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In Yemen, Lindh's quest found its fire

Officials start deporting 115 detained students.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2002



SANA, YEMEN

Sabri Saleem happens to don imitation Birkenstocks under his long white robes, but his Arabic language school in Yemen's capital is a very long way from California's Marin County, the home of one of his well-known former students.

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Cobblestone paths wind between mud-brick homes that have stood for thousands of years. Men wear daggers over their white robes, women are covered in black from head to toe, and the muezzin's call to prayers interrupts one's thoughts, like clockwork, five times a day.

It is here at the Yemen Language Center and Center for Arab Studies that one young teenager from northern California arrived in 1998. And it is in this ancient land that John Walker Lindh launched his ill-fated odyssey from Muslim convert to defendant on charges of aiding Al Qaeda and conspiring to kill Americans abroad as a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, as Mr. Lindh appears in an Alexandria, Va., federal courtroom (page 3) for a preliminary hearing, Yemen's government is trying to trace and squelch the currents of extremism in its schools that draw in young people like Lindh.

Since Sept. 11, 350 foreigners bound for religious study here have been turned back at the airport because they lacked the proper papers. In addition, the government has detained 115 foreign students for overstaying their visas or "having no business here," says a government official. Authorities are questioning them for clues that could help uncover radical learning centers, groups, or people, and sharing that information with US investigators. Last week, five of the students were deported - four Britons and a Dutch man - and the rest will follow. The students come from all over the world - Asia, Europe, Africa, and the US.

Seventeen-year-old Lindh arrived here in the summer of 1998. He introduced himself as Suleiyman, shied away from the other students, and pretended to speak English with an Arabic accent. A recent convert to Islam, he grew a stubbly beard, discarded his Western clothes, and studied the Koran religiously. Within a week, however, he was gone. He had disapproved of studying alongside females, recalls one acquaintance. He'd been looking for instruction in Islam, not vocabulary, he told another.

Worried, Mr. Saleem searched the city's souks and mosques for his young charge, and found him at Al Iman University, an Islamic school known for its fiery brand of teaching, run by Sheik Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani, head of the militant wing of the Al Islah opposition party. "Call your mother," Saleem recalls advising Lindh. "She must be totally worried."

Information on Lindh's journey from Al Iman in Yemen to the arms of the Taliban in Afghanistan is sketchy. He stayed in Yemen for seven months, until immigration officials discovered he lacked proper papers and sent him home.

"I heard that Walker [Lindh] made some comment about feeling more comfortable in Afghanistan than he did in America, and I can understand that," says Ana Sofia, Saleem's wife, a Roman Catholic from Oregon who converted to Islam several years ago. "Here, I don't have to explain myself or my choice of religion or way of life," she says.

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