The secret history of Yemeni Salafism
As 2015 drew to a close, many said al-Qaeda’s most active franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had all but been extinguished but as a new conflict between Iran-backed Houthis and an Arab Gulf military coalition makes headlines, AQAP has been able to re-expand amid the chaos.
AQAP’s fighters, centred around the strategic southern port city of Mukalla, number in the thousands and they have taken control of five cities and two provincial capitals since the start of 2016. Why has AQAP’s dangerous Salafist jihadist ideology found such fertile ground in Yemen?
According to Ahmed Mohamed al-Dagshe, a researcher into Islamic groups, the roots of modern Salafism in Yemen can be traced to Yemeni scholar Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al- Wadi’i, who founded a well-known Salafist school in Dammaj in the country’s northern Saada governorate.
Wadi’i studied in Saudi Arabia under a succession of Salafi scholars, including former Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz and was arrested over suspicions of involvement in the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979. After a few months in jail, Wadi’i was released and returned to Yemen.
“Following his return to Yemen, Wadi’i began by establishing a madrassa in Dammaj, known as the Dar al-Hadith institute. He initially received support and assistance from the biggest Islamist group in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood. Divisions quickly erupted between Wadi’i and the Brotherhood after he criticised some of their views, which led to him producing a school of thought that differed from the vision of the Brotherhood and which spread across Yemen,” Dagshe said.
Dagshe, author of Salafism in Yemen, said Yemen’s Salafists had been monolithic under Wadi’i, focusing on scholarship within Yemen’s Salafist schools and charity work. After his death in 2001, Yemen’s Salafism fragmented between those who wanted to continue along the course charted by Wadi’i and those who craved greater political participation.
“Salafism began to be divided between those who accepted political participation and those who rejected it in around 1991 after some students and supporters of Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i began to express concerns about the difficult situation people in Yemen were facing and how the politics of the time were affecting this. This led to the establishment of a number of Salafist charities to provide assistance to the people… but the real division came after Wadi’i’s death in 2001 when many Salafists decided to enter politics directly,” Dagshe said.
Salafism in Yemen can be divided into three forms, according to Dagshe. First, a continuation of Wadi’i’s traditional form of Salafism, which is taught at Dar Al-Hadith, led by Sheikh Mohammed al-Imam, and other institutes formed by Wadi’i’s students. Then there is so-called new Salafism, which embraces political participation and is epitomised by Yemen’s largest Salafist political party, Al-Rashad Union. The party, which in 2012 became the first Salafist party established in Yemen, was established at Al-Ahsan Charity, a Salafist organisation with links to Wadi’i.
While these two schools of thought have a clear and direct link to Wadi’i, the third form of Salafism practiced in Yemen does not, although Wadi’i’s teachings did pave the way for its proliferation. “The third and final form of Salafism to have emerged in Yemen is that which can be described as violent jihadist Salafism, as represented by al-Qaeda and other groups like it,” Dagshe said.
Wadi’i famously criticised al-Qaeda and founder Osama bin Laden, asserting that orthodox Salafism eschews political participation and especially political violence. In a 1998 interview, Wadi’i said: “I sent a warning to [bin Laden] and made it clear to his followers that what we do [as Salafists] is proselytising, nothing more.”
Wadi’i’s death in 2001 coincided with al-Qaeda’s global rise. The group has expanded in Yemen from a few soldiers carrying out hit-and-run attacks into a de facto mini-state in southern Yemen, with an army of thousands and control of the country’s third-largest port. So what is next for Salafism in Yemen?