SANA, Yemen — The mosque at Al Eman University is larger than a football field, an immense warehouse with breeze-block walls, a tin roof and industrial lighting. On Fridays, more than 4,000 men come to pray, lining up along the marks on the figured green carpet, giving each enough room to prostrate himself toward Mecca.
The devotions of such a crowd are a powerful message of faith and solidarity. Most are dressed in national costume, white robes and embroidered shawls for Yemenis and Arabs, tribal robes for some Africans, crocheted prayer caps for the Asians.
This university, the size of a village, was founded in 1993 by Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a revered spiritual leader, theological adviser to Osama bin Laden and co-founder of the main Yemeni opposition party, Islah. In 2004, the United States Treasury put Mr. Zindani on a list of “specially designated global terrorists” for suspected fund-raising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The university itself is a good symbol of the complications of Yemen, its need to strike a balance between conservative Islam and an increased American involvement.
The radical American-born Internet preacher Anwar al-Awlaki took classes and gave lectures here in 2004 and 2005, when a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — who later tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Dec. 25 — was in Sana studying Arabic. There is no firm evidence that they met then, or even last summer, when Mr. Abdulmutallab returned before heading off to Qaeda training camps, where he probably did meet Mr. Awlaki; the school denies that they ever met here.
John Walker Lindh, the American who was captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, studied here before fighting the Americans, and in general the university is seen as a center for jihadist ideas. While the school says lectures are only for students, the mosque is open to all Muslims.
The university has more than 4,000 students and teaches courses in Islam and Western disciplines, sometimes trying to meld the two. Sheik Zindani, thought to be 59 and favoring a long dyed beard, is well known for his effort to prove that the Koran predicts Western scientific discoveries, and he has claimed to have cured AIDS. One of his books, translated shakily into English, with charts about the ruminant stomach of the cow, photosynthesis and other scientific discoveries, is called “Signs & Mericals [sic] of Prophet Messenger, Peace be Upon Him.”
Hood Abu Ras, who runs Sheik Zindani’s university office, denies that Mr. Abdulmutallab was ever here, or that anything happens at Al Eman except scholarship. “Has the U.S. ever produced any evidence of Sheik Zindani’s involvement in terror?” Mr. Abu Ras asked. As for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an alliance of Saudi and Yemeni Qaeda operatives, he said, “It gets more propaganda than it deserves.” The sheik himself, at a recent news conference, said he opposed foreign forces in Yemen. “We accept any cooperation in the framework of respect and joint interests, and we reject military occupation of our country,” he said, adding: “Yemen’s rulers and people must be careful before a guardianship is imposed on them” by foreigners.
He was blunter in Friday Prayer at another mosque, when he warned of an American plot to occupy Yemen, based on a London conference scheduled for Jan. 28 whose stated subject is Afghanistan.
“The U.K. request for an international conference on Yemen is meant to pave the way for a U.N. Security Council resolution to approve an occupation of Yemen and to put it under a U.N. mandate,” Mr. Zindani said, as the worshipers shouted, “No to occupation!” He said that Washington’s “so-called war on terror is in fact a war against Islam,” according to Al Jazeera.
After his sermon, he told a reporter for Al Jazeera: “Obama’s advisers recommended that if Yemen becomes a failed state, they have to occupy the oil resources and Yemen’s seacoast. What is this military buildup on our coasts for? Is it really justified by piracy? No one really believes that.”
Sheik Zindani is no fan of American involvement in the Muslim world and has defended jihad — beginning with the thousands of Muslims, many of them from Yemen, who heeded the call, as he did, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Their alliance with the Taliban then was considered a fine thing, and Mr. bin Laden himself fought the Soviets.
But the reaction to Afghanistan, including the creation of Al Qaeda, has hit Yemen, too. Sheik Zindani, who has considerable political and moral weight, has come out against terrorism, if not jihad, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has failed to get Washington to remove the sheik from the terrorist list. Even a senior Western diplomat said that the sheik “has kept his head down for the last few years,” since he took legal action against Yemeni newspapers and journalists in 2006 for reprinting even censored parts of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.
Mr. Saleh, who has run Yemen for 31 years, told The New York Times in June 2008 that ruling here is like “dancing with snakes.” Sheik Zindani and his conservative brand of Islam — Yemeni Salafism — has strong support from Saudi Arabia and one of Mr. Saleh’s oldest allies, Ali Mohsen. They are all pillars of the current government, even if Mr. Mohsen opposes the dynastic succession of Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, to the presidency.
While Yemeni Salafism is not as militant as the Saudi variety — Wahhabism — Sheik Zindani studied in Saudi Arabia, and the mental landscape of the Salafis and Al Qaeda is very similar — conservative, anti-Western, devoted to purifying Islam and returning to the practices they believe existed at the time of Prophet Muhammad.
Mr. Mohsen, a general who is currently prosecuting the war against a Houthi rebellion in the north, also recruited thousands of Yemenis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. His brigades returned victorious, and Mr. Saleh has used them since to help defeat the south in the 1994 civil war and against the Houthis. Some fighters, of course, have migrated to Al Qaeda, and there are imams here more radical than Mr. Zindani.
When north and south Yemen were united in 1990, Sheik Zindani accepted Mr. Saleh’s rule and was granted this huge area of government land on the western edge of Sana for the university — adjoining a large military base, which is Mr. Mohsen’s headquarters. There are rumors that students sometimes get military training there, which Mr. Abu Ras also denies.
Tuition, housing and food are free for students, and there is a primary school for their children. But with the Treasury Department crackdown on financing suspected terrorist groups, Yemeni analysts say that the school now has less money, that the number of students is down at least 2,000 and that there is less food in the cafeteria.
Ismail al-Suhailyi, who has taught political science here for 13 years, said that the West must concentrate on economic development, not just security assistance. “Otherwise, the people will see their government working only for the interests of the Americans,” he said.
“Al Qaeda is part of Yemen, but they are just a few hundred people,” Mr. Suhailyi said, advocating further dialogue with Al Qaeda. “I hope the American government will work to solve the problems here, and not become part of the problem.”