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A Militia, a Madrassa, and the Story Behind a Siege in Yemen


The worst moments in the siege of Dammaj came in late November and early December of last year. During those weeks, the villagers in this little-visited, extraordinarily pious settlement in the northwest corner of Yemen had no access to the only hospital in the region, and dwindling supplies of food. Meanwhile, from day to day, snipers in the hills picked off the citizens as they walked to their mosque.

The origins of this conflict lie in the age-old Sunni-Shia split. The attacking army is made up of fighters who adhere to a tradition within Shia Islam known as Zaydism. Most of the 10,000 villagers are students in an academy that considers itself one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of Sunni Islam. The students say they have come to this high-altitude valley to live as scholars and to memorize. The Zaydis reply that their “academy” is a conspiracy funded by Saudi-Salafi zealots, and that the zealots have established themselves here in order to advance their dream of converting the globe to their Saudi-funded, Shiism-is-heresy version of Islam. On these points, the Zaydis may well be on to something. 

ANYONE WHO has traveled in the region will know that Dammaj is an extraordinary feature in the Yemeni landscape. Most of the settlements on this desiccated, high-altitude plateau are ghost towns. Their young people have moved off to the cities or to nearby Saudi Arabia. With no one around to cultivate the land, the houses are being set upon by the advancing desert. Dammaj, in contrast, is a little jewel of grape vineyards, family garden plots, adobe neighborhoods, and makeshift mosques.

Its boom began in the early 1980s, in response to events that had occurred several hundred miles to the north, in Islam’s most sacred city. Most of the conspirators who were involved in the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979 were either killed within the mosque or beheaded soon thereafter, but one figure, a professor who was suspected of acting as a spiritual mentor to the conspirators, was only jailed. When this teacher, Muqbil al Wadi, was released, he returned to his native village, a hamlet of grape growers and tall mud fortresses in Northern Yemen. Soon a new academy, funded by whom exactly no one knew, was flourishing there.

At first, the academy did a quiet business catering to Saudi and Yemeni students, along with a sprinkling of ambitious seekers from North Africa and the Levant. In 2001, however, following Sheikh Muqbil’s death, a new sheikh permitted internet cafes to open in the village. He allowed the existing students to bring in wives and daughters.

Then came September 11. Far away, in Europe and America, Muslims began to complain of a climate of hostility, especially on airplanes and in subways. Many Western Muslims felt that their governments were expelling the best imams, and that their mosques had become second homes for agents in the state spy agencies. Meanwhile, rumors circulated in the mosques across the West: In a village in Northern Yemen, Islam was as it had been in the time of the Prophet—pure, uncompromising, and gathering strength.

Not long after September 11, cell phone service arrived in the village of Dammaj. Social networks spread across the internet. The students trickled in. When John Burns of The New York Times wrote about the village in 2000, he spoke of “dozens of Westerners, mostly of Arab descent.” Nowadays, the Westerners number in the hundreds—and they are not only of Arab descent but also come from Pakistani, Turkish, Nigerian, and Indonesian families who have been living in the West for generations. It’s not easy to put an exact number on the Westerners in Dammaj, even when one is living in the village, because the students’ wives and daughters, most of whom are not official students, rarely leave their homes. Not all the men have four wives, as Islam allows, but many of the Westerners have more than one.

During the past several weeks, trucks bearing food and medical supplies have made their way into the village, but the students remain in a precarious position. According to their own tally, some 35 of them, including an American called Abdur Rahman Wheat, have been killed to date. Who will protect the rest? In previous decades, this task has fallen to the Yemeni government, but its armies are now too busy falling apart to look after the academy. At present, the Yemeni Shia control all the supply routes to the village. They have superior numbers and heavier arms. They have not yet wiped Dammaj off the map, but if they feel like it, they probably can. 

On YouTube, the students have been posting videos which show how they’ve accommodated to the new order. To hinder incoming sniper fire, they have bricked up the windows in their mosque and draped plastic tarps over alleyways. They have transformed the village pathways into a system of battle trenches, with parapets made from stacks of sandbags.

