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July|August 2005
What Would Allah Do? By Nadya Labi
The Dread Pirate Bin Laden By Douglas R. Burgess Jr.
On Notice By Sasha Issenberg
Boss of the Bosses By Len Costa
Changing of the Guards By Mary Beth Pfeiffer

What Would Allah Do?

In its fight against terrorism, Yemen finds that the words of a heavenly power deliver down-to-earth results.

By Nadya Labi

NASSER AHMED NASSER AL-QADHI WAS LIKE MANY A STUDENT, quick to feel passion and eager to better the world. When reports of ethnic cleansing—the Serbs' massacre of Bosnian Muslims—filtered through his neighborhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, al-Qadhi resolved to defend his fellow believers. In 1994, the 22-year-old hopped a bus 550 miles to Yemen and then went on to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he was soon leading a 450-soldier battalion against the Serbian army. In a small village, he came upon a 6-year-old Bosnian boy whose right hand was missing.

"Who cut your hand?" he asked.

"My Serbian uncle has cut my hand," came the response.

The Serb was a soldier, not an uncle, but the title conveyed the boy's respect for elders. "Sir, you've killed my brother and my family," the boy recalled telling the soldier. "Why do you want to cut my hand?" The soldier had answered, "Today, you're an innocent child named Murad. But in the future, you'll be a Mohammed."

Of hatred grew hatred. Al-Qadhi's compassion for the boy was so overwhelming that it drove him to fight the enemies of Islam wherever he could find them. "One believer to another is like one body," he said, noting that he was paraphrasing a saying of the prophet Mohammed. "If one part of the body is sick, then the whole body is in bad shape." Al-Qadhi resolved to save the body by defending each of its ailing parts.

His crusade took him to Somalia, to Yemen, and to Afghanistan, where in 1996 he met Osama bin Laden. He joined one of the al-Qaeda leader's camps at Khost in southeast Afghanistan, across the border from Pakistan. The soldier gained bin Laden's trust, returning to Yemen to arrange the leader's marriage to his fourth wife and, in 1997, becoming bin Laden's bodyguard. A year later, al-Qadhi moved to Kabul and worked in bin Laden's guest house. Around that time, American cruise missiles hit the camps at Khost, confirming al-Qadhi's belief that the United States "is the source of all problems."

In August 2000, al-Qadhi went to Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, for reasons he would not disclose. In October, two of his fellow fighters (known as mujahideen) blew themselves up near the U.S.S. Cole as it was refueling in the southern port of Aden. Seventeen Americans were killed. Suspected of involvement, al-Qadhi was arrested four months later at the Sana'a airport on his way back to Afghanistan, and he was thrown in prison.

The FBI pressed him to confess to a role in the bombing of the Cole and, later, in September 11, but he denied any involvement, and he was never charged with a crime. After nearly two years in prison, most of them spent in solitary confinement, he was escorted to a room. What now? He'd been warned to expect torture. But instead of being attached to electrodes or shipped to Guantánamo Bay, where his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan had been jailed, al-Qadhi was brought before a handful of Muslim clerics who sat at a long table. They invited him to have a debate. They wanted to talk about the Koran, and to prove to him that the holy text did not condone violence against non-Muslims. Then they proffered a remarkable deal.

If you convince us that we're wrong, they said, we'll join you. But if we convince you that you're wrong, and if you repent, you'll go free.

YEMEN HAS 21 MILLION INHABITANTS JAMMED INTO A LAND smaller than Texas. The nation at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula has a gross domestic product of $16 billion, one-twentieth that of its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Space and resources are limited, which may explain why two Yemenis laid claim to Mars in 1997. But beauty is abundant. The country rises from sea level in the south to rugged highlands in the north and west, and Sana'a is ringed by mountains that legend says flew from Sinai to Yemen.

The city's streets are crowded with dilapidated taxi vans crammed with passengers. Outdoor vendors sell cassettes that contain the rap songs of 50 Cent and the musings of Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a sheikh on the U.S. terror list. Men wear loose-fitting robes and leather scabbards that sheathe curved daggers called jambiyyas, and women appear in layers of black that cover everything but their eyes, and sometimes even those. At a popular restaurant hangs an enlarged cover from a local magazine featuring the headline, "Is Yemen Safe?"

After September 11, Yemen went from being a punch line on a Friends episode (Chandler eludes a newly divorced Janice by claiming he's been transferred there) to an oft-mentioned candidate for invasion by the United States. As the United States began bombing Afghanistan, talking heads and Washington insiders hastened to nominate Yemen for the No. 2 spot on the American hit list.

