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.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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