Meanwhile, to judge by accounts the students have been posting to the internet, they are winning the war, though oddly enough, they are not really fighting. According to the campus discussion board (at the young people there have rather been busy with their prayers, classes, and ceremonies. Allah himself is taking care of the battle: “The night is shadowed by the sounds of the sniper,” writes Abu Laith al Britani in a dispatch from Dammaj that captures the dreamy quality of many of the students’ posts, “and when the morning comes, you can see the wonders of Allah and his supreme ability as the Houthies [Shia fighters loyal to the Houthi clan] lay motionless, destroyed, as Allah has caused many to perish, and the praise belongs to Allah.”

On this site, the students are always “the believers” and “the Muslims.” As for the Shia fighters, they are “dirty dogs,” “hypocrites,” “the enemies of Allah,” and often “raafidah.” This last term, “raafidah,” is a slur in Yemen which means “rejecters of Islam.” It is everywhere on the student website, for instance as follows: “The raafidhah are a group of cowards they just try to snipe from far distance. SO ASK ALLAH TO DESTROY THE RAAFIDHAH.” (Abu Fajr as Somali, November 7.)

IN JANUARY 2005, I took a job as a reporter for a local paper in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. During the year I worked at the newspaper, I often bumped into American Muslims at fast food restaurants and at the public basketball courts in Sana’a. The fact that we were hanging around in the same parks and at the same imitation Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the same Yemeni city gave us an instant basis for friendship, I felt. They did not agree. Nor did they want to tell me how they were getting on in their studies, what they were learning, or why they had left America. This, I felt, was unfair. A clique of unfriendly basketball players meant to keep me from an education in Islam? How illiberal, I thought. I liked the Koran and was interested in studying it, even though I was not myself Muslim.

So, professing to share their faith, I enrolled in these students’ school. Right away, before the first moment of the first class, I found myself distracted by the crowds in my mosque. Not only did American and Yemeni Muslims study here, I discovered, but so did dozens of Belgians, French, Chechens, Bosnians, and Britons. In subsequent days I heard rumors of far more westerners—“thousands” was the operative word—in the mountains along the Saudi border, in a village of students called Dammaj. It took me about a year to learn enough about Islam to be permitted to travel to this village. I arrived in the fall of 2006.

At that time, the Yemeni government, rather than the student body in Dammaj, was battling the Houthi army. For the students, the war was a relatively distant thing—a matter of explosions in the hills and roadblocks on the highways. Nevertheless, whenever the subject of the surrounding villages came up, the students employed the same epithets they employ on their website now: “dirty,” “disbelievers,” “from the party of Satan”—and, because rumors circulated about their permissive attitude toward alcohol, “drunks.”

Though we were not officially at war with the Houthies, we were certainly not at peace. Every now and then, the Zaydi minarets threatened to send missiles onto the roof of our mosque. Every now and then, our sheikh broadcast speeches from his roof, directed to listeners at the Zaydi end of the valley, in which he denounced them as Shia unbelieving enemies of God.

Because Islam obliges believers to defend their homes, and because our village had recently lived through two other Zaydi sieges, all the students owned Kalashnikovs. It was thought possible that the Zaydis could attack during the night. Because of this the students went out on Vietnam-style patrols of the village periphery in the evenings. Whenever they felt the need for additional weaponry, the students asked one of the village arms dealers to bring in more guns. This was as easy for the arms dealers as it was for the students since, as it happened, we lived within a twenty minute drive of one of the Peninsula’s largest arms bazaars. Kalashnikovs there cost about $50.

IN THIS sort of academy, Allah is in charge. Anyone doubting its future stability and happiness doubts Allah himself. To doubt Allah is to make oneself into a disbeliever. One wouldn’t want to do this in public, but from the beginning, I doubted. I suspected that in addition to imparting Islamic wisdom, the academy’s leader, Sheikh Yahya al Hajoree, meant to reduce his students to sheep. I suspected he did this to give himself more power.