The counts against Yemen seemed manifest to Westerners. Not only was it the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, large concentrations of al-Qaeda supporters reportedly hid among powerful tribes in the central highlands. John Kerry argued during the presidential campaign that the war on terror should have started in Yemen. "In Yemen," The Wall Street Journal declared in October 2001, "terrorism borders on the mundane." What a comedown for the land known in ancient times as Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, whose rulers included the Queen of Sheba and whose caravan routes supplied frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Roman Empire. In the seventh century, the prophet Mohammed remarked, "the people of Yemen have the kindliest and gentlest hearts of all."

Yemen used to be two countries: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Ruled until 1962 by religious leaders, the north is conservative. The more cosmopolitan south was colonized by the British, who held Aden until 1967 when their imperial ambitions faded and they left abruptly. The ensuing socialist People's Republic developed close ties to the Soviet Union. The north is dominated by a Shiite branch of Islam known as Zaydism. It does not get along with the Saudis, who largely adhere to a strict version of Sunni Islam commonly known as Wahhabism, which requires a literal reading of the Koran. (Wahhabists have been accused of fomenting terrorism; 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.) In the 1970s, the Saudis funded Wahhabi schools in Yemen's north, and the schools quickly spread south, where Shafiism, a branch of Sunnism, had historically held sway. Many graduates were among those who opposed the socialists and traveled to Afghanistan to become mujahideen and wage war against the socialists' allies, the Soviets.

As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the 1980s, the south decided to ally itself with the more populous north. Unification took place in 1990, and a parliamentary system was set up, with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader of the north, as president. But the division between north and south survived in party politics: Saleh's party blurs the line between mosque and state whereas the socialists support strict separation of the two. Islah, a popular Islamic party, maintains close ties with the ruling party while also embracing more radical Islamic elements. (This March, two members of Islah were convicted in the U.S. of supporting terrorism, and a third member, al-Zindani, is the sheikh on the U.S. terror list.)

Civil war broke out between Saleh and the socialists in 1994, but Saleh defeated his opponents in short order with the help of the mujahideen who had returned from Afghanistan and become known as Afghani Arabs. "After the war, the north Yemeni [Saleh's] regime had to integrate these mujahideen," said Charles Schmitz, an associate professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore and a specialist on Yemen.

Saleh incorporated many Afghani Arabs into the military and his shadowy Political Security forces. The Yemeni constitution was also amended to make sharia—Islamic law that draws on the Koran, customs of Mohammed called sunna, and other sources—the governing law. But these measures failed to win over all the Afghani Arabs. "They turned against Saleh. It was like, 'We got rid of the godless communists. Now let's get rid of the godless president of Yemen', " added Schmitz. From the mid-to-late 1990s, some of them bombed sites in Aden and kidnapped Western tourists, four of whom were killed during the government's botched rescue mission. The U.S.S. Cole bombing announced to the world what Saleh already knew: Terror had taken root in Yemen. Fearing an American attack, Yemen's president visited the White House two months after September 11 to support the war on terror. Invasion from abroad wasn't his only concern. He had to rein in radical Islamists who posed a threat to his own survival.

By the end of Saleh's visit, the United States had promised Yemen as much as $400 million in military and economic aid. In return, Saleh ordered the government's Political Security forces to round up alleged terrorists, suspects ranging from al-Qaeda members like al-Qadhi to anyone whose passport carried a stamp from Afghanistan.

ABUSES ABOUNDED IN THE CRACKDOWN. FAMILY MEMBERS of suspected terrorists were picked up, foreign students studying at Islamic schools were kicked out of the country, journalists were thrown in jail, and some detainees were whisked away to Guantánamo Bay. Yemeni officials interviewed by Amnesty International said the harsh measures were necessary to "avert U.S. military action against Yemen."

Under pressure from human rights activists to charge suspects or let them go, President Saleh is credited with devising an unusual compromise. He convened a meeting of Yemeni judges and ulama, Muslim clerics, in August 2002. He asked them to have a dialogue with prisoners who believed that the Koran promoted jihad, or war, against non-Muslims. His declared goal was ambitious: to persuade the prisoners they were wrong and to get them to reject violence.

By taking the war on terror to an ideological level, the strategy seemed designed to engage bin Laden on his own terms. The government's apparent hope was to transform al-Qaeda's martyrs into ambassadors of tolerance, thereby combating terrorism where it counted most—in the hearts and minds of future recruits. To get the prisoners to participate, the government offered irresistible bait: If they renounced their beliefs, they'd be released.

