One Sheik's Mission: To Teach the Young to Despise Western Culture By JOHN F. BURNS DAMMAJ, Yemen - In Dammaj, it can be dangerous to mention America. In this dusty village in northern Yemen, on the edge of the great Arabian desert called the Empty Quarter, it is enough to mention the United States among the thousands of Islamic militants who teach and study here, to furrow brows, darken voices and set trigger fingers tightening. Long after the fashion began to fade among the ayatollahs of Iran, the militants of Dammaj still call America "the Great Satan." Though a few American Muslims have come here as talibs, or seekers after Islamic truths, the best advice to other Americans would surely be: stay clear. In the village's heart, at a sprawling compound guarded by bushy- bearded men flourishing Kalashnikov rifles, one of the Arab world's most militantly anti-Western Islamic clerics has his base. His name is Sheik Muqbel bin Hadi al-Wadie. He is 70 years old, and a font of vituperation against the United States and Israel, Christians and Jews. Years after he became a force here, few outside the closed world of Islamic militancy, other than Western scholars and counterterrorism experts, have heard of him. But Sheik Muqbel is no stranger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who know him as a seminal influence on Osama bin Laden, the F.B.I.'s most wanted terrorist. Long before the Oct. 12 bombing of the destroyer Cole in Aden harbor, 400 miles away at Yemen's southern tip - an attack investigators have linked in numerous so far inconclusive ways to Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network - the F.B.I. saw Sheik Muqbel's study centers, particularly the one at Dammaj, as incubators for the Islamic holy war that Mr. bin Laden has declared against the United States. Sheik Muqbel says the center, known as Dar al-Hadith, or House of the Prophet's Sayings and Deeds, is strictly a theological school - albeit one that propagates a purist, militant, stridently anti-Western form of Islam known as Salafism, which Arab and Western scholars say is at the core of Mr. bin Laden's beliefs. In effect, Salafism is a still harder-line version of Wahabism, the puritanical form of Islam that Mr. bin Laden absorbed during his formative years in Saudi Arabia. The essence of Salafism - from the Arab word salaf, meaning ancestor - is that Muslims should shun the corrupt ways of the modern world and return to the austerity and zeal of the Prophet Muhammad, who died nearly 1,400 years ago. At Dammaj, it has become a way of life for at least 3,000 students from all over the Muslim world, particularly from nations with a history of radicalism - Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya, Somalia and Sudan, even Indonesia and Malaysia. In recent years, dozens of Westerners, mostly of Arab descent, have arrived at the center from the United States and Britain and other European countries. Sheik Muqbel says the students stay at least 5 years, sometimes as many as 10 to 15. There are no television sets, no newspapers, no music, no women, no education other than study of the Koran and Islamic teachings, and no electricity, except for purposes judged essential, such as the loudspeakers and antennas used by Sheik Muqbel. In the sheik's view, the most dangerous enemies of Islam, before the United States and Israel, are Western life and culture - democracy, pluralism, tolerance and any kind of voting. In a rare interview five months ago with The Yemen Times, an English-language newspaper, he made the point bluntly. "In Islam," he said, "there is nothing such as appreciating the viewpoint of a person if it is against Islamic regulations." The sheik, who allows no photographs of himself or his centers and rarely meets outsiders, denied that weapons training is part of the curriculum at Dammaj - something Western diplomats in Sana, the Yemeni capital, say has been suspected for years. In Yemen, where the government says there are 65 million guns for 18 million people, weapons of all kinds can be bought openly, without licenses. The best-equipped arms bazaar in the country, with an inhibiting display of heavy weapons, is in a village not far from Dammaj. In July, the sheik's assurances looked awkward when a 16-year-old British boy, a student at Dammaj, was shot to death, allegedly when a gun his older brother was cleaning accidentally discharged. Twice in two months, two years earlier, the sheik narrowly escaped assassination when bombs exploded outside mosques he controls in Sana and Aden. Faced with embarrassing headlines, the sheik went public. "Our movement is purely to teach the concepts of the Koran," he told The Yemen Times. In any event, he said, it would not be possible for his