Middle East

Jihad Materials Thrive in Yemeni Markets

A Yemeni soldier sits inside a helicopter as it patrols over Saadah. The northwestern town is the minority Zaidi Shiite community's rebel stronghold. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

A little-known aspect of the war on terrorism is being fought in the mountainous Arab country of Yemen by a new generation of Sunni Muslims who are circulating gruesome videos showing the murder and mutilation of "infidels" as part of a recruiting drive for Osama bin Laden's worldwide terror network.

At a roadside stand, a video salesman sells "jihadi" movies to the converted, as radical songs, including, "We will make jihad against the pigs" (meaning Jews) blare from speakers in his bookshop.

The long-bearded buyers thronging his stall on the sidelines of a sunset prayer sermon in the Yemeni capital Sana'a belong to a group organized by the radical Sunni wing of the Yemen Reform Group, also known as Islah — a powerful opposition Islamic party.

"Here is the latest movie of the beheadings," the salesman tells his customers, as they examine titles such as, "Slaughter of American Soldiers in Iraq," "Al Qaeda Victories in Fallujah in Iraq," and "Killing of Traitors in Afghanistan."

In Yemen, which was compelled to join the United States-led global war on terrorism after al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001 attack, anger has risen over what many Muslim clerics see as an attempt by America and the West to repress Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

But that is only part of the story. Yemen has also been pushed into a long battle with its own demons, particularly al Qaeda-related attacks and sectarian violence that have killed thousands.

Recently, four people were injured when a Sunni riot broke out in the Yemeni port city of Belhaf, allegedly after an engineer working for the French company Total desecrated a copy of the Koran by throwing it on the floor.

At the other north end of the country, in the restive Saada tribal area bordering Saudi Arabia where fierce battles are still going on between government forces and Shiite rebels, two Muslim students — one French, and the other British — were killed and several others wounded in a recent attack by Shiite rebels on a fundamentalist Sunni religious school.

The movie seller didn't have the most recent action from the war in Iraq, but he had something else just as gruesome.

"This one is about the activities of Mujahideen bombers in Iraq," he said, "and this is about the biographies of martyrs in Afghanistan."

On Sept. 15, 2006, al Qaeda sympathizers attacked the American and Canadian-owned oil facilities in the eastern provinces of Marib and Hadarmout after they watched a movie in which Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa ordering strikes on Western-owned oil companies in the Arab peninsula.

Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, has provided two-thirds of the recruits for Osama's Afghan camps, and is notorious for kidnappings of foreigners as well as for the October 2000 bombing of the American warship U.S.S. Cole in Aden that killed 17 sailors, and for the October 2002 bombing of the French supertanker, Limberg.

But the battle to eradicate such acts of terrorism has been reinvigorated by a government crackdown on Yemen's arms trade, which fuels many of the fundamentalist Islamic groups and tribal conflicts.

The country has come under increased pressure from the United States, a key financial and military backer, to take harsher action against the illicit trade in weapons, which experts say are funneled to militias and radical insurgent groups throughout the Middle East.

"The explanation for them makes no haze or cloudiness about who is producing them — they are al Qaeda's Sunni sympathizers of the political Islamist Islah party," said Mohammed Kuhaly, political analyst and lead researcher of the local non-governmental organization (NGO) Political Development Program.

For less than a dollar apiece, jihadi literature and VCDs admire the brave and exciting actions of al Qaeda fighters, promise 72 heavenly virgins for prospective martyred bombers and prescribe beheadings for spies.

There are also training movies on how to run a guerrilla war, based on Islamist insurgent militants fighting the American-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Messages in the movies put all Arab leaders, including President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and President George W. Bush at the top of a hit list for would-be murderers in a war against what are described as the American "crusader forces."

President Saleh has banned several radical religious schools belonging to the opposition Islamist Islah party since 2002, and just two years ago he launched yet another campaign against militant Shiite rebels, stirring sectarian violence between Yemen's majority Sunni and minority Shiites.

Adel Qasim runs an Islamic bookstore in Sana'a and said Saleh's policies since the Sept. 11 attacks have definitely been bad for such business.

"In fact, our sales were doing very well when we were trading jihadi literature," Qasim lamented. "Now this business, from time to time, has gone underground. But it is openly sold to known people."

In Sana'a also, the owner of another bookshop said such material could always be arranged to be sold to trusted customers.

It is not difficult, however, to find the leader of one of the most radical groups in Yemen. His message of extremist Islam can be heard outside a number of well-known mosques.

Sheikh Hazza Al-Maswary, a representative of Islamist Islah party that forms the largest opposition block in the Parliament, has kept a low profile for some time because of pressure from Yemen's security apparatus, according to some analysts.

But outside Mujahid mosque in Sana'a, his voice blares out from speakers from among the shops selling perfumes, head caps, religious books, cassettes and films after Friday prayers.

"Curse on the Christian Americans and Jews … those are killers … and we will make jihad against them, we will rob them of their peace," legislator Al-Maswary thunders.

"Muslims must not follow the Christians and Jews, and God says he will not accept anyone but Muslims."

Not all Yemeni preachers are spreading messages of Jihad. Some are moderate and are engaged in fighting radicalism within their groups, while others exert efforts to mediate armed tribal conflicts and help to bring a measure of peace to this mountainous Arab country.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mohamed Al-Azaki.