The idea was greeted with skepticism. The United States was dismayed at the prospect of Yemen releasing anyone with a link to al-Qaeda. The socialists wondered why the government was cozying up to terrorists when it wouldn't give its other political rivals the time of day. And the ulama worried that they would be seen as pro-Western and become targets of terrorists. But a Supreme Court judge and moderate cleric, Hamoud al-Hitar, recognized the value in Saleh's idea. If the dialogues worked, they would be a less costly and less violent alternative to war as a way to combat terrorism. The world might be safer with the Yemeni government—not President George W. Bush—controlling how the war on terrorism would be waged. Al-Hitar stepped forward.

SITTING IN HIS OFFICE AT A SANA'A COURTHOUSE, the 50-year-old al-Hitar resisted the urge to chew qat, a leaf and stimulant that commands its own section of the market in the old quarters of Sana'a. The leaf is sold still hanging from tree branches—the longer, the better—or picked clean and packed in banana leaves or plastic grocery bags. In qat "chews" or gatherings, Yemenis (men and some women) chew the leaf, spitting some of it out but keeping the best parts in the cheek. A telltale bulge in al-Hitar's right cheek, which he ignored for hours, seemed at odds with the splendor of his long satin jacket and ornate jambiyya, worn at an angle reserved for judges and high-ranking officials.

Al-Hitar doesn't come from the privileged families that supply many of his country's judges. Steeped in a culture where lineage is the currency of power, the judge hedged when pressed about his background. His relatives weren't "official judges," he said, but they were "famous for acting as judges for hundreds of years."

The broad outlines of al-Hitar's trajectory are straightforward. He's from Ibb, an agriculturally rich region in the southwest that's largely Shafii. He graduated in 1979 from Sana'a University, where he was "an average student," recalled Abdo Ali Othman, a sociology professor and former dean of students. Al-Hitar later attended a two-year institute that trains judges, where he studied sharia. While at the institute, he took an early stand against the Wahhabi movement that was gaining purchase in Yemen, and he preached against extremism.

In 1985, he was appointed to the Sana'a Penal Court, a criminal court of first instance. During his first year on the bench, al-Hitar displayed his commitment to moderation in a case involving two Muslims who had killed two Jews for practicing black magic. At the time, Yemen had no formal sentencing guidelines, and penalties were meted out according to sharia. The prevailing belief, al-Hitar said, was that a Muslim shouldn't be given the death penalty for killing a non-Muslim.

After analyzing the prophet's sunna, al-Hitar drew a different conclusion. "Equality is available in the Koran and sunna for both sides of the dispute," he said. "The differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims was created by ulama and judges." Al-Hitar sentenced the two Muslims to death, a controversial punishment that an appeals court reduced to prison time and compensation for the families of the Jewish men. Later, during the 1994 civil war, al-Hitar impressed international observers by criticizing his government's abuses in Aden. A Human Rights Watch report noted that he "personally asked President [Saleh] to take extraordinary measures to protect public and private property." But al-Hitar is also rumored to be a member of the powerful Political Security forces, which might explain why the government has entrusted him with a job as delicate as leading the dialogues. "The government cannot accept someone who is not doing what they want, exactly the way they want," said Mohammed Abdul-Malik Mutawakkil, a political scientist at Sana'a University. Whatever the truth, al-Hitar's ambitions within the government sometimes conflict with his commitment to human rights.

The dialogues apparently gave al-Hitar an opportunity to reconcile his competing interests. They allowed him to support the president while promoting his own principles. According to al-Hitar, the other ulama resisted Saleh's idea because they feared that they'd be killed for seeming to serve the antiterrorism agenda of "the big father America."

As al-Hitar recounted his dissent from his peers, he held himself erect, and pride seemed to swell his stout frame. "I'm going to do this dialogue in obedience to God and to you," al-Hitar said he told the president. "Then the president said, 'You did well.' " The president called the judge later that day and asked if he was ready to start the dialogues. "I replied courageously," al-Hitar said, "Yes, I am."

Whether the origins of the Ideological Dialogue Committee were as stirring as al-Hitar suggested, the judge set to work with three ulama of his choosing in September 2002. His texts were the Koran and the prophet's sunna, and his tool was conversation. As al-Hitar put it, God debated Satan, Moses talked with the Pharaoh of Egypt, and King Solomon took advice from a bird. Why not talk with prisoners who might be recruits for al-Qaeda? Why not talk, "if he is willing," with bin Laden himself?

ON SEPTEMBER 9, 2002, AL-QADHI AND FOUR OF HIS FELLOW PRISONERS were led to a room at the Political Security prison. Al-Hitar and his panel of three ulama sat at a table, and the prisoners were invited to sit before them.

