As Yemen seethes in a rising bout of terrorism, with the killings of a prominent Yemeni politician and three American missionaries, Islamic fundamentalism in the country has been put on the frontlines. Already, one of the terrorists has admitted associating with suspected al Qaeda members. Once again, we see that in Yemen, as throughout the rest of the world, extremism rarely exists in a vacuum. Radicalism and hatred need to be implanted, incubated, and cultivated, much in the same way that any political or social movement requires a broad base of financial and ideological support. In the case of the two Yemenis who committed these recent atrocities, they relied spiritually, if not logistically, on Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a prominent radical Yemeni sheikh who has served as a mentor to Osama bin Laden and worked very closely with a Saudi governmental charity.
Often, in the world of jihadism, we find that behind every attack is an individual who sanctions, exhorts, and approbates terrorist activities, all the while never actually taking part in a physical aspect of the operation. For example, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, “the Blind Sheikh,” issued the fatwah calling for the destruction of several New York landmarks. His followers attempted to carry out the attacks, solely based on Rahman’s instructions and religious justifications, though luckily they were caught before they could do any damage. Rahman is now serving a life sentence for his role in the attacks.
Zindani, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, is no different than the Blind Sheikh. He leads the Iman University in Sanaa, a powder keg of radical ideology and activity. There, he sermonizes to malleable youths, convinces them to hate the West, and justifies terrorist attacks. Zindani has released cassette tapes of his rhetoric, in which he maintains that President Bush and Jews conspired together to create September 11. As a result of Zindani’s leadership, the university has trained several religious extremists to the point of militantism; the terrorists involved in Yemen’s recent attacks attended the school. Perhaps Iman University’s most famous alumnus is John Walker Lindh, who studied there extensively and arduously before heading to Afghanistan and joining the Taliban.
While Zindani has taught thousands of students at Iman University, his most infamous pupil never attended the school. Zindani has known Osama bin Laden since the 1970s. They were in Afghanistan together fighting the Soviets, though Zindani took more of a spiritual role for the mujahedeen, rather than serving on the front lines. Zindani was wanted by the FBI for questioning related to the al Qaeda attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, hinting that Zindani’s ties to bin Laden remain as strong as ever.
Founded by Zindani in 1995, Iman University is funded by several gulf states, among them Saudi Arabia. With some 5,000 students at the university, the school provides the proper breeding ground for extremists: young, disenchanted, extremely impressionable individuals surrounded by people like them. These students reinforce each other’s insecurities to engender an almost mob mentality against the West. Thus, the actions of one student rarely is the result of only that one student’s motivation. Behind every gunman or bomber is a legion of similar-minded citizens, whom Zindani has warped to condone such attacks.
Yemeni authorities have begun to arrest a host of students at Iman University for connections to the recent terrorist attacks, despite there being only two gunmen, indicating that several students were somehow involved in the attacks. One Yemeni official corroborated to the Agence France Presse, “Many students at Al Iman University in Sanaa suspected of extremist activities and having links with the assassins of the three American missionaries and the number two of the Yemeni Socialist party Jarallah Omar were arrested Thursday.”
Zindani’s strength lies in his legitimization by authoritative powers. Because of the Yemeni government’s inability to control its fundamentalist problem, Zindani serves as one of the leaders of the major Islamist political party in Yemen, al-Islah, earning him the respect and support of the people. The party itself is extremely radical, with values akin to the Taliban. Both the terrorists involved in the recent attacks against the Yemeni politician and the Americans belonged to the al-Islah party. Zindani’s teachings become that much more seductive when he already garners the respect of much of the people.
Saudi Arabia has further legitimized Zindani, treating him as a respected scholar. The Al-Haramain Foundation, a large Saudi charity whose assets have been frozen in two countries for terrorist activities, chose Zindani to spearhead its “It-Is-Truth” Internet campaign. The campaign seeks to prove that the Koran presaged all of mankind’s scientific knowledge, from the Big Bang to gestation.
In 1984, Zindani approached the Saudi government’s largest charity, the Muslim World League, to establish a Commission on Scientific Signs. Though Zindani no longer has any official role with the Muslim World League, he still is invited to its events. Indeed, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, Dr. Abdullah al-Turki, met with Zindani in early 2002 to discuss how to serve Islam and Muslims.
Zindani exists as powerful figure on the Yemeni political and social landscape, legitimized by much of the people of Yemen and the Saudi government. His presence and character is a testament to the extremism bubbling in Yemen, if not much of the Middle East. The two individuals who carried out these recent terrorist attacks in Yemen utilized Zindani’s institutions, both material and metaphysical. The Saudi Arabian government treats Zindani as though he truly were an Islamic scholar. While such extremism and miseducation continues unbridled in countries like Yemen, tacitly supported by the benediction of the Saudis, the terrorist breeding grounds remain fertile.
— Josh Devon is an analyst at the SITE Institute, based in Washington, DC.