After Paris, revisiting the long road ahead in Yemen

France and Yemen do not belong to two different worlds after all

Manuel Almeida
Manuel Almeida
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“On the morning of that day 40 people were killed in Sanaa and nobody has talked about it", noted a Yemeni friend I met a few days after the tragedy in Paris.

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that France and Yemen do not belong to two different worlds after all. As the profiles of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks became public, their protracted path of training and radicalization also came to light. The oldest of the two Kouachi brothers who killed 12 people at the Charlie Ebdo newspaper reportedly spent time in Yemen where he was trained. During the attacks, both brothers repeated several times they were acting on behalf of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and there are unsubstantiated reports that AQAP has already claimed responsibility.

The name of one particularly influential militant preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, is now being put forward as the inspirational hand behind the attacks. Although he was killed on September 30, 2011 by a U.S. drone strike in the northern Yemeni provice of al-Jawf close to the border with Saudi Arabia, his dark legacy lives on. Successful and unsuccessful terrorist plots have been traced back to the America-born Yemeni preacher, a number of which took place after his death. Soon before being killed by French commandos, the older Kouachi brother reportedly recalled Awlaki’s name, who he allegedly met during his time in Yemen.

The Paris attacks were another stark reminder about the urgency to fight the root causes of radicalism

Manuel Almeida

While Awlaki was alive, jihadism experts often highlighted his talent of persuasion which he used when addressing an audience in English and Arabic, in person or via YouTube videos. He launched al-Qaeda’s English language magazine Inspire in 2010. In its first edition, which included an editorial by Awlaki, the magazine called for attacks on the editors and cartoonists who had published sketches of Prophet Mohammad. It published a list with their names, including the Danish duo Flemming Rose and Kurt Westergaard. As Theodore Karasik noted in his column earlier this week, the name of Charlie Hebdo’s Editor-in-Chief Stephane Charbonnier had also been included in the magazine’s list of targets in 2013.

In Yemen, however, Awlaki was not the first radical preacher to take issue with cartoons. In 2006 (the same year Awlaki was arrested in Yemen only to be released in late 2007), the Salafist preacher Abdul Majeed al-Zindani took issue with a number of Yemeni newspapers for reprinting Prophet Mohammad’s cartoons published in 2005 by a Danish newspaper.

Back in 2000, Zindani was at the forefront of another controversy over the serialized reprinting by state-owned newspaper al-Thaqafia of the novel Sana'a Madina Maftouha (Sanaa, An Open City), written in the 1970s by a Yemeni novelist. Zindani was part of al-Islah’s campaign against the paper over the accusation of insulting Islam, resulting in serious tensions between the ruling General People’s Congress and al-Islah. Three years ago, Zindani was widely accused of inciting protesters to storm the American embassy in Sanaa after the release of an obscure Islamophobic movie produced in southern California. Five protesters were killed by Yemeni security forces.

Zindani leads the Salafist wing of al-Islah (or Yemeni Congregation for Reform, the coalition formed by Hashid tribal leadership, businessmen and Islamist groups of various kinds). He is the founder of Iman University in Sanaa. He is also the figurehead of the Meeting for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice, an unofficial body tasked with informing the Yemeni police force about violations of Islamic law.

In 2004, Zindani was listed by the U.N. as an al-Qaeda associate and by the U.S. Treasury Department as “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” for providing financial backing to al-Qaeda through a network of charities. He was described by the U.S. government as “Bin Laden loyalist.”

A diplomatic cable available on Wikileaks described the reaction in Yemen to the U.S. designation of Zindani: “The designation was covered by all Yemeni newspapers and news websites except government-controlled media such as Yemen TV, Yemen's official news agency (SABA), Al-Thawra official daily, Aden-based October 14, and 26 September weekly of the Armed Forces of Yemen.”

Former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh did not accede to U.S. requests to freeze Zindani’s assets and restrict his travel. This was in line with Saleh’s general position on the matter. He was known for exploring international worries about the presence of al-Qaeda. In the past, I have spoken to well informed people who believed Saleh honored a pact of non-aggression with the organization’s local leadership.

Public reactions

Far more contentious has been the designation by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2013 of Abd Al-Wahab al-Humayqani as an al-Qaeda supporter. Humayqani is the secretary-general of the Rashad Union, Yemen’s first Salafist party created in March 2012. He was listed for his close ties to AQAP leadership, allegedly providing financial support to the organization with funds sent by AQAP supporters via a charity he supposedly runs, and (together with Zindani) allegedly issuing religious guidance in support for al-Qaeda’s operations.

The public reactions to Humayqani’s listing were quite strong. Media reports described posters appearing in public places in Sanaa with the words “We are all Homayqani.” The government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi sent the U.S. Treasury Department a letter condemning Humayqani’s designation, while his supporters argued he was actually critical of al-Qaeda’s actions inside Yemen.

The reluctance to counter the spread of radical ideas is not only due to widespread anti-Americanism in Yemen, or the political calculations of its former or current leaders. Zindani and Humayqani are recognized in Yemen as hardliners but also as an integral part of the political map and have close ties to key tribal leaders. Zindani is a leader of what became Yemen’s most powerful opposition party, until al-Islah members got ministerial posts in the national unity government formed in 2011. Humayqani participated in the National Dialogue Conference that aimed to set a new course for the country.

If needs be, the Paris attacks were another stark reminder about the urgency to fight the root causes of radicalism. While Yemen’s and regional leaders need to do far more, the fact that radicals and hardliners such as Zindani or Humayqani are so influential back home and not marginalized individuals should work as a warning that plenty of tact is required to fight this ideological battle. It is also a warning that it will take a long time.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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