The prisoners were combative, challenging the authority of the clerics. Their anger, however, belied an instinctive respect for the clerics' religious status. Politicians, intellectuals, and international thinkers held no sway with the prisoners. "We launched jihad at the instructions of the ulama," said al-Qadhi, "so ulama had to be the ones to change our minds." What he likely meant was that clerics had used fiery sermons to encourage young followers to take up arms against the West, and only the clerics had standing to order the arms put aside.

According to al-Hitar, the dialogues with al-Qadhi and his fellow prisoners began in the same way as other dialogues. The first question was, "Do you consider Yemen an Islamic country?" No, responded the prisoners, noting that some of their countrymen drank alcohol and committed adultery in violation of the Koran. Al-Hitar countered that those sins are illegal in Yemen. Drinking alcohol is punishable by 80 lashings, and adultery by stoning, though the penalty is never implemented. But Yemen's laws, the prisoners answered, are not what Allah instructed. After giving them copies of Yemen's laws and constitution, al-Hitar promised to change any paragraph contradicted by the Koran. They found none. The prisoners then adopted a different line of attack: Yemen is un-Islamic because it's allied to the West. Just as Mohammed had signed treaties with Jews and Christians, al-Hitar responded, Yemen had a moral obligation to uphold its agreements with Europe and the United States.

Which brought al-Hitar to the second question: "Is it halal (allowed) or haram (forbidden) to kill non-Muslims?" Halal, they answered, because verse 191 of the second chapter of the Koran tells Muslims to kill unbelievers "wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out." Al-Hitar countered that the verse refers to self-defense, and that 124 other verses in the Koran exhort believers to be good to non-Muslims. "To kill another person is not your right unless the other side initiates war against you," preached al-Hitar. Those who enter Yemen, al-Hitar emphasized, are protected by the visas that they are given to enter the country. "Even if he comes from Tel Aviv," al-Hitar reminded them, "nobody is allowed to attack him."

Al-Hitar's words were having an effect, but something else was also at work. Al-Qadhi had gone to jihad on behalf of clerics who had preached that, "Anyone who is not with me is my enemy." Yet here was his enemy, allowing him to read the Koran. Torture he thought he could handle, if it came to that, but kindness was disarming. His thinking began to shift, he said, as he contemplated a future with more possibilities than "you kill me or I kill you."

Two months later, in November 2002, al-Qadhi signed a pledge promising to renounce "violence, extremism, and terrorism" and to obey the leader and laws of Yemen. Two months after that, he was released.

AL-HITAR TRUMPETS THE DIALOGUES AS A SUCCESS. To date, he says that he's talked to 400 prisoners suspected of links to al-Qaeda or other militant Islamist groups. More than 90 percent of them, he recounts, have signed pledges renouncing their extremist views and have been released. (Most of the remaining prisoners, whom President Saleh described as having "blood on their hands," were charged and sent through the judicial system.) Some of the program's graduates have exposed terrorist sleeper cells, according to al-Hitar, and none has gone on to commit violence. Critics disagree. They contend that the man who killed a prominent socialist in 2002 was probably a graduate (al-Hitar denies the assassin went through the dialogues), and that some of the "reformed" prisoners have gone on to plot terror attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. Al-Hitar, however, disputes these claims and remains sanguine about his method. "You cannot solve mental extremism through force," he said. "But dialogue can achieve what the most modern weapons cannot—success in the war against terror."

Al-Hitar's statistics, though unverifiable, have earned him a measure of international acclaim. He's visited the United Kingdom twice (at Britain's expense) to share his unusual method of combating terror with the attorney general and police officers at Scotland Yard who specialize in counterterrorism. "We all have our problems with extremists," said Frances Guy, a member of the British Foreign Office who helped arrange the judge's visit. "Any new ways of dealing with them short of having to lock everyone up is valuable." She added that the U.K. would be interested in exploring the use of the dialogues. Al-Hitar completed a similar tour in France last March to talk with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and high-ranking judges about the dialogues.

Even the United States, initially leery of releasing would-be terrorists, reformed or otherwise, has come around. Edmund Hull, who served as ambassador to Yemen when the dialogues began, praised al-Hitar's work as "necessary and beneficial," while warning that the method has to be deployed carefully, because some of the prisoners have committed crimes and "can be disingenuous." Hull's successor, Thomas Krajeski, was more enthusiastic, saying that the dialogues can help combat "extremists who attempt to recruit gullible young persons by perverting the teachings of Islam to serve their violent and criminal goals."