movement to acquire enough weapons to mount a serious challenge to its enemies. "We do not have any training camp, and we do not train students in using weapons," he said. "We are a peaceful movement working on spreading the concepts of Islam in a peaceful manner to the students who come from everywhere in the world." The Koran, he added, was more powerful than "rifles, or even tanks." All the same, Western intelligence agencies say that Salafists, including many graduates of Dammaj, have been among the most feared fighters in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya and Kashmir. They say that Dammaj and five other centers run by Sheik Muqbel across Yemen, even if not military camps, act as ideological proving grounds for young Muslims who go on to train elsewhere, often in Afghanistan, and to become terrorists. Because of Sheik Muqbel's tight security, barring access to all but Muslims who have been screened, it is virtually impossible for outsiders - even Yemeni government officials - to know what is going on inside the center. But it takes little time traveling through this region to discover how hospitable a terrain this can be for Mr. bin Laden and his beliefs. Sheik Muqbel's title is a religious one, adopted after a lifetime spent teaching his militant brand of Islam in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It was in Saudi Arabia where he spent three months in jail in the early 1980's for his links to a militant Islamic group that in 1979 occupied the holiest shrine in Islam at Mecca, setting off a showdown in which hundreds were killed. But not far from Dammaj, there are dozens of other sheiks, a title that can also mean a tribal leader, and they represent the old Bedouin ruling class that still controls vast stretches of land that arc around Yemen's tense 1,500-mile frontier with Saudi Arabia. Resentful of the 20th-century rise of powerful national governments in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the northern tribal leaders have long regarded Mr. bin Laden - one of more than 50 children of Muhammad bin Laden, a Yemeni who immigrated as a porter to Saudi Arabia in 1931 and built one of the Middle East's largest construction companies - as a potential ally. Three years ago, said one of the tribal sheiks, this resulted in a secret encounter that brought together 30 tribal sheiks with two emissaries sent by Mr. bin Laden from Afghanistan, where he has been hiding since 1996. Mr. bin Laden's purpose, it was said, was to seek the tribal leaders' consent to move to Yemen - a desire he acknowledged shortly before in an interview with Al Quds al Arabi, an Arab-language newspaper published in London. Sheik Muhammad bin Shajea, who controls an area of thousands of square miles deep in the desert along the Saudi Arabian border, said in an interview at his desert fort at Al Atfein, about 100 miles northeast of Dammaj, that he was among the tribal leaders who met the emissaries in the spring of 1997, at a tribal leader's home in Sana. He said terms were discussed for Mr. bin Laden's taking sanctuary somewhere in the sheiks' domains, where the writ of the national government barely reaches. "They call him a terrorist, but that's what those in authority always say when they are challenged," the sheik said. "We say, where is the impartial court to say whether it's bin Laden who is the terrorist, or his enemies? From our point of view, he's not only a great religious scholar, he's a Yemeni, even if his nationality is Saudi Arabian. So for us, his presence in Yemen would be quite natural." On its face, Sheik bin Shajea's candor about the offer could embarrass the Yemeni government, which has insisted that those who bombed the Cole are part of an international terrorist network, in all probablity directed by Mr. bin Laden. [In an interview on Dec. 14, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said evidence was still lacking to identify Mr. bin Laden positively as responsible for the bombing, but other high officials said they were "personally convinced," based on the accumulating evidence, that Mr. bin Laden had conceived and directed the attack.] Sheik bin Shajea said he and other sheiks had deep sympathy for Mr. bin Laden's Islamic beliefs, if not for his methods. But Yemenis who know the sheik say that he may have been grinding a different axe: the bitter dispute between the northern tribal chiefs and President Saleh, over a June border agreement with Saudi Arabia that will cut sharply into the desert domains of the sheiks. These are thought to be rich with oil potential that would make traditional revenues from smuggling appear paltry. President Saleh has vowed to proceed with the border pact to end a sometimes bloody dispute with Saudi Arabia