Yemen says it needs more cash to help it fight against al-Qaeda
By Paul Wood
BBC News, Sanaa
Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zendani was enjoying sparring with the pack of foreign journalists as they, increasingly frustrated, tried to pin him down on his supposed support for Jihad.
The Sheikh, an elderly but striking figure with his beard hennaed bright red, had a twinkle in his eye and chuckled good naturedly as he deflected another attempt to land a blow.
"Is it legitimate under Islam to kill the CIA advisers helping to train the Yemeni counter-terrorism forces," I asked.
Sheikh Zendani answered with a story about how the prophet Mohammed admonished a woman for killing a cat by locking it in a room without food.
"So the CIA in Yemen are like innocent cats?"
"That is your opinion, not mine." And so it went on.
Sheikh Zendani sees miltant activity in Afghanistan and Iraq as a defensive Jihad
The Sheikh is the most influential religious figure in Yemen. He is also on the America's list of those it believes connected to global terrorism.
Sheikh Zendani is close to the government here and journalists at the news conference questioned how sincere Yemen could be about co-operating with the US if he was still at liberty.
But the Sheikh was being careful.
In fact, there is a sense that the whole country, and especially the government, is at pains now not to say the wrong thing, above all not to do anything that might cause a US military intervention.
The minister of Religious Endowment and Islamic Guidance, Hamoud al-Hitar, repeated for me what is now the conventional wisdom on Yemen, both inside and outside the country, that foreign boots on the ground would only benefit al-Qaeda.
"Military action in Yemen, by either the US or any other country, will make all Yemeni people unite, ending their internal disputes to stand together against any direct military intervention," Mr Hitar warns.
The White House gets this. Wary of multiplying support for al-Qaeda in Yemen many times over, President Barack Obama is not sending troops.
Instead, he will rely on Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But Yemen's government has some questions to answer about how - up until now - al-Qaeda was apparently able to flourish so openly in Yemen.
Specifically, the allegation is that the Yemeni government made a deal with al- Qaeda: they would be left alone as long as exported their violence outside the country and were not too active in Yemen.
The government always saw the main threat to it to be the Houthi rebels in the north.
The government must also manage popular opinion - opposed to foreign troop presence
There are even claims that Sunni al-Qaeda fighters have fought the Shia Houthis on the government's behalf.
Officials deny that. But tribes adhering to a Jihadist ideology not so far from al-Qaeda's have certainly been extensively used in the struggle with the Shia rebels.
This is why although the number of al-Qaeda members in Yemen is put in the hundreds, there are said to be thousands of al-Qaeda supporters.
The similarity between al-Qaeda's world view and that of many Yemeni tribes is also why the content of religious teaching in Yemen is so important.
At the news conference, Sheikh Zendani would not say that foreigners - even foreign intelligence officers - in Yemen were legitimate targets.
But he did characterise actions by militants in Afghanistan and Iraq as a defensive Jihad mandated by Islam.
His statement on Thursday about the legitimacy of resisting foreign intervention is in line with that - and something that pretty much all Yemenis agree with.
There is a fine line between these positions and support for al-Qaeda in Yemen.
But the minister for religion, Hamoud al-Hitar, denied that Yemen was tolerating radical religious "scientific schools", as madrassas are called here.
"They have no schools before our very eyes, nor do they have mosques to teach in. Al-Qaeda lessons are delivered on the internet but not through schools or mosques," he told me.
"Most of the extremists in Yemen have received their education outside Yemen. Yemen has its strategy for countering extremism and terror. It is based on intellectual dialogue and entrenching moderate ideas in school curricula."
He concluded: "We have started a war of ideas against al-Qaeda."
It has become a war of airstrikes and artillery, too.
The Yemeni government may be acting now because al-Qaeda in the country has a new and more radical leadership.
It has torn up the old understandings with the Yemeni government - if that is what they were - and made clear it is prepared to target Yemeni politicians.
So the Yemeni government attacked al-Qaeda "camps" in mid-December, weeks before the attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
Yemen has stepped up anti-insurgent activity in recent months
Some international officials believe the government may also have had a simple financial motive for this.
Mr Saleh's administration is so short of money it will struggle to pay salaries in the coming months, it is said.
It is claimed he needed to demonstrate his anti-al-Qaeda credentials in order to get a fresh injection of cash from the Americans.
It may be wrong to suppose - as is often said about Yemen - that the government is chronically weak and capable of doing little beyond the capital.
"Yemen has not yet started its real war against al-Qaeda," said Ali Saif Hassan, an independent political analyst.
"The government has a very powerful and strong machine. But the question is what it takes for Yemen to run that machine - and that will be answered in the London conference."
Yemen's foreign minister this week made a straight plea for cash to be handed over in large amounts at a conference later this month in London, saying terrorism and lack of development in Yemen were linked.
This is the poorest country in the Middle East, 153rd among the 177 countries in the UN's human development index. It is running out of oil, short of water and half the population is under 18.
It would take billions of dollars to fix Yemen, but ordinary Yemenis wonder just how much of the millions the country will actually get will be lost to corruption.
The US will pay up, anyway. The realities on the ground mean that Mr Obama has little choice but to make Yemen a proxy war.