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Yemen's controversial Abdul Majid al-Zindani

A nation's spiritual and intellectual leader or a key backer of Al Qaeda?

In Yemen, the sanctions against Zindani are ignored and the idea of forcing him to answer to the West is considered absurd.

When a Western journalist asked at a press conference in mid-January why Zindani was not in jail, Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for national security and defense, said that the sheik had not violated any laws. “He’s not a criminal, we cannot arrest him,” he said.

No one, however, denies Zindani’s shared history with some notorious Islamic militants of the past three decades. The U.S. claims that he served as a spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and, more recently, Zindani was said to be affiliated with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who preached to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and Nidal Hassan, the man accused of killing 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, in early November. Awlaki has also been linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber.

Awlaki is believed to have both studied and taught at Iman University, the institution Zindani heads. Zindani has denied any direct relationship between himself and Awlaki, but did not deny his presence on the campus. By the end of the month, Iman officials said Awlaki was neither a student, nor a teacher there.

The Yemeni government maintains that connecting dots from Zindani to Awlaki, and from Awlaki to Al Qaeda, does not make the sheik a criminal.

Zindani’s history has been inexorably linked to the history of Al Qaeda, and his ideas are similar, but that does not mean they work together, said al-Qadhi, the parliamentary member.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Zindani, like many Islamic clerics in the region — not to mention the U.S. government — urged young men to join the fight against the “godless communists” during the Soviet-Afghan war. Zindani supported these so-called mujahadeen in Yemen, and counseled them abroad, but he did not personally fight.

When the U.S. left Afghanistan in 1991, and withdrew its support for the mujahedeen, many of these young fighters returned to their home countries, jobless and uneducated. Heavily armed with nothing to do, some mujahedeen fighters focused on a new enemy: the West. They called themselves, Al Qaeda, or “The Base.”

Zindani’s relationship to the mujahedeen was over before Al Qaeda emerged in the early 1990s, said the political science dean, al-Suhaili, but his political positions have been often in synch with those of the militant organization. Zindani has repeatedly denied being a member of Al Qaeda, but his radical political sermons continue to stir up virulent anti-American sentiment on the streets of Sanaa.

Although Zindani is widely respected and loved in Yemen, many locals also feel his politics do not reflect the beliefs of modern society.

“His popularity is unbelievable,” said Yemeni journalist Abdul Salam al-Korary. “I cannot justify it.”