Still, while combating terrorism at its ideological roots is an enticing prospect, Yemen's efforts cannot be easily replicated outside the Islamic world. The British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Gifford, said that in his view, the British government was unlikely to adopt the dialogues because they are based on traditions peculiar to Yemen. Hull agreed that it would be difficult for an American to have the same kind of credibility with Muslims in the United States as a judge like al-Hitar has in Yemen. Most Westerners lack the moral authority to sway mujahideen, many of whom view the West as the problem, even if they live in the West. "It's a dialogue between Muslims," said Bernard Haykel, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. "It's internal to both the religious and political community."

THE DIALOGUES CLEARLY WORK AT THE LEVEL OF REALPOLITIK, however. Through them, Saleh can balance American demands to crack down on terrorism with his need to tread lightly around al-Qaeda and other militant Islamists. The United States views al-Qaeda as a discrete network that can be identified and destroyed, but the group is part of the fabric of Yemeni society, and it's hard to differentiate among members of al-Qaeda, Afghani Arabs, and their respective sympathizers. "So far as the U.S. is concerned, ties to al-Qaeda, broadly understood, are in and of themselves criminal," said Sheila Carapico, a political science professor at the University of Richmond who has conducted extensive field research in Yemen. "If you take that literally enough, almost any Yemeni is guilty."

Including, perhaps, the president's half-brother. He is a high-ranking army officer whose close ties to the Afghani Arabs heightened the Yemenis' desire "to arrest the guys who were involved in the Cole thing and execute them as fast as they could so they couldn't or wouldn't talk," said Robert Burrowes, an adjunct professor at the University of Washington who has written two books on Yemen. Yemenis with even more tenuous links to terrorism were caught in Saleh's post-September 11 sweeps, and the dialogues have allowed the president to release them and other detainees while finessing the potentially explosive question of whether any were actually terrorists. All they have had to do is renounce their violent beliefs.

But do the dialogues dissuade the prisoners from violence? Most details about the process, including its results, are kept confidential, ostensibly to allow prisoners to re-enter society without drawing attention. Mohammed Naji Allaw, who heads the National Organization for Defending Rights and Liberties and defends prisoners like the detainees at Guantánamo, reported that former inmates are warned not to talk about the dialogues. After being released, they undergo security and psychological monitoring, according to al-Hitar. The judge didn't elaborate, beyond offering that Yemen's Political Security organization "has its own methods." Allaw said that those methods have included jailing former prisoners who met with him. When Allaw contacted former prisoners for this article, they were too scared to talk, he reported. Even members of Yemen's Parliament can't get al-Hitar's list of those transformed by the dialogues.

The pledge that the prisoners sign is "just a way to escape prison," said Allaw. Many of the detainees also get loans and government jobs after they are released, despite Yemen's unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent. But according to al-Qadhi, none of these incentives is enough to turn the mujahideen from their cause. "Our point of view is that we're doing jihad even if we're in prison," he said. "Even if we're tortured or killed, God will praise our efforts."

Al-Qadhi is one of the few former prisoners allowed to give interviews. What he says, however, depends on his audience. To the Arab media, he's confessed to knowing the suicide bombers involved in September 11 and those who carried out the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. He's also predicted since his release that "America is coming closer to its end" and that "a new resistance will be born, and al-Qaeda will be a part of it."

But when al-Qadhi recently recounted his transformation through the dialogues, he was more contrite. He sat in al-Hitar's home in a posh neighborhood in Sana'a, and he looked as if he'd gone soft. He sat cross-legged on a dark blue majlis, a low-lying couch that hugged the walls of the living room. The bright white of his robe enveloped his well-fed form, and his beige headscarf offset his dark skin.

Across the room sat al-Hitar, chewing qat discreetly and talking on his cellphone in an attempt to appear uninterested. But his attention never strayed far. When al-Qadhi talked about his new belief in a gentler Islam, the judge nodded vigorously. When al-Qadhi began to specify which radical clerics had pushed him to wage war, al-Hitar interjected, "Khalas" or "Enough."

At times, it seemed as if al-Qadhi were channeling the judge. But then dusk fell, and the call to evening prayer sounded from a mosque outside. Al-Hitar left the room to begin his ablutions for prayer, and al-Qadhi, alone for once, reminisced about his time with bin Laden. In light of his experience living and sleeping in close quarters with al-Qaeda's leader, he said, "I still respect him as a good person." Even after September 11? The answer came quickly. "Yes," he said without a hint of aggression. "Americans have killed 12 million Iraqi children. We believe in Muslim unity in all parts." He excused himself with a wide smile, and then went off to pray.

Nadya Labi is a senior editor of Legal Affairs.

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