I was confident that my fellow students, meanwhile, many of whom were in badly over their heads, were capable of wandering into trouble on their own. In the years since I left Dammaj, at least one of my fellow students did just that. In November 2008, a dorm mate whom we called Abdul Hakim, but later turned out to be named Carlos Bledsoe, was arrested at a highway checkpoint in Yemen for having overstayed his visa. He was held in a Yemeni jail for a little while, then deported. The following spring, he turned up at a mall in Little Rock, Arkansas armed with 562 rounds of ammunition and two high-powered rifles. There, he murdered Private William Andrew Long, and shot but did not kill Private Quinton Ezeagwula, After his arrest, he wrote a note to Kristina Goetz, a reporter at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he regretted not having received proper military training in Yemen: “Had I got this training my story would have ended a lot differently than it's going to end now. My drive-by would of been a drive-in, with no one escaping the aftermath!!” Later in the note, he expressed confidence in his future: “I knew this would end with the enemies of Allah killing me. But the good thing is—Martyrs don’t die!”

At some point during his stay in Yemen, the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Mutallab, made a video in which, a gun at his side, he said into the camera: “Oh, brothers on the peninsula of the Arabs, you have the right to wage war because your enemies are in your land … against the Christians and the Jews and their agents because the enemies are in your land.”

I don’t know if Mutallab studied in Dammaj or not, but the first time I watched this clip, it jolted me back to my former life in the village. The English-accented Arabic, the script the kid wants to memorize but hasn’t quite been able to, the conviction in his heart, the uncertainty in his eyes, the nearby gun—in Dammaj one has dozens of friends who live for years in this state of mind. Listening to them at their recitations, I could hear the frustration in their voices. I watched them give up, search the mosque with their eyes, then try again.

Some had been frank with me. Some had told me that they wanted to go home but didn’t have anywhere to go to, or in the enthusiasm of migrating from the lands of unbelief, had burned their passports. I knew several students who had asked the sheikh for his view on the wisdom of a return to life among the unbelievers. He had advised against it. Even if he had given his consent, most students didn’t have the money for plane tickets. Most of us were pretty much broke.

There were days when I woke up, performed my ablutions, listened as the sheikh sang Koran over the village loudspeakers and thought: Whatever is happening here cannot end well. There were other days when I woke up, climbed into the hills above the mosque and thought: For some of the young people here, the easiest way out will be suicide.

I THINK part of the problem had to do with jilted expectations. Nothing in their experience of reading about Yemen had prepared the students for years of slow-motion memorizing, for depression, and for the isolation one feels as a student of the Koran in Yemen. The longer you’re there, the more you feel the world outside slipping away.

Since the students generally get their information from one another, and since the students never express such doubts about Dammaj, these emotions are not discussed. Among the students, there is really only one story about Dammaj to be told:

Damaj Akhi [brother], its the place to learn, it is intense and there will be many brothers there to help and teach you, whether you prefer one on one or group teaching, its a win win situation. i advise you to come and benefit from such a place which in this time and era is certainly a lighthouse in what is a dark time . you will learn how to read , how to right , infact if you work hard and with the tawfiiq [consent] of allah and allah’s will you’ll learn arabic less then a year inshallah.

This commenter, writing in 2009 at, touches on the story’s most basic themes: the dark times, the lighthouse in Dammaj, the learned brothers who’ve united in Yemen in study. In a 2006 web essay intended for prospective students, an elder student in Dammaj, Abdallah Macphee, attended to the more advanced themes.

Dammaaj is the birthplace of the Reviver of the Sunnah, the Great Scholar Muqbil ibn Haadee Al-Waadi’ee. The Sheikh set up an institute of knowledge that by Allaah’s will has changed the face of Yemen … Now by Allaah’s grace the da’wah [teachings] of Ahlus-Sunnah [People of the Tradition] can be found in all parts in Yemen, stronger in some areas than others.

Here and in what follows, Macphee’s essay hints: Is it not odd that a great man should appear in an unknown village in an unvisited valley in northwest Yemen? Is it not interesting that the ancient faith should now be radiating from this village? Is it not a bit noteworthy that students and proselytizers from across the world should now be collecting on this spot?

