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[Heart of Empire]

Clerical Oversight


The Jihadist leader no one wants to touch

Recent tragic events in France have boosted the reputation of the late Anwar al-Awlaki as a master instigator of evil. Though Awlaki was dispatched by drone in 2011, he, or his extant YouTube sermons, helped inspire the Franco-Algerian Kouachi brothers, authors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Though the New Mexico-born cleric’s role in inciting murder should not be downplayed, it is worth noting that such focus provides welcome vindication of President Obama’s controversial decision to kill this American citizen without benefit of trial and conviction. In contrast, the career of a far more potent figure in promoting Islamic terror has attracted less attention than it should. Accounts of Saïd Kouachi’s progress toward the fatal encounter at the Charlie Hebdo office have mentioned in passing that when visiting Yemen in 2009 he attended Al-Iman University in Sana’a, an institution directed by Abdel Majid Al-Zindani, who was described by CNN as a “provocative cleric with a flaming red beard.” But Zindani has been much more than just a preacher. He fomented more bloodshed and misery than Awlaki could ever dream of — which raises questions as to why he was left unmolested by the United States for so long.

Coincidentally or not, one singular example of his baneful influence connects directly to the recent events in Paris. In the mid-1970s, Zindani spent time in Algiers and established a university there, also called Al-Iman. Visiting Yemen in the mid-1990s, Algeria’s current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, complained to his government hosts that Zindani’s arrival gave huge impetus to the whole violent jihadist movement in Algeria, leading to a fifteen-year civil war that killed as many as 150,000 people.

Like so many subsequently notorious jihadists, Zindani was active in the U.S.-directed anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yemenis recall that he was not merely involved in raising recruits in Yemen for the mujahiddin, he was also one of Osama bin Laden’s principal mentors. Meanwhile, he was active in Yemeni politics, cofounding a powerful Islamic political party that supported the government of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Among other responsibilities, he drew up what is still the syllabus for the Yemeni school system. (He has also laid claims over the years to some notable scientific advances, including cures for AIDS and hepatitis, using natural herbal compounds.) Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the Sana’a campus of Al-Iman, founded in 1993, enjoyed enthusiastic government protection, while the bulk of its funds, according to Yemeni government sources, were provided by Saudi Arabia.

The United States got around to placing Zindani on the terrorist list in 2004, citing his relationship to bin Laden and his active role in supplying weapons to Al Qaeda, but, interestingly, action stopped there. Al Iman continued to flourish, its heavily guarded and lavishly financed compound in the capital thronged with students from around the world. One visitor compared the atmosphere inside to me as a “cult headquarters” with inmates totally enthralled by their charismatic leader. For the government to move against him would be “impossible,” the Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani told 60 Minutes in 2011 in a rare media examination of Zindani’s role. “Zindani has a huge following,” he said. “They’re political allies.”

By that time, Zindani’s toxic shadow, stretching far beyond Yemen’s borders, should have been apparent for all to see. Among the Al-Iman graduates making names for themselves were John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as Umar Farouk al-Mutalab, the Nigerian “underwear bomber.” Saïd Kouachi, according to press reports, moved on from Al-Iman to fight in defense of a Saudi-funded Islamic fundamentalist institute in 2011, in the far north of Yemen that was under attack by Shiite Houthi rebels. Anwar al-Awlaki, also on the American death list, not only taught as a member of the faculty in Sana’a but had at one time worked for Zindani in the United States, raising money for the cleric’s “charities.” Coincidentally or not, this was at a time when Awlaki was living and preaching in San Diego and in close communication with Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, the two 9/11 hijackers residing in the city at that time.

It has been all the more strange, therefore, that despite this grim record, U.S. government officials have tended to adopt an insouciant attitude when queried about the threat posed by the red-bearded cleric, raising suspicions among some that Zindani’s relationship with U.S. intelligence may have at some time been closer than anyone would like to see publicized. Thus, despite the 2004 terrorist listing, he was left to preside over Al-Iman operations openly and unmolested, with occasional trips to visit his Saudi sponsors for the following decade. (The Saudis withdrew their funding in 2011 but were at least in part replaced by the Qataris.)

The Houthi rebels, officially reviled by the United States for their links to Iran and Hezbollah, have displayed no such ambivalence. I am told from Sana’a that Al-Iman was “the first target of the Houthis” when they took over the Yemeni capital last September. Zindani fled to the protection of tribes in the jihadist heartland around Marib, deep in the interior, and the school is now closed. But as events in Paris have made clear, his influence lives on.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book Kill Chain, The Rise of the High Tech Assassins (Henry Holt) will be published in March, 2015. @andrewmcockburn.

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October 2023

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