THE LEVANT – By Catherine Shakdam – Sheikh Abdel-Mageed Al Zindani, one of Yemen most prominent tribal leaders and clerics has called this week on the government to initiate talks with Al Qaeda rather than pursue all-out war.
The cleric’s comments came on the wake of a series of attack launched by Al Qaeda in the south-eastern province of Hadhramawt against military outposts. Not all military officials welcomed Al Zindani’s argument for a truce, especially since only last week terror militant so brutally murdered 14 soldiers on duty.
A controversial religious figure, Sheikh al Zindani has figured on America’s most wanted terror list since 2004. On February 24, 2004, the US Treasury Department issued an order labelling Zindani a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”. The Department said that Zindani had a “long history of working with Ossama bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders”, and that he “served as a contact for Ansar al-Islam (Al), a Kurdish-based terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda”. The Department also stated that it suspected students of his Al Iman University of assassinating three American missionaries, and “the number two leader for the Yemeni Socialist Party, Jarallah Omar”.
Zindani’s name was subsequently submitted to the UN 1267 Committee’s list of individuals belonging to or associated with al-Qaeda.
A high ranking member of Al Islah, he is also a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.
Regardless of the slew of critics his political and religious positions have often attracted, Sheikh Al Zindani has so far remained immune to any form of legal procedings, so great has been his standing as a tribal leader and influential religious figure in the impoverished nation.
True to his own unforgiving narrative, the Sheikh wants President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to consider including Al Qaeda within the political arena rather than slam the door to its face.
“We need to open dialogue with everyone, even with those armed groups. The country will not be stable as long as there are armed groups who feel they have been wronged,” he told his interviewer on Sunday on national TV.
It is important to note that as a non-official al Zindani’s position reflects only his own and not that of government officials.
President Hadi has yet to respond to the sheikh’s “olive branch” suggestion.
While one cannot completely dismiss the possibility of negotiations with Al Qaeda at some point down the line; we are talking about Yemen after all, where the impossible and the strange have a way of materializing themselves, it is unlikely President Hadi will wish to discuss a truce at a time when the terror group has proven most vicious and unforgiving against its military.
For any talks to ever take place concessions would have to be made and weapons would have to be laid out.
Sheikh al Zindani is adamant communication lines in between Al Qaeda and the Yemeni government were severed by “foreign hands”, thus creating a situation where both entities were forced to revert to violence.
He said,“Those people [Al Qaeda] agreed to talk with the government when some scholars contacted them in the past. We must be free from the foreign domination.”
Bearing in mind the fact that Sheikh Al Zindani carries around him a cloak tainted of alleged terror connections, notwithstanding his leading position at Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood party, it could very well be that such a TV appearance will reignite some heated discussions regarding the Brotherhood and its affiliations to Al Qaeda. Only time will tell.
Whether or not related, Sheikh Al Zindani’s TV appearance coincided with calls from political and religious foe, Abdel-Malek Al Houthi for a cleansing of Al Qaeda elements within the military and the government.
The Houthis (Zaidi faction based originally in the northern province of Sa’ada) have often accused state and military official of serving Al Qaeda agenda in Yemen, pointing the figure directly toward Al Islah.