Restoring the Caliphate in Yemen: A Profile of Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2011

After decades of loyalty to Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s best known and most controversial Islamic scholar has called for the regime’s downfall and the creation of an Islamic Caliphate in the southern Arabian Peninsula. The defection of the influential Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, whose name appears on the designated terrorist lists of the United States and the UN, is a major blow to the President’s attempts to rally support for his three-decade-old regime.

ZindaniShaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani,

Early Career

Shaykh al-Zindani was born in a small village near the southern city of Ibb, somewhere between 1938 and 1942 (the date has never been clarified).  He grew up in Ibb and Aden before leaving Yemen to pursue studies in pharmacology. Al-Zindani studied sciences at Cairo’s Ain Shams University before turning to Islamic studies. After returning to Yemen in 1966 he worked in religious activities in Saudi Arabia, returning to Yemen in 1970 to begin organizing the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood based on his experience of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood while a student in Egypt. After meeting Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia, al-Zindani also became involved in recruiting and transporting Saudi and Yemeni recruits to join the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

Following the 1990 unification of Yemen, al-Zindani became a leading member of al-Tajammu al-Yemeni li’l-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform, commonly known as al-Islah). As led by Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar (d. 2007), chief of the Hashid tribal confederation, al-Islah came to combine tribal groups along with former GPC members, local Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a single political party with a broad commitment to Islamizing Yemen, but without getting into the kind of details that might divide the alliance. Al-Zindani served as president of the party’s Central Shura Council from 1995 to 2007, when he took a seat on the party’s Supreme Board.

Iman: An Islamic University

Al-Zindani founded Iman University in 1995 to implement his ideas on Islamic education. The Sana’a-based University opened its doors to foreign students (including American jihadis John Walker Lindh and Anwar al-Awlaki) and grew in popularity due to its free tuition, accommodation and food, but there are reports the institution is becoming a drain on Islah Party resources. [1]

An Islah Party member who graduated from Iman University said the institution was nothing more than “a large school of Quranic memorization” that does not even offer courses in Islamic philosophy and Arabic literature. According to the former student, all those attending the university are closely observed while having only limited access to censored internet and television facilities. By the time of graduation, students leave the campus believing “all women are corrupt and men are dissolute” (Yemen Observer, May 5, 2010).

A number of reputed graduates of al-Iman University are reported to have taken part in political violence in Yemen, including Ali Ahmad al-Jarallah, the 2002 assassin of Jarallah Omar, the deputy secretary general of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). Al-Zindani denied that the assassin had any connection to al-Iman, though the lawyer for Jarallah Omar’s family sought to have the case reopened to question several new suspects, including al-Zindani (Yemen Observer, October 16, 2004; AP, July 3, 2004). 

Al-Zindani and the Global Jihad

The United States made al-Zindani a designated “global terrorist” in February, 2004, accusing the shaykh of acting as a spiritual leader for al-Qaeda and fundraising for the organization through his Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW). [2] Anwar al-Awlaki served as vice-president of the CSSW from 1996 to 1999. The shaykh was also placed under sanctions by the UN Security Council. [3] Al-Zindani responded by demanding that the government of Yemen raise his terrorist designation at the UN Security Council (Yemen held one of the rotating seats on the council at the time) while denouncing his U.S. designation: “The government [of Yemen] has already demanded that the United States administration bring its evidence against me… Their case against me is as strong as it was against Iraq when they accused it of developing weapons of mass destruction” (Yemen Observer, October 16, 2004). As President Saleh defended al-Zindani and did his best to ignore the sanctions against the shaykh, al-Zindani made a temporary but strategic retreat from the global arena to increase his focus on domestic politics.

The shaykh suggested his terrorist designation was the result of accusations from the ruling GPC (though not Saleh) and his own opposition to American foreign policy: “Is it not my right to object? Americans stand in front of the White House with banners protesting the government policy of the White House and it is their right. I am a citizen of whom these policies directly affect me, my nation and religion. Am I not allowed to say what is wrong? Where are human rights? We criticize the American policy that is 100% biased towards Zionism” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 23, 2004).

