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.
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.
"One of the main aspects of Islam which attracted me to it, was its tolerance." But Lindh, she guesses, "was here looking for something particular. Something extreme. You can find that anywhere. It has nothing to do with Islam."
Over the years, Yemen has become known as a haven and base for terrorists. Yemeni passport holders and several foreigners who studied here have been implicated in the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moderate Yemeni scholars, academics, and politicians take pains to explain that such extremism is a foreign import. "Ours has never been a religious history of intolerance," says former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdel Karim al Iryani. "Yemenis have always been traders and migrants, and we could never even afford to be exclusionary."
The history of extremism here begins in the 1950s, when the Muslim Brotherhood spread its ideas from Egypt across the Arab world. The movement grew in strength during Yemen's civil war in the 1970s between the north and the Marxist south.
Then, in the 1980s, with the encouragement - and some say financing - of the CIA, thousands of young Yemenis were recruited and sent off to training camps in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. From there, they went to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen against the Soviet Union - and many of these jihadis established ties with Osama bin Laden.
After the war, these uneducated Yemeni fighters returned and, finding no jobs, enrolled in Islamic institutions or joined militant struggles elsewhere in the world. Troubles multiplied when, after siding with Iraq during the Gulf War, Yemen found 1 million citizens expelled from the Gulf, depriving the economy of remittances and bringing home a new group of unemployed malcontents. "The move to extremism was political, driven by poverty and disappointment, not by religion," says Ahmed al Kibsie, professor of political science at Sana University. "But it is powerful."
The religious Al Islah party grew in force, providing social services that the government could not afford, and lecturing the public in religion. In the 1993 elections, Islah won enough seats to take its pick of ministries. It chose the education ministry, taking control of the Islamic institutions. It traded math and language classes for courses on jihad. It is into this climate that Lindh walked.
Since the bombing of the USS Cole, the government has retaken control of the religious institutions, clamped down on fundamentalists, and begun a hard-hitting campaign to rid the country of its terrorists.
Eight months after leaving Yemen, Lindh returned, traveling on from here to Pakistan and then Afghanistan.
When Lindh was captured by US troops, he was wearing imitation Birkenstocks - but by then he, too, was a very long way from Marin County.