Creature comforts are not high on the agenda at the Dar al-Hadith School of Sheik Muqbel bin Hadi al-Wadie, whose five institutions in Yemen are believed by Western officials to be proving grounds for Arab terrorists.
Western diplomats and experts in Yemen say the schools of Sheik Muqbel serve as ideological wings of a Middle East terror network controlled by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi national accused of masterminding the 1998 bombing of two US Embassies in Africa. While the fugitive Mr. Bin Laden remains in Afghanistan, a trial of four accused of carrying out the bombings began yesterday in New York.
In a rare gesture of openness, school officials allowed a reporter to tour the school last week.
The "dormitories" here are little more than hovels made of mud bricks. Doors open onto a vast, desolate, windblown desert marked by a ghostly stone fortress in the distance that resembles a crumbling sandcastle.
"It is our nature sanctuary," says Ismail Ibn George Gordon, a lanky Caucasian with a scraggly beard, from Manchester, England. "We do everything in conformity with the Koran here, and if you don't do the same you will burn in a hell 69 times hotter than this desert."
Mr. Gordon is one of hundreds of foreigners - including Americans, Egyptians, Somalians, and Libyans - who have flocked here to study Sheik Muqbel's fire-and-brimstone brand of Islam. Many of the devotees are fresh from an Islamic "holy war," or jihad, in places like Chechnya and Afghanistan, or they are on their way to another.
Questions of funding
The Dar al-Hadith School lies in the heart of the Arabian desert just south of the Saudi border. As if its remote location were not enough to keep the outside world at bay, many pupils insist on walking to lectures and sermons with Kalashnikovs strapped to their backs and hooked daggers, or jambiyas, tied to their belts.
But then Yemen, itself, has long been considered the "Wild West" of the Arab world. What worries the FBI and Western diplomats in the capital, Sana, more than the weapons is the ideological posturing that they believe goes on inside the school - especially during the Sheik Muqbel's.
According to Western intelligence officials, Muqbel - who is currently in Saudi Arabia receiving healthcare - heaps scorn on Western "infidel" leaders, who he accuses of allowing the slaughter of Palestinian innocents. He often refers to them as Zionist lackeys and pigs destined to burn in the hellfire, they say.
Western officials suspect that all five of the Yemen schools run by Muqbel are training grounds for Islamic fundamentalists who often go on to engage in terrorist acts similar to the suicide bombing of the American warship USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor in October. It hardly matters, they say, that the school bears absolutely no resemblance to a formal military training center. The FBI also contends that Muqbel's ideas were a powerful influence on Bin Laden.
Muqbel's source of funding remains a mystery.
Some suspicious local Yemenis believe his austere schools and diverse student body are funded by "wealthy Saudi business interests." Though no direct link has been established, Bin Laden, a Saudi national whose family hails from Yemen, is praised both by some students in the Dar al-Hadith School and by at least one powerful Yemeni sheik living along the Saudi-Yemeni border here.
Opening the door, slightly
As if to highlight the school's changing attitude, when several school leaders needed a conference hall that was bolted shut for the purpose of a sit-down interview, a young sheik ordered a crowbar to crack the lock and open the way.
Around the long sitting hall, students and teachers sat cross-legged and contemplative, addressing the most common charges made by Western intelligence agencies.
Students and teachers from Yemen, Somalia, Britain, and the US described their own concepts of jihad - but they insisted they are carrying these ideas out strictly within the bounds of Islamic principles which, they say, specifically ban terrorism.
"We only learn the fundamentals of the Koran here, and only after that do we strive for the final victory," says Sheik Turki Abdullah Muqbel, a young cousin of the ailing sheik who runs this school.
The young man's explanation is interrupted when an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War, who came from Baltimore, adds: "I think we've got to make clear that the sheik preaches only 'right' Jihad - and that excludes all forms of terrorism."
And what about the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen's Aden Harbor this past October?
"In fact, Sheik Muqbel supports hanging the bombers of the USS Cole upside down by their toes and putting them on public display," replied the young Yemeni who sat cross-legged beside several sullen-looking followers.
The Vietnam veteran quickly adds that the sheik merely supported that idea and would agree to the Yemeni government's own decision on how to deal with those responsible.
Many of the concerns of the students at the Dar al-Hadith School sounded "radical" within the setting, but they also underlined common sentiments prevalent across today's Arab world.
"Why is the FBI focused on our school?" inquired the younger Muqbel.
"Western leaders could easily bring justice to Palestine, but they are either hesitating or engaged in a conspiracy," he says.
As the discussion unfolds, other English-speaking followers of Sheik Muqbel drop in to have a word.
At one point, the school's strict interpretation of the Koran and its mission to spread Islam across the world, disguised behind a veneer of denials and traditional Yemeni hospitality, boiled to the surface.
"You have to cover yourself!" interjected Gordon, the bearded Manchurian, pointing to the reporter's casual white trousers. "Men who wear tight pants do not respect the Koran. You are a Christian, and you believe in three Gods - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Who are you gonna call when your house in on fire?"
Though Western diplomats and British experts in Yemen say the five Salafist schools of Sheik Muqbel serve as ideological wings of a Middle East terror network, there was little on display here this week to suggest that impoverished Yemen is any more bent toward radical Islam than some of its wealthier and stricter Arab neighbors to the north.
Training ground or refuge?
Yemen, a country of 17 million inhabitants is, however, strapped with far more militants, or holy warriors, than most of its Arab neighbors. As one Western diplomat recently put it: "Most species of Mideast terrorist are alive and well and living in Yemen."
The Yemeni government appears to tolerate schools like Dar al-Hadith because it knows a crackdown could trigger a public backlash in a country already flush with automatic weapons. Government officials admit that traditional methods of dealing with militancy like imprisonment, exclusion, and exile are shunned in Yemen in favor of inclusion and job creation efforts.
One Western diplomat, insisting on anonymity, said: "Many of the militants in these schools returned from Afghanistan and then fought for the Yemeni government in its brutal war against Southern secessionists in 1994. The government isn't about to run roughshod over them now."
The Yemeni government is somewhat apologetic for the existence of the Dar al-Hadith and its four satellites.
"We're not happy that these groups exist, but our hands are tied," says Faris Sanabani, a spokesman for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Even when we crack down on cells in once place, suspects pop up someplace else."
Officials also complain that they have been left to deal with Western policy failures in places like Afghanistan and Chechnya that have left many Islamic Holy warriors from Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia looking for an adoptive homeland.
"It has been up to us to take these people in," Mr. Sanabani says. He denies the Dar Al-Hadith School has links with an Islamic terror network, adding that "Many of these people were not allowed back into their own countries when they returned from fighting and so they ended up here."
Some longtime Western hands in Yemen see schools like Dar al-Hadith as far less provocative than merely symptomatic of failed Western policies toward the Islamic world.
British-Yemeni expert Stephen Day, who served as a colonial administrator before Britain's final departure from Yemen in 1967, believes the US government should have predicted that schools like these would seize on any foreign presence, like the anchoring of the USS Cole, to rally the Arab world against the West.
"These schools get used for political reasons when there is a motive," he said in the capital, Sana.
"The West, my own government in particular, is largely responsible for the state of affairs in Yemen today, and we need to be more sensitive to that. Yemen needs less finger-pointing and chastising than it does help to become a stable country," he says. "Only then can it rid itself of the extremism being bred by its international isolation."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society