An American from Alabama who ascended the ranks of Somalia's al-Shabaab armed group high enough to attract a $5 million US government bounty has been killed in an ambush ordered by the group's leader, witnesses said.
Residents in al Baate village in southern Somalia said Omar Hammami, commonly known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or 'the American', and a British national known as Usama al-Britani, were shot dead in a dawn raid on their hideout.
Hammami's killing exposed widening rifts in al-Shabaab's top ranks as the group affiliated to al-Qaeda grapples with an African Union-led military offensive that has captured key cities from it, depriving the group of revenues.
"This morning al-Amriki and his comrades were attacked by well-armed fighters," said village resident Hussein Nur on Thursday.
"After a brief fight al-Amriki and his two colleagues were killed. Several of their guards escaped."
A second villager confirmed the gun battle and said he had heard al-Shabaab fighters confirm the deaths, though he had not seen the bodies.
Hammami is believed to have arrived in Somalia aged 22 in late 2006, shortly before a US-backed Ethiopian military incursion into the Horn of Africa country to rout an Islamist administration that had dislodged the government.
YouTube rap videos
Fluent in Somali, Hammami swiftly became an influential leader of al-Shabaab's foreign fighters, battling to topple a
government seen as a Western puppet and impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law on Somalia.
He gained fame for posting YouTube videos of English-language rap songs he hoped could recruit young fighters.
He first expressed fear for his life in a web video in March 2012 that publicised his rift with al-Shabaab. He said he received another death threat earlier this year that was not carried out.
"Just been shot in neck by Shabab assassin. not critical yet,'' Hammami tweeted in April.
He later wrote on Twitter that the leader of al-Shabaab was sending in forces from multiple directions.
Hammami had been a thorn in the side of al-Shabaab after accusing the group's leaders of living extravagant lifestyles with the taxes fighters collect from Somali residents.
Another Hammami grievance was that the Somali leaders had sidelined foreign members of al-Shabaab.
Hammami was added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terror list in November 2012 and a $5m bounty was offered for information leading to his capture.