Cleric on trial
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
3 December 2004
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
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
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
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.