Cleric on trial

The impending trial of a Yemeni cleric accused by the US of raising $20 million for al-Qaeda has been thrown into confusion after the main witness - another Yemeni - set fire to himself outside the gates of the White House.

On November 15, Mohamed Alanssi attempted to deliver a letter to President Bush in Washington. After a conversation with White House guards he set his clothes alight, suffering 30% burns. He is said to be recovering in hospital.

It later emerged that Alanssi, 52, had previously been employed at the American embassy in Sana'a where he was dismissed twice. He left Yemen under a financial cloud and moved to the US about four years ago where he became involved in a string of failed business ventures and ran up large debts - often borrowing from fellow Yemenis on the basis of sad stories about his health or the suffering of his family.

Following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Alanssi discovered a new way to get money. The US authorities were desperate for information about al-Qaeda's financing and he seemed well-placed to provide it. Before long, the FBI had assigned him the codename CI-1 (Confidential Informant Number One).

Alanssi's first success came in October 2001 with the arrest of a Yemeni man who, according to the New York Times, had briefly been a partner in one of his failed businesses. The former partner was charged with currency offences for trying to send $140,000 to Yemen hidden in a consignment of honey. 

Although this seems to have had no connection whatever with al-Qaeda, the FBI were excited because it indicated one way that terrorists might receive illicit funds. (Up to that point, customs inspectors had tended not to examine honey very closely because of its messy nature.)

As a result of Alanssi's tip-off, several honey businesses in Yemen were summarily closed at the behest of the US authorities.

Alanssi then set about entrapping Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, a prominent Yemeni cleric whose mosque he had formerly attended in Sana'a.

In January 2003, the sheikh, together with a young assistant, was lured to a hotel in Frankfurt - allegedly to receive a large "charitable" donation from an American Muslim. They were met by Alanssi and an FBI agent posing as a member of the Black Panthers, and the ensuing conversation was secretly recorded.

Sheikh Moayad and his assistant were then arrested and eventually extradited from Germany to await trial in the US.

Last year Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed Moayad's arrest as a major step towards cutting off terrorist funds, but prospects for a show-piece trial could be jeopardised by Alanssi's antics. When the case opens in January, defence lawyers are likely to argue that the sheikh was egged on by Alanssi and the "Black Panther", and that Alanssi is an unstable and unreliable witness.

Alanssi quickly blew the $100,000 that the FBI paid him for his efforts - part of it on a failed dry cleaning business - and then asked for more. A few days before setting fire to himself he reportedly sent a long handwritten fax to the FBI headed "Top urgent", demanding £5 million and threatening to sue the agency for £20 million if it did not pay up.

In Yemen, meanwhile, security officials have announced the release of a further 113 militants following religious "re-education". This brings the total released under a scheme established by Judge Hamoud al-Hitar to 346.

Candidates for release - detained militants who are not known to have committed any crime - are invited to debate the true meaning of jihad with religious experts. Those who recant are set free on promises of future good behaviour. The authorities also seek to provide them with jobs and assist their reintegration into society.

The scheme, which has aroused some local scepticism but also international interest, has so far concentrated on al-Qaeda sympathisers but is now being extended to members of Believing Youth, a militant organisation founded by the Zaidi cleric, Hussein al-Houthi.

Hundreds of people died earlier this year in armed clashes between Houthi's supporters and security forces in which Houthi himself was killed.

According to the Yemen Times, about 350 followers of Believing Youth are still detained and 176 are likely to be freed shortly as a result of re-education by Judge Hitar's team.