Al-Zindani opposes Yemen’s cooperation with the United States in the “War on Terrorism,” warning Yemenis of the possibility of foreign military occupation and “the return of colonialism”: “The day parliament allows the occupation of Yemen, the people will rise up against it and bring it down” (BBC, January 11). The position adopted by al-Zindani and other leading clerics in Yemen has been mocked by al-Qaeda deputy leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said it was pointless to wait for a foreign invasion to declare jihad when the Yemen government was already cooperating with the U.S. military: “What more are they waiting for to call for jihad? … Are they waiting for the U.S. soldiers to appear on the streets of Sana’a in their tanks?”

Recently, al-Zindani has tried to distance himself from al-Qaeda, saying he has no knowledge of their activities in Yemen. He has similarly said he has no influence over the American jihadi preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who has made his ancestral home of Yemen a base for pro-al-Qaeda propaganda activities: “I was never a direct teacher for Anwar al-Awlaki” (BBC, January 11, 2010).

As the head of a committee of Islamic scholars, al-Zindani condemned the terrorism of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a November 2010 meeting with President Saleh. Al-Zindani’s committee called on Yemen’s Islamic scholars to focus on non-violence and to urge Yemen’s Muslims to seek moderation rather than extremism (Yemen Observer, November 4, 2010).

Regardless of al-Zindani’s personal sympathies, there is little evidence that he is in any way connected to the ongoing operations or activities of al-Qaeda, though of course this might have something to do with the absence of investigations in Yemen into his ties to the terrorist group.

Medical Forays

Besides his religious and political prominence in Yemen, al-Zindani has built a reputation based on his advocacy of al-I’jiz al-ilmi fi al-Quran wa’l-Sunnah, “the scientific wonders of the Quran and Sunnah.” Part of the Islamic revival, this intellectual trend involves finding proof of prior knowledge of modern scientific discoveries in the words of the Quran and Sunnah. With funding from the Saudi government’s Muslim World League, al-Zindani founded the Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah in 1984, serving as the group’s secretary-general until 1995.

In December 2006, al-Zindani announced he had developed “Eajaz-3,” an herbal cure for HIV/AIDS that had no side effects while eliminating the disease in men, women and even fetuses (Yemen Observer, December 19, 2006). However, the head of the Clinical Immunology Services at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University refuted al-Zindani’s claims after inspecting provided blood samples, even going so far as to say if he was the Minister of Health, he would throw al-Zindani in jail (Yemen Observer, November 19, 2009; Yemen Times, April 4, 2008) Nonetheless, al-Zindani went on to claim that he and his medical team of researchers from all over the Arab world had also discovered treatments for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and Diabetes (Saba, April 12, 2008).

The Regime’s Man

Al-Zindani enjoyed great influence in Yemen when his Islah Party became the junior partner in a coalition led by the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) in 1990. The shaykh even became a personal adviser to President Saleh in this period. This situation lasted until the alliance broke up in 1997 when Saleh’s GPC refused to introduce democratic reforms. [4] Though al-Islah was nominally part of the opposition from this point, al-Ahmar and al-Zindani continued to maintain close connections to President Saleh.

When southern Yemen attempted to re-establish its independence in 1994, al-Zindani was able to use his contacts with Yemeni veterans of the Afghan jihad to raise a force of experienced fighters ready to combat a socialist southern Yemen on behalf of President Saleh and the regime in Sana’a.

Taking advantage of a growing number of vigilante incidents involving individuals enforcing Islamic law in several cities, al-Zindani created the Authority for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice (the Virtue Councils) in 2009 with the endorsement of President Saleh (Yemen Times, July 17, 2008).  The councils were designed to identify infractions of Islamic law and report them to Yemeni police for enforcement.

