Heart of Empire — January 16, 2015, 2:07 pm

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the January 2020 issue

Election Bias

The new playbook for voter suppression

Conversation December 10, 2019, 12:03 pm

To Know the Disease

Wendell Potter, a former health care executive, reveals the unified corporate effort against Medicare for All—and how those talking points are echoed by candidates and debate moderators

From the October 2019 issue

Power of Attorney

Can progressive prosecutors achieve meaningful criminal-justice reform?

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
Waiting for the End of the World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1.

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today