I am sweating through my abaya as I drive to meet the sheik. It is a hot afternoon in Sana'a, and the sun beats down through an arid blue sky. Wispy pink and blue plastic bags that earlier held an afternoon's worth of the narcotic qat leaf float over the congested streets like kites, and children run up to cars paused at intersections, hawking everything from full flatware sets to the tiny perfume samples one might rip from an ad in a fashion magazine.
The university I'm heading for sits on a hillside on the outskirts of town, on land donated by the government in the 1990s. It is the alma mater of a number of high-profile militants, including the "American Talib" John Walker Lindh. Squatting outside the cafeteria, young male students wearing African skullcaps sip tea alongside those in the red-checkered headdresses of the Gulf, and, as my car rumbles past, they look up and meet my gaze, expressionless.
Sheik Abdul Majeed Al Zindani, the school's legendary founder and a former Islamic warrior who recruited thousands of Yemenis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, does not often meet with Westerners. The United States calls him one of Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentors and has labeled him a "specially designated global terrorist." His face is long beneath a white turban, his beard ruddy with henna. When we meet, I find myself thinking that, for someone who commands so much power, who can raise tens of thousands of dollars with one lecture, he is trying to make himself as dull and professorial as possible.
The sheik speaks at length about science and the Koran, his pet issue. Then I ask his perspective on people who carry out acts of violence against Western targets in Yemen and elsewhere in the name of Islam. His reply is forceful. "Does each country need an army and security?" he asked, referring to militant Islamist groups like Al Qaeda. "Of course, yes. ... We fight to defend ourselves, as protectors of the Holy Koran. We fight those who fight us here. We fight for the sake of the weak, for those who cannot get their rights."
It is apparently the first time Zindani has spoken out in support of anti- Western attacks in Yemen, and, when I run his comments by Yemeni journalists and analysts later, they are surprised. "Did he really say 'jaish' [army]?" asks Gamal Amer, editor-in-chief of Al Wasat, who is known among his colleagues for his sources within Al Qaeda. While there were reports that the bombers of the USS Cole were acting on a religious decree issued by Zindani, he has always denied inciting any violence. These statements could signal a new direction.
All of Yemen seems to be entering uncharted territory, and the sheik's message is just one of a series of alarming developments. Earlier this year, Al Qaeda announced the merging of its groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia into a unified organization called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headed by a Yemeni who was a close associate of bin Laden's. At his testimony before Congress in April, the new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, singled out Yemen as a priority; conditions there, he said, offer Al Qaeda and other groups "a safe haven in which to plan, organize, and support terrorist operations." Experts say that in addition to Islamic extremists, Somali pirates currently terrorizing ships in the Indian Ocean may already have begun seeking refuge along Yemen's shores. And they worry that the 99 Guantanamo detainees slated to return to Yemen this year could become potent symbols for anti-Western groups. These factors, combined with a pending economic crisis and weakening government, have raised the question of whether this desperately poor country could become the next Afghanistan.
I arrived in February with a series of somewhat contradictory mental snapshots of the country. It is the land where Noah's Ark was launched and Osama bin Laden's father was born. It is a country where Westerners are routinely kidnapped by tribesmen but rarely harmed, where suicide bombers struck the USS Cole, where young women lower the blinds and cast off their abayas to dance and chew qat with their friends. But, during my two-month stay, I was continually confronted with the question of whether this traditional land was being propelled into a sinister future.
I was visiting the port of Aden in March when a suicide bomber blew himself up amid South Korean tourists at a UNESCO World Heritage site. A few days later, as I was heading back to the capital, another suicide bomber targeted a group of officials investigating the first attack. Suddenly, even some of my new friends who were dismissive of prior attacks grew somber. "It breaks my heart," says Faris Sanabani, the secretary to the president, who normally exudes implacable confidence. Even after the car-bomb attack on the U.S. embassy last September, he did not feel this way. "This is the first time an individual suicide bomber has struck against soft targets, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it means they're starting something different here."
The growth of extremism could be due to a recent sharp rise in poverty. Residents note an increase in the number of beggars on the streets, mostly women in abayas who shuffle silently up to cars with their black-gloved hands outstretched. Although economic indicators for Yemen have long been dismal, this year they have become, simply put by one World Bank economist, "dire." While Yemen was already the poorest and most populated country in the Gulf, according to World Bank reports, historic floods and the rise in food prices have increased the number of people below the poverty line to an estimated 42 percent. High population growth has led to skyrocketing unemployment, and the plunge in oil prices last year has led the government--which depends on oil for more than 65 percent of its revenue--to announce that it would slash expenditures in half this year. (So far, that hasn't happened.)
