In “The Jihadist Next Door,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrea Elliott’s Sunday cover story in The New York Times Magazine, Elliott turns her laser focus on the journey of one American youngster who decides to join a Somali terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.
By going deep into one particular story, this long-form feature sheds light on bigger issues. But as I read her opening grafs, I worried that Elliott was going to give short shrift to the story’s religious dimensions.
Sentences like this one, which appeared high up in the story, teased the reader but were not immediately developed:
Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar [Hammami] went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve.
On the second page of the 12-page story was another teaser:
Hammami’s journey from a Bible Belt town in America to terrorist training camps in Somalia was pieced together from interviews with his parents, sister, best friends and law-enforcement officials, as well as hours of home videos and passages from his e-mail messages, journal entries and hundreds of his postings on an Internet forum.
A later sentence seemed to link “Alabama’s conservative Christian culture” to a previous paragraph’s mention of Ku Klux Klan, but this may have been merely an unfortunate transition.
Once the stage is set, Elliott dives into her subject’s warring religious loyalties:
Yet for all of his social triumph, Hammami was consumed with a profound internal conflict. He didn’t know whether to be Muslim or Christian.
Omar was raised by a father who came to America from Syria and a mother who had Omar baptized in the local Baptist church. Somehow mom and dad found a way to make their two-faith marriage work, but as Omar grew older he became obsessed over questions of religious identity. In time began wearing Arabic robes to school and praying to Mecca at the flagpole where Christian students regularly gathered for their prayers.
We know Omar is headed for big trouble when he develops a more-fundamentalist-than-thou mindset and begins “searching for guidance on the Internet.” Before long he moves to Toronto, to join the Muslim community there, and on to Somalia where he rapidly climbs the jihadist ladder to emerge as a leader with his own YouTube recruitment videos. (He shows up at about 2:30 into the video featured at the top of this post.)
Dear Ms. Elliott: I am sorry I let a few early teaser sentences lead me to briefly doubt you. This is a great and fascinating (and disturbing) piece of journalism. I can only imagine the hard work you did to establish trust and communication with Omar’s family members and his jihadist brethren. And the hundreds of reader comments show that you have hit a nerve with your in-depth reporting.