Is Omar Hammami dead in Somalia? – Evaluating Information Sources

Yesterday afternoon, the twittersphere broke into a brief flurry over the fate of Omar Hammami. The claim retweeted across Twitter was that Omar was killed.  Hhhhmmm, I had wondered about Omar’s fate this weekend but the reporting seemed a bit strange.  Here is where I’ve tracked the sourcing for this claim and if anyone knows other/better sources for this claim, please post them in the comments below.

Source – MyPetJawa first detected it from a tweet which said “Ommar Hamammi, aka al-Amriki — America’s Jihadist in Somalia is dead, said Foud Shangole, al-Shabaab’s chief operation”.  All of the other tweets I followed seemed to go back to this source. Today, I’ve heard from some others that Bar-Kulan broadcast this claim. (Update 1600 May 8)

The claim from Bar-Kulan (Updated 1600 May 8) didn’t  seem to make sense so I decided to fall back on my training to make my bet on Omar’s fate.  When evaluating information sources, I was taught to examine these factors to assess validity and reliability.

  • Motivation – Why is the source providing the information? What does the source of the information stand to gain by disclosing the event? If its a news outlet, then its readers and having a scoop which leads interested persons to advertisers.  If its a political group or a terrorist organization, a myriad of options could be multi-fold. 
  • Competency – Is the source of the information sufficiently capable of knowing and/or understanding the information they are provided?  The Internet is filled with both competent and incompetent sources.
  • Process – How was the information acquired?  Through what process did the information get from its beginnings to me? Can I follow the chain of information to see how the source knows the information? This is where primary and secondary sources come into play.  In general, the belief is that primary sources are better than secondary sources.  However, as anyone that has ever watched local TV news interviews can tell you, there are lots of incompetent or problematically motivated primary sources.  Likewise, there can be secondary sources that more accurately correlate multiple primary sources and combine it with analysis to provide a more accurate perspective on events – I have a group of these knowledge ninjas I rely on.
  • Product – What type of information product is it?  How does the type of information product influence its validity as a source? The information came in as text, video, audio…are there pictures?  Depending on the event and the context, the type of information product may matter significantly to its credibility.
  • Performance History – What is the reliability and validity of information from this source over time?  Does the information source provide good information on a routine basis?
  • General validity – In the context of the issue, does the information source provide information that makes sense in the context of the event?

Based on these factors, here is my quick assessment of this source.

Source – Bar-Kulan (Updated 1600 8 May) or any Somali news outlet for that matter –

  1. Motivation – I’m guessing by the tweets that these accounts are more of the journalist type and that the motivation is getting a scoop out in the public.  Media outlets and scoops from the Horn in general tend to be highly unreliable…here’s a similar claim about Hammami’s fate from last year.  Also, the other tweets in this feed seem to be very focused on general Somalia issues and sometimes critical of the U.S. from what I can tell.  The goal is to drive traffic, not get it right.
  2. Competency – Bar-Kulan (Updated 1600, 8 May) seems to follow Somalia issues in depth but I don’t have any real evidence to know why this source is particularly informed on Hammami’s fate other than its an interesting news item for the time.  (Updated 1600, 8 May)
  3. Process – This is completely unclear.  Did Bar-Kulan (Updated 1600, 8 May) interview Shangole? How did he know this information?  Or is it just rumor?    But why wouldn’t Shabaab just put this information out from its own sources? This is a distant secondary source at best.
  4. Product – The product is text – no pictures, video, etc.  This doesn’t match with other claims that come from Shabaab who tends to use pictures for big events like this.
  5. Performance History – For this source, I have none.  If anyone knows the track record of original sourcing of Bar-Kulan (Updated 1600, 8 May), I’d be interested.
  6. General Validity – The claim does make sense since Omar himself tweeted that he was on the run, surrounded and in trouble.  But, I’d need a lot more detail to feel comfortable with the claim.

Assessment – I have no reason to put much faith in this claim.

Here are some of my other thoughts on these claims.

  • So if the source is Shangole, let’s say, why would Shangole want the information out?  To show Shabaab’s competence in defeating one of their adversaries? Doubtful, they’ve bungled the Hammami thing for a year.   But I would guess that if Shabaab were subtly putting this information out, it’s because they want to draw Omar back out and gain further justification for killing him and maybe see if he’s still in the area.
  • I won’t believe anything till I see pictures – Omar has survived a great many close calls. I would expect this event to be accompanied with pictures.
  • Omar’s status could still change at any minute – Reports from both Omar and the media suggest Omar is surrounded and on the run.  Even with my assessment below, he could be killed at anytime.  And, I’ve not heard anyone talk about the possibility that Omar could die from wounds suffered during the assassination attempt.  Omar was shot in the throat in rural Somalia and may be on the run.  That wound could easily get infected and cause some problems over time.  He would not be the first person in Somalia to die from complications related to wounds.
  • Why hasn’t the Shabaab crowd been going crazy on Twitter if Omar was killed?  I would expect the Shabaab supporters to be chiming in and especially the MYC in Kenya.  They’ve long been Omar haters.
  • Why hasn’t Afghani, Robow or Aweys come to save Omar? Omar has boasted about these three being anti-Godane and Afghani appealed directly to Zawahiri for removal of Godane.  Yet, these guys, if they support Omar, do it only behind the scenes.  Ohhh, Omar, are you wondering where you are in this Game of Thrones? If Omar bashes Godane in public on Twitter, he’s a useful pawn for Afghani, Robow and Aweys.  But, if these guys publicly back Omar, they could be in poor standing with both Shabaab and al Qaeda.  Likewise, if Godane kills Omar, well, that would prove the allegations of Afghani about Godane’s corruption.  So for Afghani, Robow, Aweys, “Omar lives – they win, Omar dies – they win.”  Omar, there is another option, you could come home and turn yourself in before being betrayed on both sides.
  • The better sourcing on Omar’s fate is coming from those that cover the area where he is seeking refuge – the Rahanweyn clan.  Specifically, the website which covers events surrounding Omar’s trials and tribulations.  While I don’t trust any Somali news sources outright,  this article says that Omar’s assassination attempt has stirred up a ruckus around the area of Raama Caday, Somalia, which makes sense.  Supposedly Shabaab has tried to cut communications to the area and that would explain why Omar has been quieter.  This location would make sense as well in the context of Omar’s tweeting of being in Bay region, previously being in and around Merca, and Shabaab not being able to get militias from Gedo and Juba engaged to go after Omar. See the map below for what I think is a VERY rough estimate of the situation.  Take a grain of salt (or a bag of it) with everything I write.  But, this source would suggest Omar would be in a valid location, but a precarious one dependent on Rahanweyn protection and with few options.

So what is my take?  Well, if I had to guess, and the situation could change at any minute, I’d make the following guess on Omar’s fate as of now. (Taking a lesson from Nate Silver, I’ll make my prediction based on probabilities.

  • 75% chance he’s still alive – unless I see more signals and verification, I’m not believing he’s been killed.  I think Shabaab will be quick to take credit if they get him.
  • 20% chance he’s dead – whether he died yesterday or not, he’s still in an incredibly vulnerable position.  They’ve already tried to kill him a few weeks back, they could get him at any minute.
  • 5% chance Omar is and always has been part of a Zombie vanguard operating in Somalia. This would explain why he continues to escape death – he was never alive in the first place.

Here’s my crazy map below. My recommendation –  look for competent sources with access to the area highlighted in yellow as they will probably have the best information on Omar’s fate.  However, don’t just listen to me, use lots of sources, and tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll listen.

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