Source: Financial Times FT,
By Abigail Fielding-Smith, 24/12/2010
“Islam is the religion of tolerance,” preaches the caller from a mosque’s loudspeaker in the old city of Sana’a. But those words merge with a different Friday sermon being delivered round the corner in the Yemeni capital.
“Allah, give support to the mujahideen and grant them victory,” booms Sheikh Abdullah Satar, a cleric and opposition figure.
The latter is a common sermon-closer. But Yemen is trying to help the first message rise above the ideological din, amid fears extremist organisations are gaining support in a poor country already facing multiple armed insurgencies.
These ideologies find their most alarming expression in the YouTube videos, statements and journals of al-Malahem, the media wing of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
AQAP, previously just one jihadi group among many, has enjoyed unprecedented publicity over the past year after claiming responsibility for high-profile attacks, including the recently intercepted parcel bombs on US-bound planes.
The organisation was born of the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda in 2009 after the kingdom’s counter-terrorism programme forced many jihadis to leave. As well as calling for jihad against western targets, it justifies its attacks on state security forces by arguing that President Ali Abdullah Saleh is an apostate, a campaign likely to have been boosted by WikiLeaks revelations of the extent of his co-operation with the US military.
Policymakers in Yemen and the west fear the threat posed to western countries and to Yemen itself by the spread of such ideology.
It is thought that AQAP members in Yemen are very few but that the message, disseminated through a slick media output, is resonating with a growing number of sympathisers.
AQAP’s Arabic magazine Sada al-Malahem (The Echo of Battles) and the English-language magazine Inspire contain profiles of jihadi leaders, ideological treatises, discussions of current affairs and tips on everything from avoiding cyber-detection to treating colds.
The founder of Sada al- Malahem is believed to have been killed by security forces, which is thought to explain recent irregularities in its publication schedule.
The October edition of Inspire contained an essay by Anwar Awlaki, described by one US counter-terrorism official recently as “the most dangerous man in the world”. He denounced arguments by scholars that Islam did not justify violence as “CIA Islam”.
Its short films, branded with al-Malahem’s logo in Arabic and English, have the kind of production values more associated with news documentaries than jihadi screeds. While much of their material is disseminated online, AQAP also use more traditional methods, such as flyers.
Government programmes are pushing a message of moderation to counter AQAP. “Those operating are only one manifestation of terrorism. We should first treat the ideology,” says Hamoud Hitar, the minister of endowment and guidance, the department in charge of regulating religious affairs in the country.
The National Commission to Raise Awareness, a civil society group with government links, is helping provincial activists spread the message of moderation by, for example, linking it to the distribution of social services. “If there are 100 people, and five are extremists, 95 aren’t, but the 95 are silent,” says Abdullah Abou Horia, deputy chairman of the commission. “We want them to be positive.”
Last month, the commission and others arranged for Amr Khaled, a popular Egyptian preacher, to speak in Yemen, inaugurating a programme training 1,000 preachers to counter radicalism in their sermons.
Mr Hitar, a scholar who led a dialogue initiative with imprisoned al-Qaeda members in 2002, believes the application of faith-based reasoning to the tenets of jihadi doctrine – specifically, that violence against the Yemeni government and the west is justified – can yield results. But Gregory Johnsen, an expert on AQAP at Princeton University, says that Yemen needs more heavyweights backing the strategy.
“There are no religious clerics with a mass appeal who are willing to come out and say al-Qaeda is wrong,” he says.
Moreover, Yemen appears to lack the resources to mount a sophisticated media campaign against extremism, although the national awareness commission has taken out television advertisements.
Promoting moderate Islam is made difficult by the strength of Salafist ideology, which the government itself enabled to flourish. Although many Salafists do not advocate violence, Salafism is seen as providing the ideological and cultural foundations for al-Qaeda’s doctrines. The 1980s and 1990s saw the growth of Saudi-funded Salafi schools and mosques, as President Saleh used prominent Salafists, including veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, to help suppress the socialists of South Yemen during a brief civil war in 1994. “In the past they were jihadists; now they are terrorists,” says Sheikh Satar.
These extremist ideologies skilfully tap in to feelings of frustration among a young, poor and often jobless population.
“They [al- Qaeda] started to present themselves as a human rights NGO; they talk about violations of land, corruptions, detentions,” says Abdulrasheed al-Faqih, a pro-democracy activist, as he contemplates a recent YouTube video from the group. “Even the NGOs didn’t make as good a film as this.”