that has simmered for 70 years, but Sheik bin Shajea, among others, has vowed to kill any survey teams seeking to demarcate a new border. In effect, the sheiks seem to be telling Mr. Saleh that they are prepared to make alliances wherever they can, even with Mr. bin Laden. For its part, the government dismisses Sheik bin Shajea as a turncoat: at one time, it says, a clandestine agent for Saudi Arabia, later an ally of President Saleh's, now, apparently, a cohort of Mr. bin Laden's. And senior officials even question whether the meeting with the bin Laden emissaries occurred - or occurred in the form the sheik claims. "Sheik bin Shajea is the biggest liar in Yemen," one high-ranking official said. In Yemen, Mr. bin Laden would find deep deserts and high mountains in which to hide as well as a central government with little penetration in the tribal lands. In a sign he still has a Yemeni sanctuary in mind, Mr. bin Laden appeared for his most recent videotape attack on the United States - relayed throughout the Middle East three weeks before the Cole bombing - wearing the long gown called a dishdasha and the tribal dagger favored in Hadhramaut, the Yemeni province that is his family's ancestral home. In the 1996 interview with Al Quds al Arabi, Mr. bin Laden acknowledged he could not return to Sudan, where he operated until driven out by American pressure earlier that year. "The choice is between Afghanistan and Yemen," he said then. "The geography of Yemen is mountainous, and its people are armed tribespeople. It allows one to breathe clean air without humiliation." When Al Quds al Arabi's editor, Abdel Bari Atwan, asked if a move would be "with or without the knowledge of the Yemeni government," Mr. bin Laden replied, "Either." Already, President Saleh, the Yemeni leader, seems tightly constrained in what he can do about the goings on at Dammaj, only five miles from Sadah, the regional government headquarters for northern Yemen. Before visiting Dammaj, this reporter was warned that Sheik Muqbel and his followers regard Western reporters as only slightly better than spies. Upon arrival, an armed guard at the study center's gate announced that Sheik Muqbel was away, being treated for a chronic liver ailment somewhere outside Yemen. Left free to wander, three visitors - a reporter and two Arab-speaking companions - plunged into the unchanging world of traditional Arabia. Just past dawn, the sun was casting a pinkish glow across the desert's honey-colored sand, the broad fronds of the oil palm trees and the mud- brick walls of the forts and homes. Students were stirring for the day's first prayers, and for the ritual wash that precedes them. From a nearby mosque, a muezzin's plaintive chants rang out across the desert, summoning the faithful to prayer. Initially, nobody showed much interest in the strangers moving along narrow alleyways, looking over the high walls of the center at the large, open-air auditorium with a corrugated-iron roof. It is the place the sheik delivers fire-breathing sermons that heap scorn on Christians and Jews, calling them, among other things, "brothers of apes and pigs." Above the center's heavy steel gates, a lone sign proclaimed: "Convert, and God will show you the way." Small boys on their way to school paused to chat. Ali, an 8-year-old orphan, spoke with passion about Sheik Muqbel, saying that the sheik had given homes to poor people. Older men followed, Libyans and Indonesians, Turks and Malaysians and Yemenis. But when a visitor became too adventurous, asking what the men thought of the United States, the mood changed to anger in a flash. A Libyan dressed in white robes and a cylindrical black cap identifying him as a talib or religious student, who said his name was Omar and that he was 32 years old, shook his fist and said: "America can't do anything! It's God who commands everything, not America. America is nothing!" An older man, also in white robes, accompanied by the armed guard who had been mounting a wary watch on the visitors, was summoned. The older man turned menacing, demanding passports, asking if the visitors were Americans, and implying they were spies on a reconnaissance mission. During several minutes of interrogation, a guard at the older man's side ostentatiously fingered the trigger of his Kalashnikov. But after retreating to talk quietly to yet another armed man, the older man turned and waved angrily in the direction of the open desert. With dust billowing behind them, the visitors reversed their four- wheel vehicle rapidly back up the alleyway. Turning the vehicle around and hardly daring to look back, they headed out across the bumpy desert, back toward the relative safety of what government control there is, the regional capital of Sadah.