The most drastic forecast is that Yemen's economy could simply collapse in the next year or two. "If the government can't pay its contractors, banks will collapse because they can't get money from contractors and merchants and pay back its loans," says Saif Al Asali, an economics professor at Sana'a University and a former minister of finance, who says revenues have decreased by more than 30 percent already this year. "The government may be able to delay expenditures for a while, but not for more than a year."
"The food crisis, the economic crisis, oil dependence, and the inefficiency of the government--it has all come together," says Dr. Mohammed Al Maitami, who also teaches economics at Sana'a University. He and others also warn that Yemen could run out of both oil and water in the next five to ten years. "There's more than just the risk of state failure. It could be the first country where cities will literally die of thirst," he says.
Whether or not this happens depends on the ability of the government to craft a strategy for a viable future--or get bailed out by the international community. So Abdulkarim Al Iriyani, a former prime minister who remains the top political adviser to the president, has set out to convince Yemen's neighbors and the West that it is in their interest to guarantee the stability of the country. Although $5 billion in aid was pledged at a donors' conference in 2006, very little of that money has been given. (Saudi Arabia, which distributes cash to its neighbor both formally and informally, gives many times more than Western donors.) "It would not be that expensive to help Yemen avoid complete bankruptcy," says Al Iriyani. "Everyone is aware that instability here will create a long line of terrorism from Kenya to Somalia to Yemen, like dominoes."
One Friday morning in Sana'a, some friends took me rock-climbing in the craggy hills just outside the capital, near where a German aid worker and her parents had been kidnapped a few months earlier. They had been held for six days by tribesmen who, in typical fashion, used them as pawns to negotiate with the government for the release of members of their tribe. As we dangled from the cliff, we could hear the muezzins, perched in minarets across the city, one by one sounding their plaintive calls to prayer.
In the distance, in the midst of the city sprawl, we could see the Saleh Mosque, named for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The massive structure glitters all night, its minarets illuminated by hundreds of lights. In a city of shades of tan, its grounds are kept lush and green despite the water shortage. The building is estimated to have cost between $60 million and what some Western diplomats estimate to be $200 million. Defenders say it was paid for with private funds, but residents point to it as a symbol of how out of touch the president has become.
The 67-year-old Saleh has held onto power since 1978 by skillfully balancing all the country's power bases, tribal sheiks, jihadist groups, and political parties alike. He has selectively released some convicted extremists as part of a strategy to co-opt the country's various jihadist groups. But many now believe that he may be losing control of his own game. Not only has there been an increase in Al Qaeda-sponsored attacks, but separatist sentiment in the south is strengthening, and a rebellion in the north threatens to flare up again at any time.
It is possible, however, that Saleh could use the instability to ensure continued international assistance. "There is a political value to not going after the extremists full force," says Abdulghani Al Iriyani, a political consultant (and nephew of Abdulkarim, though they frequently differ politically). "Without a renegade Al Qaeda presence, the country becomes irrelevant to the West."
This is precisely why the United States is worried about returning the 99 Guantanamo detainees to Yemen and recently sent an envoy to meet with Saleh about it. U.S. officials question whether Yemen is willing or able to keep the returnees from being a threat. "What do you expect from a tribal society such as this one, where if a person gets in an accident, anywhere from twenty to one hundred people go with him to the hospital?" says Khaled Alansi, executive director of hood, a human rights nonprofit that has represented all 15 of the detainees who have returned to Yemen up to now. "If they return and feel resentment toward the U.S., it will become an issue not of individual hate, but of collective hate."
There are some in the government who recognize that the need for reform is a race against time. Sanabani and a small coterie of young, largely Westerneducated men have been working on their own bailout package by luring talent into government ranks and foreign investment into the country. Jalal Yaqoub, the young deputy minister of finance, has been seeking support for his Top 100 Yemenis program, which offers incentives to bring talented Yemenis back into the country. Their twelve-person "investment committee," headed by the president's son, seeks to establish havens for foreign investors, with secure land and sources of electricity and water. "Before, if a company wanted to invest, it would have to wait for two months just to get a document translated. Now, we meet, and in two days, y'allah," Sanabani explains as he navigates his Porsche Cayenne through the alleyways of the Old City.
Yet, they are battling not only those in the government who may benefit from the status quo, but also those who simply doubt that in this regime, under such challenging conditions, the country can change its course. The president's political adviser Al Iriyani ticks through the reforms necessary to bring in the kind of investment that could make the country more like its wealthy neighbors in the Gulf. But, he says, "If there was the political will, it would have been done already."
Bay Fang, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, has reported extensively from the Middle East.
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