No, none of this was odd—neither to Macphee nor to any of the other students with whom I studied in Dammaj. The revival is happening, they believe, because in the beginning of time, Allah directed his angels to write that it would happen—in this place, under this man’s direction, at this time.

Later in the essay, Macphee puts the big ideas aside in order to focus on the quotidian facts incoming students ought to understand before they turn up on campus. Not all was perfect in Dammaj, he wrote, and students should prepare themselves for nuisances. For instance, there was a trash problem in Dammaj and a sewage problem (resulting, he neglected to mention, in a typhus problem among the students). So newly arriving Westerners were often taken aback. “I advise the brothers and sisters that they read the history of our Prophet, May the peace and praise of Allaah be upon him,” Macphee wrote:

And I remind them that this dunyaa [life on earth] is not everlasting. We are all on a journey to our Lord and we will leave behind these belongings we have in this life. Our Prophet, may the peace and praise of Allaah be upon him has said: Be in this life as if you are a stranger or a traveler.

Something in Macphee’s writing must have struck a nerve because in the years since it was first posted, it has been passed from Islamic advice site to Islamic advice site, eliciting a flood of joyous responses along the way: “Salam aleikom dear brother!” wrote a correspondent who read the piece when it was posted to in 2008. This writer hoped to bring his mother and siblings to Dammaj. “I am a young brother and I live in sweden. I want some god [good] advice and that u say me how much a house with 4 room and kitchen 2 toilets coast. I dont need luxery. … InshAllah Damaaj is my final homeland before Akhirah [afterlife].”

In America, Macphee’s description of life in Dammaj elicited similarly enthusiastic responses. “i pray ALLAH lets me meet you there and i get to benefit from you,
your brother in Islam in CHICAGO,
” wrote Abu Yusef. Noting the enthusiasm of other blog fans, one correspondent addressed them all at once.

Please make sincere dua’a to Allah for your Salafi brother in the west, currently in the United States (California). I, too, am asking my Lord, but subhan’allah [glory be to god]—please ask the Lord of the Worlds to give me the means to leave Dar al Kufr [land of the unbelievers]. I am sick of this lifestyle, sick of the evils here, and sick of the kufur of these people. I want to make hijrah [immigration] … and Dammaj is on my mind!!!

MOST OF the westerners one meets in Dammaj are refugees from the urban ills of home. They’ve grown up in troubled neighborhoods, haven’t always succeeded in school, have lived through substance abuse issues, jail sentences, and have usually drifted a bit from city to city before coming to Yemen.

I’m sure they were remembering figurative rather than literal truths, but when they spoke of their earlier time in the West, they often seemed surprised to have escaped with their lives. They spoke of sinister forces, and of places that lived in darkness. At first, I thought the biggest threats in the West had been the violence and drugs of the inner cities, and perhaps also police harassment. They themselves spoke frequently about the wickedness of sex and commercial culture. Over time, however, I started to notice that in the background of these discussions there lurked an especially troublesome, impossible-to-escape force. In most cases, the name of this force was “dad.” The father-son argument fell out along these lines: The dads wanted the sons to get jobs, to respect authority, to give up the ridiculous pretense of Islamic scholarship, and to stop dressing like terrorists. If the sons couldn’t reconcile themselves to the West, they could get the hell out of the family. The sons told the dads to study the Koran.

By the time a student gets to Dammaj, he has traveled across the globe and backwards through the centuries. He has passed tests of endurance and Islamic learning. It won’t be easy for his dad—or any other authority figure from home—to bother him anymore because those authorities now live in a different universe, under different laws. The student himself is now embracing, even in the tiniest of actions, like peeing, the ancient, irrefutable laws. Every time he opens the Koran, he utters a tiny but musical (in Arabic, anyway) prayer: “I seek refuge in Allah from the Shaytan and from the djinn.” It would appear that he is now residing within the mother of all protective fortresses.