Al-Zindani placed himself at the center of the “Prophet Muhammad cartoons” controversy in Yemen by collecting funds to pursue lawsuits against newspapers and editors who republished the cartoons originally carried by Copenhagen’s Jyllands-Posten. However, the shaykh ran into solid opposition from Yemen’s journalists and was embarrassed by revelations that the cartoons had been copied and distributed at Iman University (NewsYemen, March 3, 2006).

Zindani Joins the Opposition

As leader of the Yemeni Religious Scholars Society, al-Zindani played an important role in coordinating the scholars with the political opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), in an effort to form a government of national unity that would make changes to the constitution, release political prisoners and bring an end to the cycle of protests across Yemen (NewsYemen, February 28).

Only a week after describing anti-government demonstrations as “illegal,” al-Zindani marked his break with the Saleh regime by appearing before a crowd of tens of thousands of demonstrators in Sana’a, surrounded by a private security team of men armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The shaykh told those assembled that the president could only be removed by the “force of the people” before a new Islamic state could be formed to replace the current government (Day Press [Damascus], March 2). Al-Zindani’s call for a khilafah rashidah (righteous Calphate) was met with an enthusiastic response from the assembly. [5]

Apparently rattled by the continuing demonstrations and the defection of al-Zindani and other former prominent members of the regime, President Saleh declared his government was the victim of a plot created in Tel Aviv under American supervision (Day Press [Damascus], March 2). When word of Saleh’s remarks reached Washington he was compelled to quickly issue an apology.

In a lengthy interview with a local daily, American ambassador Gerald Feierstein said the United States would like to see “free and fair” elections in Yemen, but not if a party like Hamas won. More specifically, Feierstein warned against the election of al-Zindani: “Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as you know, is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations, so we would have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely… Zindani is on the terrorism list and therefore we would have a problem with him taking any kind of position in the government (Yemen Observer, March 14).

Following al-Zindani’s break with Saleh, the government began a media campaign against the cleric, suddenly reminding one and all that U.S. Ambassador Feierstein had stated al-Zindani was still considered a wanted terrorist by the United States and the UN (Yemen Times, March 13).

By mid-March, al-Zindani was reported to have left Sana’a for his home village of Arhab, just north of the capital, where he could count on the support of several hundred armed militants to defend him from government retribution (Marebpress.net, March 14).

Conclusion

Traditionally protected by the president, Saleh has always appeared at the periphery of religious/political violence rather than at its center. Iman University operates with minimal supervision and the shaykh has always enjoyed wide access to all forms of media in Yemen, making him a popular figure in many parts of Yemen. Sanctions have never been applied to al-Zindani within Yemen and the very idea that he might be the subject of an investigation has seemed absurd until now. In reality, al-Zindani has made a bold decision to throw off the cloak of immunity offered by President Saleh, one that has served the shaykh well for many years. Al-Zindani’s choice might be regarded as an insider’s calculated assessment of President Saleh’s chances of political survival. However, if the shaykh is serious about establishing a Caliphate in Yemen, it may also be the beginning of a play for power.

Notes

  1. Al-Zindani later denied Lindh attended Iman University – see al-Arabiya, August 4, 2004.
  2. http://www.treasury.gov/press/releases/js1190.htm
  3. http://www.interpol.int/public/Data/NoticesUN/Notices/Data/2006/53/2006_21653.asp
  4. For the Islah Party, see Amr Hamzawy, Between Government and Opposition: The Case of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, Carnegie Papers 18, Washington D.C., 2009, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/yemeni_congragation_reform.pdf
  5. See the video at: http://nahdaproductions.org/islamic-revival/arab-world/item/483-the-famous-sheikh-zindani-in-yemen-calls-for-righteous-caliphate-to-massive-chants-march-2011

This article first appeared in the March 31, 2011 issue of the Militant Leadership Monitor.