Yemeni Cleric Moayad’s Conviction Further Strains U.S.-Yemeni Relations

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 6

German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder’s visit to Yemen in early March was well timed. Indeed, coinciding with the closing arguments in the New York terror trial of Yemeni cleric Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad and his assistant, Mohammed Yahya Zayed, Schroeder’s visit could easily be seen as support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as a means of blunting any criticism or retribution for Germany’s role in the affair. After all, Germany had allowed the U.S. to use its territory for the sting operation which netted the two suspects, it turned them over to the U.S. for trial and – along the way – Schroeder even turned down personal pleas from Saleh for the return of Moayad and Zayed to Yemen.

Moayad was found guilty of both conspiring to support and attempting to support Palestinian suicide bombers and al-Qaeda. He was also convicted of actually supporting Hamas but acquitted of actually supporting al-Qaeda. Zayed was convicted of conspiring to support al-Qaeda and Hamas, and attempting to support Hamas. He was acquitted of attempting to support al-Qaeda. The jury returned the verdicts after carefully scrutinizing videotapes made secretly during a sting operation in Frankfurt in January 2003.

The videotapes were taken during the cleric’s visit to Frankfurt in early January 2003. Moayad had been led to believe he would meet a wealthy American Muslim from New York interested in donating funds to charities that the Yemeni cleric oversaw in the Middle East. The man, actually a U.S. agent, introduced himself as Said Sharif bin Turi and appeared to be an American-born convert to Islam. Over the next three days the two men met several times to discuss money that the American might provide, some of which, he said, would go to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. Then, on the morning of Jan. 10, as Moayad and two other Yemenis began prayers in his room, German police burst in and arrested them.

That caused ructions in Yemen, where public demonstrations took place in support of the cleric. Moayad is a prominent figure in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. In 1998, he co-founded the Al-Ihsan Mosque and Community Center, which feeds about 9,000 poor families a day from its bakery and provides free education and medical care to the indigent. He is also a respected religious scholar, a leading member of the Islamic/tribalist Islah party, a former legislator, and a senior consultant to the Ministry of Religious Guidance and Endowments. It was the reaction of the volatile Yemeni public that had everyone concerned, along with the possibility of violent retribution from Islamists. The Yemeni government, for its own self-preservation, could do little but appeal for the release of the two.

On a state visit to Germany in June 2003, Ali Abdullah Saleh met Gerhard Schroeder. According to German newspaper Der Spiegel, “despite all the global problems, what the head of state was particularly worried about was the issue of two prisoners in Weiterstadt, Hesse — two fellow citizens.” The paper named them as Moayad and Zayid. It also said the Yemeni “president, who provided $50,000 from government coffers for the defense of the sheikh, had promised his people before he departed for Germany: ‘I will not return without the two’.” Der Spiegel, however, observed that “Saleh’s final attempt of personally turning the situation around in Berlin was doomed to failure. Both Interior Minister Otto Schily and Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, whom the president received at Hotel Palace in Berlin, referred to the independence of the judiciary. They told him that politicians must not interfere in such matters.” [Der Spiegel, 30 Jun 03].

The Yemeni government still did not give up the case. Its embassy in Berlin issued a statement in July 2003, saying that “Yemeni authorities will monitor developments in this case with care and would do all that was within their powers to render success to all the legal efforts being made by the highest German prosecution authorities and all the official, parliamentary and cross-party quarters to have them released.” [Republic of Yemen Television, 21 Jul 03] In November, after a German court approved the extradition of Moayad and Zayed to the U.S., the Yemenis launched another high-level appeal. “Yemeni authorities are conducting contacts with the German government to prevent the extradition,” said Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qerbi. He deplored the arrests as “illegal” and “not compatible with the human rights and international law.” He even said Yemen “might take the case to the European Court of Human Rights” if the German government decided to send Moayyad to the U.S. [Deutsche Press-Agentur, 13 Nov 03]

From the outset of its investigation, the U.S. has viewed Moayad as a key player in connection with al-Qaeda. “Al-Moayad indicated that he worked directly for a high-ranking official in the Islah party of Yemen … purchasing weapons for al-Qaeda,” said FBI agent Robert Fuller in his arrest warrant application. But the DPA suggested that the U.S. case was weak: “Al-Moayyad is known as a fund-raiser for the Palestinians, but his alleged links with al-Qaeda are not widely known in Yemen.” [Deutsche Press-Agentur, 13 Nov 03] Yemeni authorities tried to make matters even simpler. “Sheik Al-Moayad is a simple religious man, who is doing a lot of charity work” Mohy Dhabbi, Yemen’s ambassador to Germany, told investigators according to court documents. “He is beloved by the people he is dealing with.” But in the trial, Mohammed Alanssi, the star witness who lured Moayad to Frankfurt, said: “The charity work of Sheikh Moayad is a front and the money he gets is for mujahideen.” Toward the end of the trial, the judge allowed evidence to be used showing that Moayad had supported the application of one fighter to a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan. In the end, though, jurors were largely unconvinced about connections with al-Qaeda and convicted the two men largely for their support of Hamas – a crime in the U.S. but not in Yemen.

The arrest and trial of Moayad and Zayed clearly strained relations between the United States and Yemen, a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. But Germany was equally involved in the fate of the two men. “This investigation has been a joint investigation with the Germans. This has been a cooperative effort from the start,” said a Justice Department official at the time of Moayad’s arrest. Gerhard Schroeder’s visit to Yemen was thus well-timed to support Ali Abdullah Saleh and keep the peace among uneasy allies in the war on terror.

Eric Watkins, PhD is the first Westerner ever allowed to reside in Yemen as a foreign correspondent. He lived in the country from 1989 to 1994, witnessing the unification of the country as well as its near dis-unification in the 1994 civil war. Dr. Watkins currently resides in California and writes regularly on international developments in the oil, shipping and security industries.