Now that the students’ sacred space is under a literal siege it ought not surprise anyone that the students are digging their battle trenches. Nor should it surprise anyone that they would like other Muslims to participate in their struggle. To this end, they have posted their sheikh’s most recent call to jihad on YouTube. This jihad, says Sheikh Yahya al Hajoree, is not merely an occasion to kill the Yemeni Shia, though of course it is that. This is a matter, he stresses, of Islam’s truest defenders versus its truest enemies, of aggression versus peace, of good versus evil. “You must use offense against the offensive,” he says, “and Allah the most high, declares, ‘Kill them until such time as Muslims are no longer divided among themselves.’”

*I HAVE been following news of this academy carefully in the press, have been held for questioning several times at U.S. borders, and once, for reasons I still don’t understand, was put in jail. Nothing in my reading or in my subsequent FBI interviews has given me the sense that the Western authorities know how many students are studying in Dammaj, what they are learning, or how the experience of studying the Koran in Yemen changes them. Nor do the authorities, in my view, understand how ready others are—those who are not in Dammaj yet feel themselves similarly hounded—to pour their emotions into the current battle. 

This last point—the empathy around the globe—can be understood by anyone with an internet connection. “May Allah break their backs,” writes Muslimah Salafi of the Yemeni Zaydi, “and place them in the deepest level of Hell Ameen.” This woman posts on a Facebook page, Tottenham Da’wah, that was set up to spread Islam in London. Meanwhile, on Twitter: “Brothers need to take off their Call of Duty computer games and go fight in the real world #Dammaj,” writes Umm Abdul Wahhaab whose Twitter profile says she is in London. “Make dua [prayers] for our brothers and sisters in dammaj the filthy shia are killing women, children and the elderly Allahu musta’an [god help them],” says Mutah Beale, whose 5,588 followers probably have to do with the movie he has out about his rap career (Life of An Outlaw) and his interesting bio (“Motivational Speaker, Business owner, former member of 2pac Outlawz”). His Twitter feed says he has lately been touring in Australia. 

It’s also clear that some of these internet observers have understood Sheikh Yahya’s underlying message: Everything is at stake in this battle because Allah’s truest sons are being attacked by his truest enemies.

We know who the truest sons are. Who are the truest enemies? “May Allah Destroy Those filthy dirty Mushrik [pagan] sons of the Jews, known as the SHI’AH,” writes a YouTube user, Nasir al Hamdani. “AMEEN and May Allah give victory to Ahl-us Sunnah [People of the Tradition].” Nabil’s YouTube profile says he is from Bradford, England.

When I was in Dammaj, I found that the students had absorbed this logic as well as could be expected: They were surrounded by a monstrous Other. Its powers were large but Allah was on the students’ side, and, by his will, the wicked people would die. The students would flourish.

During the first months of my studies, I thought that “flourish” meant “flourish here on earth.” In fact, this kind of flourishing is not the goal of a religious education in Yemen. One is rather meant to disassociate oneself from the things of this life, and to prepare for flourishing in the next.

What does it feel like to live within this state of disassociation? On November 26 of last year, in the hours after some 25 students were killed in an artillery barrage, an American Muslim in Dammaj delivered an hour-long sermon-by-phone to the Masjid Sunnah wa Tawheed in Durham, North Carolina. The imam of the mosque recorded the phone call and posted the recording to his blog.

The theme of this sermon was the excellence of a sinless, Islamic death. As he talked, this student, Abdul Hakeem, ranged through the sacred literature of Islam. Every assertion he made, he supported with an apposite quotation, memorized and recited, with fluid pronunciation, in the original Arabic. Some 50 students had been wounded in the artillery attack, and were now lying prostrate, beyond the range of any hospital. The Zaydis were threatening to move in with machine guns but Abdul Hakeem had other, more important news to impart. Because the hour of your death has been determined long ago, he told the congregants, you exercise no control over your end. Nevertheless, you should be preparing for it every minute of every day. He spoke with a dreamy, rhythmic affect in his voice, like someone having a vision. At the final hour, he said, the believers should rejoice: “When death approaches and he feels confident and he looks forward to meeting Allah, he doesn’t sit there in confusion and doubt. No! ... This is what you live for. This is what you dedicated your life for.”

Theo Padnos is the author of Undercover Muslim.