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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 12:49 GMT
'American Taleban's Yemen connection
John Walker Lindh
The 20-year-old is being held at a US base
The BBC's Richard Engel travels to Yemen to investigate the version of Islam studied by John Walker Lindh, the American who is to be tried for fighting alongside the Taleban.

John Walker Lindh was a Muslim convert attracted to the radical, militant vision of Islam forwarded by the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

He learned much of the hard-line teaching he was looking for in the poor Gulf nation of Yemen, south of Saudi Arabia, where, according to local media reports, he spent nearly three years before leaving to fight in Afghanistan.

John Walker Lindh
John Walker Lindh grew up in northern California
He first studied the Arabic language here in the capital, Sanaa, and later travelled to Yemen's rough-and-tumble north, where the government exercises limited control.

There, he joined a school run by a hard-line sheikh. It was at that institute that Walker likely became immersed in the narrow interpretation of Islam propagated by those who support Saudi-born militant Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban, according to Walid al-Saqqaf, editor of the Yemen Times newspaper.

"The effects that he (Walker) had from his time in Yemen were perhaps, let's say, the most influential," Al-Saqqaf said.

Yemen attracts many students of Arabic language.

Instruction here is inexpensive and the country is famous throughout the Middle East because the Arabic spoken here is reputed to be closer to the Arabic written in the Koran than elsewhere in the world.

The Salafi vision

Walker returned to Yemen in 2000. This time, he headed north to Sa'adah, an area largely out of the government's reach, where armed tribes control much of their own affairs.

They are not open to change. They are closed to the world. They do not read books or newspapers

Journalist Bassam Gamil al Saqqaf
In Sa'adah, Walker studied the "Salafi" vision of Islam under a famous hard-line sheikh, according to editor al-Saqqaf.

"That may have diverted his way of thinking of Islam as a religion that is of peace into thinking of Islam as a religion of radical fundamentalism, which is totally wrong," he said.

The Salafi movement is non-violent, and has about 3,000 followers in Yemen, experts say.

Salafis believe that Muslims should try to live exactly as the Prophet Mohammed did in the seventh century.

Found throughout the Arab and Islamic world, Salafis believe in a principle elaborated on by the so-called "father" of Islamic radicalism - the late Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb.

In the 1950s, Qutb wrote that the modern world exists in a dangerous state of "Gahiliya" - the dark time before the revelation of Islam.

Salafis believe Muslims should try to recreate the atmosphere of the time of Mohammed, and thereby end this dark state of Gahiliya and the apostates who populate it.

"They believe they are correct and that everyone else is wrong," said Yemeni journalist Bassam Gamil al Saqqaf, who is familiar with the Salafi movement in Yemen.

"They follow the words and actions of the Prophet step by step. They do not accept changes or modernizations. Their method of Islamic call is the same as it was.

"They are not open to change. They are closed to the world. They do not read books or newspapers. They are not very interested in culture. They have no idea about technology."

The Bin Laden connection

In its belief that Muslims should isolate themselves from the sinful world, the Salafi interpretation is similar to Saudi Arabia's - and Osama Bin Laden's - strain of purist Islam known as Wahabism.

In fact, at a Salafi centre in the Yemeni capital, cassettes of Osama Bin Laden's speeches are for sale.

Although the Yemeni government considers the Salafi movement to be non-violent, it has treated it with suspicion. Several Salafis were arrested in Yemen in connection with the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

Since the 11 September attacks on the US, the Yemeni Government has taken a number of steps to crack down on Islamic radicals in Yemen, deporting many foreign students, who, like Walker, were studying Arabic and Islam at hard-line schools.

But many of the most-wanted militants are believed to be hiding among the well-armed tribes in the country's north and east, places where the government's troops can only enter if they are ready to do battle.

Western diplomats say the government's efforts are further limited because many people here support Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, having only a general idea about the group's activities.

Diplomats also say Bin Laden maintains an active presence in Yemen, where his roots are deep.

Bin Laden's father was born in Yemen and one of his wives is Yemeni. Media reports say her father has been questioned by Yemeni police after 11 September.

Saudi funding

There are also ties between the Salafi movement in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni Times has reported that the Saudi charity, the Two Holy Mosques foundation, contributes funds to the Salafi movement here.

Furthermore, the late leader of the school in northern Yemen where Walker studied, Sheikh Hadi Moqbel al Wadii, is buried in Saudi Arabia near the grave of Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Baz, the Saudi Kingdom's former grand mufti or chief Islamic advisor - a sign of the respect the Salafi leader commanded in Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Wadii was known in Yemen as an ardent opponent of democracy and elections, believing the two to be unIslamic because they treat men and women, educated and un-educated as equals.

His teachings have attracted a strain of Muslims from around the world, including the United Kingdom.

Walker came to Yemen looking to learn more about radical Islam and it appears he achieved his goal. After leaving the country in 2000, he went on to Pakistan and eventually to Afghanistan to fight with the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

See also:

14 Dec 01 | Americas
Enigma of American Taleban
05 Dec 01 | Americas
US shocked by American Taleban
03 Dec 01 | South Asia
America's home-grown Taleban fighter
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