As the leader of an Islamist political party and a key participant in the recently concluded Conference of National Dialogue, Abdulwahab al-Homayqani is considered a mainstream politician in Yemen. He’s respected even by Yemenis with secular leanings, who hail him as a reasonable Sunni hard-liner.
So a recent statement from the US Department of Treasury naming the cleric as a "specially designated global terrorist" has stunned many here.
The statement alleges that Mr. Homayqani’s public image covers up deep ties with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based franchise of the global terrorist group. In addition to funneling money to AQAP, the statement says, he’s played a key role in recruitment efforts and even directed attacks against Yemeni troops.
And his Rashad party – a Salafi, or hard-line Islamist, party – is little more than a front, created with AQAP leaders to increase the group’s numbers and broaden its support, the Treasury Department implies:
Humayqani and AQAP leadership have planned to establish a new political party in Yemen, which AQAP planned to use as a cover for the recruitment and training of fighters and a means to attract broader support. AQAP leadership decided that Humayani would play a public role as a leader and spokesman for the new political party.
Many Yemenis are outraged by Homayqani’s listing. Posters proclaiming “We are all Homayqani” are a common sight in market stalls in Sanaa. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a close US ally, said he would not extradite the cleric if asked, and the government has sent the Treasury Department a formal letter condemning the designation.
The disparity highlights the battle of perceptions the US is often waging in countries where members of the political mainstream may regularly cross paths with terrorists or those who support them.
Speaking with The Christian Science Monitor from his party headquarters in an upscale neighborhood in Sanaa, Homayqani insists he is innocent and calls on the US government to show him evidence of the charges against him. He repeatedly expressed his opposition to Al Qaeda’s methods and ideology.
“I was completely taken aback by the decisions – there was no indication that something like this was coming,” he says, stating that he’s met with US officials on multiple occasions, both in Sanaa and outside the country.
Homayqani says that the charge could have been the result of questionable intelligence, contending that loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have planted it as revenge. The cleric was an outspoken supporter of the 2011 uprising that unseated Mr. Saleh, preaching Friday sermons in the protest square of Al Bayda, his native province.
He criticized the vague nature of the allegations against him, adding that he resigned from his charity – which the Treasury Department alleged is a front for financing Yemeni-based extremists – after the Rashad party was founded in March 2012. US officials have stressed to the Monitor that the listing is largely a result of financial transfers coming from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.
"This is not about the Rashad party as a whole or Homayqani's activities in National Dialogue," said a US official briefed on the topic. "This is largely about his financial activities, particularly his financial transfers coming from [backers in] Saudi Arabia."
The statement reads:
In his capacity as the head of a Yemen-based charity, Humayqani has used his status in the charitable community to fundraise and has provided some of that funding to AQAP and has facilitated financial transfers from AQAP supporters in Saudi Arabia to Yemen in support of AQAP operations. As of 2012, Humayqani was an important figure within AQAP and reportedly had a relationship with important AQAP leaders. Humayqani and others in March 2012 reportedly orchestrated an AQAP attack on a Yemeni Republican Guard base in al-Bayda' Governorate, Yemen. The attack employed multiple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and killed seven. He is suspected to have recruited individuals to AQAP who were involved in a plot to assassinate Yemeni officials.
But even as he sharply criticized the US drone campaign against suspected militants in Yemen, Homayqani cast combating Al Qaeda as the duty of all Muslims, explicitly stating that he considers Yemeni military action against the group as legitimate. In fact, the man accused of serving as an Al Qaeda recruiter has long been a critic, accusing it of having a distorted understanding of Islamic law.
“The al-Rashad Union’s position on this is clear, and we oppose any armed violence inside the country, whether we are talking about Al Qaeda, the Houthi rebels, or any other armed movement,” he said, speaking in a July 17, 2012 interview with Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based, Saudi-owned, pan-Arab newspaper. “This is something that we completely and comprehensively reject and condemn.”
Yemeni officials have noted that Homayqani has long been under watch, regardless of his rhetoric. His close relationships with Sanaa’s Iman University, a Sunni religious institution founded by Sheikh Abdulmajid al-Zindani, who himself was designated as a “global terrorist” by the Treasury Department in 2004, are far from secret.
AQAP fighters maintain a significant presence in his native province. Yemeni officials told the Monitor that many sheikhs in Homayqani's tribe have allied with AQAP, making it almost unavoidable to deal with the terrorist group. While acknowledging the possibility that some of the people Homayqani gets money from have donated to Al Qaeda-linked groups, they say they do not believe that he has funneled money to Al Qaeda himself.
But while officials here have said that the allegations against the cleric aren’t unimaginable and acknowledge that the US appears to be confident in its case against the cleric, they remain unconvinced.
“It’s still unclear,” said a Yemeni official briefed on security matters, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “That’s why we asked for evidence.”