was not adequate for him. So, after that, starting in January and continuing through his death, we had a mix of public and private communications.
MARTIN: Can you describe the personality that emerged over the course of those conversations?
BERGER: He had done a fair number of videos and quite a bit of writing that kind of gave you a sense of who he was, and that person was someone who was bright, who had some blind spots, obviously, in some of his judgments. But he was bright and he was funny. Omar's sense of humor was unusual. It was goofy. He would make strange references to pop culture and he could be very childlike at one moment and childish in the next. And, you know, above all, he was just very much committed to the cause he believed in but also very enamored of his own role in events.
MARTIN: Why did you keep talking with him? I mean, initially you wanted an interview, you got that. What were you looking for out of this relationship?
BERGER: There were different elements to it. I mean I, obviously, having ongoing information about him was interesting to me professionally. And doing it in public had a lot of interesting side benefits. In the private conversations, I increasingly, you know, I started it because it had a professional interest and it became kind of routine. And there was something - we often talk about the way that social media is transforming the world and transforming extremism and I think this is really a strong example is that it could just become part of my daily routine to check in with Omar, check in with a terrorist with professed love of al-Qaida in Somalia on the other side of the world. And it's just part of my day.
MARTIN: What was the last exchange you had with him?
BERGER: About a week before he died, he did an interview with Voice of America in Somalia, which was intended mostly for a Somali audience. He was trying to win support against the emir of al-Shabab, Ahmed Godane, and hopefully try and stay alive a little longer and stay fighting a little longer. And when he showed up in this interview, he put out one last tweet on his public "Abu M American" account in which he just commented that he was still a terrorist despite breaking with al-Shabab. So I contacted him privately when he showed up there and I asked him why - you've just said that you've broken with al-Shabab, you've broken with al-Qaida, why insist on being a terrorist? What meaning does that have for you that - what does it accomplish for you that does any good? And he never responded to that. So, that was where we left it.
MARTIN: How do you feel about your relationship with him now? Do you have any ambivalence about his death?
BERGER: I think - it's very difficult to find the right words for it. I mean, I think his death was a terrible waste of a young life. Our interactions were not nothing and he was a strange guy and there was a strange kind of camaraderie that we developed. So, it's a little strange to think that I won't be trading tweets with him again.
MARTIN: J.M. Berger's account of his correspondence with Omar Hammami is at ForeignPolicy.com. J.M. Berger joined us from member station WGBH. Thanks so much for talking with us.
BERGER: Thank you for having me.
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