In Yemen, a university tied to 'American Taliban' and underwear bomber

Iman University, a Sunni religious school in Yemen, educated US Taliban member John Walker Lindh and gave a teaching post to militant American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. The school denied rumors that it hosted "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but concern over its militant ties are growing.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Students at the controversial Islamic Iman 'Faith' University prepare for noon prayers in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 12. Officials at the institution deny that the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly planned to blow up a US airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, was ever a student there. Founded and directed by Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani - who is considered a 'global terrorist' by the US, with Al Qaeda affiliations - students and faculty at Imam University say the militant reputation is a myth.

Yemen’s Iman University, a Sunni religious institution that draws students from 40 countries, has come under frequent suspicion from Westerners and some Yemenis as a militant hotbed. American Taliban John Walker Lindh was once a student, and some media reports in the wake of the foiled Christmas Day plane plot said that alleged "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also attended classes here.

But on the Spartan campus, nestled in a rocky valley on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, officials flatly deny that Mr. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, ever spent time at their school. Together with students, they defend the controversial Islamic university, saying its radical reputation is not only unwarranted but that it actively seeks to blunt radical views.

“We want to study, to help our people and all the world to know what is right and what is wrong, to correct people’s ideas and misperceptions,” says Mohammad al-Nehary, a diminutive graduate student with a stringy black beard.

To change radical views, says Mr. Nehary, who is training to be a religious scholar, the US and Yemen should not “combat Islamic institutions that teach Islam in open places.”

Ismael al-Sohaily, the head of the political science department, agrees.

“If the US exerts pressure on Islamic religious institutions, what would the alternative be?” asks Dr. Sohaily. “You see Iman University is open – the curriculum is open, journalists come, it is regulated by the government. If it were closed, religious people will go to closed places, and who knows what they (will) learn.”

Founder Zindani linked to Al Qaeda

Controversy has stalked Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who founded the school in 1995 and has a history of inspiring militants. Active in fighting the Soviets alongside Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, he is considered by the US a “terrorist” who was one of Bin Laden’s “spiritual leaders,” and is under United Nations sanction because of Al Qaeda affiliations.

The latest flurry of Western interest in Iman University came in the wake of the murder of 12 soldiers at Fort Hood last November by US Army doctor Nidal Malik Hasan, who had carried on an e-mail correspondence with exiled militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen born to Yemeni parents. Mr. Awlaki is currently believed to be in hiding in Yemen. On his now defunct blog, he claimed to have been a lecturer in Islam at Iman University.

The red-bearded Sheikh Zindani laughed heartily on Monday when he brushed off the perennial accusations of terrorist involvement.

“I am a general lecturer and a writer of books,” Zindani told journalists. “If someone says they listened to my lectures or read my books, am I to blame if he then, say, divorces his wife, or if he attacks someone? If that’s the case, then all teachers and professors should be accused.”

After years of accusations, Zindani says he is now “ready to hear that if anyone makes any mistake, or there is any attack in London, or anywhere else, he was a student in my university.”

4,000 students – 500 foreigners

Officials say that 4,000 students attend the school, taking classes in everything from the hard sciences to religion. Some 500 of the students are foreigners, and each must get a letter from their embassy before attending, school officials said on Tuesday.

Sohaily says that examples of militant alumni have been overplayed – skewing the university’s reputation.

“Why don’t we talk of the 2,000 graduates who did not commit such acts? Why this one?” asks Sohaily. “The university aims to generate scholars who understand Islam as it is. We believe that [such] a religious scholar ... is best suited to cooperate with other faiths.”

He says two examples are frequently raised. One former student assassinated a top Socialist Party leader in 2002, but the killer had left the school seven years earlier because “university teaching could not cope with his radical views,” says Sohaily. The murderer of three American medical workers in 2002 had never been a student, as reported, he said.

Zindani's influence seen in Afghanistan

Still, Zindani's example  has inspired militants before. The Monitor came across Yemeni Obaidur Rahman in 2001, held in a Northern Alliance prison in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. Hobbled by knee-high steel manacles (he was captured in 1996), he said he had been influenced to join the Taliban to fight by Zindani’s preaching.

“[In Yemen,] they said to us, you should go to Afghanistan to learn military arts, then you should go to Chechnya to fight the Russians, and Kashmir to fight the Indians,” said Mr. Rahman, speaking just a month after 9/11. “There are no innocent people in those skyscrapers.”

And according to Defense Department details released in 2006, Guantanamo Bay prisoner No. 115 – Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Naser of Yemen – “decided to go to Afghanistan after hearing and speaking with Sheikh al-Zindani.”

Zindani himself, speaking in Sanaa on Monday, stated that it was “not permissible” in Islam to kill innocents – regardless of religious creed – “in wartime, much less when at peace.”

'Don't judge a civilization by a person'

On Tuesday at Iman University, just moments before noon prayers, hundreds of students took off their shoes, stepped into a long hall, and sat down on the worn carpet in small groups to recite the Koran. Somalis and other Africans were among them, though several refused to speak.

The scars on the forehead of student Abdul-Karim Morshid wrinkle with determination, as the fifth-year economics student calls for fairer judgment.

“Al Qaeda doesn’t represent Muslims or Islam; they are only one group,” says Mr. Morshid, a Yemeni whose teeth are stained with daily chewing of the mild stimulant leaf called qat.

“Islam is a civilization, and when you want to understand any civilization, don’t judge it by a person, but by its history and institutions,” says Morshid. “If we look at the West through the lens of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, what would we see? But we don’t, because that does not reflect their civilization.”

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