In recent days, German authorities have arrested two Yemeni men at the request of the FBI. The suspects were accused of organizing significant fundraising activities on behalf of al Qaeda, though they were not thought to have held any official positions within the terrorist organization itself. Both men were also known members of the Yemeni Al-Islah political party, which immediately proclaimed their innocence and denounced their arrest. Yet Al-Islah party membership seems to form a common link between not only these men, but a host of other Yemeni terrorist suspects linked to both Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
In fact, in the past few weeks alone, two other Islah party members, Ali Jarallah and Abed Abdul Razak Kamel, have been arrested for committing violent terrorist acts. On December 28, Ali Jarallah, a known Islamic extremist and Islah partisan, assassinated the deputy secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist party. Jarallah was finally found and arrested by local authorities at the house of parliamentary speaker and Islah party leader Abdullah al-Ahmar. Barely two days later, Al-Islah activist Abed Abdul Razak Kamel rampaged through the Jibla Southern Baptist missionary hospital in southern Yemen, killing three American volunteer aid workers in a bid “to get closer to God.” The attacks were later found to be connected and are believed to have been carried out on the orders of senior al Qaeda operatives.
Most unsettling of all, the links between Al-Islah and al Qaeda run to the very top of the two groups. Shaykh Abdul-Majid az-Zindani is the longtime ideological leader of the Al-Islah party and is also a celebrated veteran Arab mujahedeen commander. From 1984 to 1990, Zindani brought between 5,000 and 7,000 Arabs — including many Yemenis — to al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan for military training and religious teaching under his personal guidance. He was an integral part of the Arab-Afghan movement and is reputedly a close confidant and friend of Osama bin Laden.
In the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan jihad, Zindani encouraged refugee Arab-Afghan fighters loyal to al Qaeda to resettle and continue their training in the mountainous regions of Yemen. There he started his own religious university, the very same institution where future American Taliban John Walker Lindh was to study before traveling on to Pakistan. Moreover, in 1994, according to a Jordanian criminal indictment, Shaykh az-Zindani gave $10,000 on behalf of Osama bin Laden to help finance a radical Islamic terrorist cell in Jordan that committed several fatal bombings.
Cassette tapes of Zindani’s fiery sermons in the wake of September 11 show him alleging, among other things, that President George Bush conspired with the Jews to destroy the World Trade Center and then blame it on Muslims. A year later, in September 2002, Egyptian television played a lecture of Zindani brandishing an AK-47 and openly denouncing “George [Bush], the [infidel] governor” of the Muslim world. Though Zindani went on to note that currently “[a]ll the Muslims lands are under the control of the infidel Christians,” he happily added that, in time, “Islam will achieve victory and overwhelm the world.”
All this presents something of a problem for the relatively mainstream secular Yemeni government. As part of its major platform, Al-Islah has both advocated and staunchly defended fundamentalist religious schools in Yemen — such as the one operated by Shaykh Abdulmajeed Az-Zindani — that feed the Arab-Afghan recruiting pool. An official statement released by the Al-Islah party called these militant schools “one of the greatest achievements of the revolution and of Yemeni unity.” In fact, they serve most notably as a breeding ground for ignorance and anti-Western hatred.
Though heavily influenced by hard-line Islamic and tribal elements, Al-Islah is nonetheless still the largest and most-influential opposition party in the county, and its support has been vital to keeping Yemen’s Left-wing parties in check. Overall, it is a powerful local political force with a broad base of well-armed tribal proponents. Thus there is little official enthusiasm for forcing major changes on this recalcitrant group of conservatives. Should President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security forces continue to permit al Qaeda’s oldest friends to find legitimacy and safe haven in the ranks of Al-Islah, the overall Yemeni commitment to the international war against terrorism must be brought into serious question.
— Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995. He is currently writing a book, The Martyrs of Bosnia: Al-Qaida’s War of Terror in Europe.