The Gathering for Yemeni Reform (Al-Tajamu al-Yemeni al-Islah), generally known simply as Al-Islah, is a political party founded in Yemen shortly after unification in 1990. Al-Islah has long denied, and with especial vehemence since 2013, any affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the known facts point to a long, if at times complex, history of association between Al-Islah and the Brotherhood — and other extremist groups. As such, Al-Islah has been a risk factor in Yemen’s search for stability for many decades.
The Muslim Brotherhood first emerged in Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s, when Abdul Majeed al-Zindani led a group of clerics to establish a religious education system in northern Yemen. These schools were emulating the system of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Yemeni version aimed at countering the wave of secularism coming from the Soviet-dependent socialist regime in South Yemen. With the end of the Cold War, the two parts of Yemen were unified, and the religious ideas inculcated in the north, which included strands of extremism, spread throughout the country. These ideological trends would play a significant role in the diverging goals and visions of the various the actors in Yemen that led into a conflict that in many ways still exists today.
Al-Zindani is one of the founders and leaders of the Islah party, and is among the most visible links between that party and religious terrorist groups. Al-Zindani was declared a terrorist in the year 2004 by the United States Department of Treasury. According to the Treasury, there was reliable evidence at that time that Al-Zindani “support[ed] designated terrorists and terrorist organizations”.
Al-Zindani had a “long history of working with [Osama] bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders”, the Treasury designation went on, adding that he had been an active recruiter for Al-Qaeda training camps and played a “key role” in purchasing weapons on behalf of Al-Qaeda and other jihadi terrorists. The Treasury notice concluded that Al-Zindani had “served as a contact” to Ansar al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda-linked Kurdish organization based in northern Iraq that was also tied to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and had been involved in a series of terrorist attacks and assassinations in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, against foreign missionaries and local anti-Islamist politicians.
Probably the best-known terrorist incident Al-Zindani, and by extension Al-Islah, was tied to was the October 2000 bombing of the American destroyer, the USS Cole, off the coast of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors in 2000. Several of the suspects in the Cole attack testified in court, as confirmed by the judge speaking to The Los Angeles Times, that they acted under a fatwa (religious edict) from Al-Zindani. While the jurist, Hamood Abdulhamid Hitar, was careful to say that he could not verify this information, it was not the last time Al-Zindani and his party would be connected with violence.
In the early nineties, Al-Zindani established Al-Iman University in Sanaa. A number of students from this University were suspected of, or arrested for, terrorist activities, as the Treasury designation of Al-Zindani mentions. A prominent case was John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert from Marin County, California, who went off to join the Taliban after he had attended Al-Iman University.
One of the Al-Iman University’s presidents, Abd al-Wahhab al-Daylami, was known for his fatwa inciting the killing of southerners during the brief civil war of 1994. Southerners retain their anger about this, and Al-Islah, to this day.
Most unambiguously of all, in January 2010, Al-Zindani was among those who issued a statement threatening to declare a jihad against America if the U.S. sent troops to fight terrorism in Yemen.
The history of the conflict in Yemen suggests that when considering Sunni Islamist militancy, the Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the “harder” jihadist organizations like Al-Qaeda are not so easily separated; the ideas and even the members are fluid, switching between one or other and back again according to the imperatives of time and place.
Perhaps the setbacks suffered by Islamist terrorist organizations in Yemen over the years — from the U.S. drone strikes, the gradual erosion of the cohesion of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the blows dealt by the Gulf coalition to terrorism since 2015 — will have diminished the appeal and impact of extremist ideas. But there are reasons for pessimism. These ideas were cultivated by an effective proselytizing campaign from northern Yemen since the sixties. The mitigation, let alone removal, of these ideas is likely to require a generation and more of work — and that would be in the best of circumstances. The ongoing war and the sectarian aggression of Iran and its Houthi proxies provides an environment Sunni Islamists thrive in.