Several prisoners held in connection with the attack on a U.S. destroyer more than two years ago that killed 17 sailors have told local authorities that a prominent religious and political leader issued a decree ordering the strike, a Yemeni high court judge said Tuesday.
But the jurist, Hamood Abdulhamid Hitar, who also serves as an advisor to Yemen's president, said the government had not investigated the allegations against Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani to confirm whether he did issue such a religious order, or fatwa, targeting the warship Cole.
"People suspected in the Cole case have said they acted according to a fatwa by Sheik Abdul Majeed," Hitar said in a statement to The Times read in English by his daughter. "However, I cannot verify if it was done according to a fatwa by Abdul Majeed."
The allegations -- and the government's reluctance to investigate, or at least to acknowledge that it is investigating -- demonstrate the extraordinary challenges facing Yemen and U.S. officials trying to fight terrorism here.
It was controversial enough when a missile fired from an unmanned U.S. aircraft in November killed six men suspected of being Al Qaeda operatives. The dead included Qaed Sinan Harithi, the man accused of organizing the suicide attack on the Cole. Authorities can expect greater opposition if they try to extradite, arrest or even question someone of Zindani's stature.
Zindani, whose spokesman flatly denied the allegation, is an influential figure. He heads the central committee of the nation's second-largest political party, Islah; is chancellor of the Islamic university in Sana, the capital; and is a former teacher and confidant of Osama bin Laden. Zindani's radical anti-American, anti-Jewish brand of Islam not only had been tolerated until recently by the central government but was also rewarded with money, authority and legitimacy. Zindani, who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, played a central role in helping end a civil war in Yemen in 1994.
"Islah denies this completely," said Hamoud Hashem Tharhi, a spokesman for the party, an Islamist-based organization whose membership espouses a range of religious views.
The allegations against Zindani come at a time when Yemen is reeling. In the weeks since three Baptist missionary hospital workers were killed and a political leader was assassinated at the end of December, the Yemeni currency has fallen from a rate of 164 rials to the dollar to about 182 rials. The nation's import-export business was decimated after a French oil tanker was attacked off Yemen's coast in October. Tourism is virtually nonexistent. Oil production is down. And foreign investment is more a dream than a reality.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh is not only trying to provide basic services such as water and electricity to 18 million people spread out over an unforgiving, parched terrain but is also looking to root out the hard-core Al Qaeda operatives who officials believe are hiding here.
As the campaign against terrorism advances here, it moves closer to the behind-the-scenes sources of power in Yemen. If pushed too far too fast, some here feel, the campaign could unravel the delicate balance Saleh has succeeded in preserving between the three pillars of Yemeni society: tribes, Islamists and the president's ruling party.
"This is a very critical time in Yemen," said one Yemeni with strong ties to the ruling elite. "If it's not managed carefully, it could lead to civil war."
Tensions surfaced last week when German authorities arrested two Yemenis at the request of the United States. Sheik Mohammed Ali Hassan Mouyad, whom the U.S. described as a suspected Al Qaeda financier, is also a leading member of Islah, a government employee and a philanthropist whose organization has provided food, clothing and education to the poor.
Islah said the arrests were proof that the United States is intent on attacking Islam rather than just rooting out terrorism. The independent English-language Yemen Times said the two men should be returned home for investigation rather than face justice abroad.
Zindani is an even more central figure. He was among the thousands of Arabs who returned to Yemen after fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Although many governments in the region regarded the returning fighters with suspicion, Saleh turned to them for support. When southern Yemen seceded in 1994 from a union established in 1990, the so-called Afghan Arabs, with Zindani's religious guidance, helped Saleh achieve military victory over the separatists0. In 1995, Zindani was rewarded with the chancellor post at Al Iman University in Sana, an institution that many have criticized as a factory for churning out radicals. One of the school's best-known students was John Walker Lindh, the U.S. citizen captured in Afghanistan who became known as the American Talib.
Zindani also became a central figure in Islah, a party that has a strong minority of Islamic extremists.
Saleh handed control of the ministries of health and education to Islah, and for many years, Zindani was a main force in setting the national school curriculum. Saleh also allowed Islah to run a nationwide government-financed education system of 1,300 religious schools. Generations of children came through the schools and read textbooks that Zindani picked.
"Confronting it is risky," a European diplomat said of the Islamic movement in Yemen. "It is more risky than bringing them in and trying to control them."
Then came the attack on the Cole by two men who pulled their small boat alongside the destroyer and blew themselves up. It was a shock to the United States, but it also was an eye-opener for Yemen's president, according to those close to him. For the first time, they said, he realized that he had turned over too much power and influence to radicals. He started scaling back slowly. The schools, for example, were taken away from Islah.
Zindani continued his firebrand preaching. However, since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, he has maintained a low profile and issues statements condemning terrorism and supporting Yemen's government.
The United States has long wanted to question Zindani in connection with the Cole attack, but authorities here said that the prisoners' statements are the first evidence that has surfaced in Yemen that might connect Zindani with the blast. The U.S. Embassy in Sana declined to comment, saying only that the investigation into the incident is continuing.
The accusations against Zindani stemmed from a program that was intended by the president to ease tensions. Following the Cole attack, 109 Islamists were detained on suspicion of terrorist activity. Some were suspected of being linked to the blast, while others were thought to be tied to other attacks.
Saleh appointed a committee led by Hitar, the jurist, to talk to the suspects and try to get them to disavow their radical religious beliefs. Hitar's work with the group has led authorities to release 36 detainees.
Hitar said that several of those he talked to alleged that the Cole attack was carried out based on a fatwa from Zindani but that their statements were not investigated.