Posted on June 11, 2010 - by mira
(Photo by Mira Baz)
First appeared in The Daily Star
SANAA: In the weeks following the failed December attack on a US airliner, Mohammad al-Anisi switched off the news. It was too stressful, he said. His institute was suddenly overrun by journalists and constantly in the spotlight.
It was put there by Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, the Nigerian member of Al-Qaeda who carried out the attack and who had enrolled at Al-Anisi’s Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language (SIAL), only to later disappear and re-emerge on the Christmas-day flight headed to Detroit.
Earlier this week, news surfaced of the arrests in recent months by Yemeni security forces of dozens of foreign nationals suspected of having links to militant groups, a number of whom are students of Arabic, an official told AFP. The arrests include Britons, Malaysians, US citizens and an Australian woman. The woman, a convert to Islam, had been living in Yemen with her two young children since 2006, and her passport had been canceled by the Australian government on security grounds.
One of those recently arrested is French citizen Jeremy Johnny Witter, who had also studied at SIAL, highlighting an apparent trend among suspected militants to enroll in Arabic language programs to gain entry to the country.
The arrests are certain to add to the severe repercussions that Arabic language institutes here have witnessed since December.
Earlier this year, entry visas were no longer being granted at the airport and the government tightened its visa restrictions in the embassies. Several student applicants were denied visas, according to Anisi.
The measures have come at a time when Yemen has been trying to beef up its revenues from tourism to boost the economy and help reduce poverty, while also trying to improve its image.
“Yemen is now semi-closed, not officially, but procedurally,” said Hamoud Hobaishi, director of another Arabic language school, the Saba Institute.
As a result of both the December attack and the stricter visa measures, language schools have seen their enrollments drop significantly in recent months as prospective students have been either frightened away by Yemen’s news or have scrapped previous plans to join summer programs. SIAL is now operating at less than half its capacity, down from 90 students in December, Anisi said.
An official at the Tourism Ministry explained that the purpose of the visa restrictions is aimed at screening travelers in an effort to deter militants from entering the country.
“Visas are being issued, but through the embassies,” said Omar Babelgheith, deputy minister for tourism development. “The whole thing is that we want to know exactly who is coming to the country, to examine them closely.”
But while institutes registered as many as 400 students in one summer in the past, the new measures have seen a dwindling number of Arabic-language students and tens of cancellations for upcoming peak-season courses, according to Hobaishi. He added that the development was jeopardizing the future of the institutes.
To attract students, Anisi has turned his attention to Asian markets such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Visa procedures are simpler in those countries – Malaysians do not require Yemeni visas – and Asian students are easier to accommodate, he said.
“It’s usually difficult with American or European students,” he explained. “We fear for them, even the security people fear for them. They fear for them and from them. So a student is worrisome to Yemeni security forces.”
Witter, the 24-year-old French student in Yemeni custody, had been in the country for over six months and had arrived to study at SIAL.
But after attending classes for only one week, Witter dropped out and told the institute’s management that he wanted to transfer to a different institute. School policies, however, do not allow students sponsored by the institute to transfer, said Anisi. Students would have to leave the country and re-apply for entry through other schools.
“We suffered from these problems in the past,” he said. “A student would apply and pay in advance but once they got here they would say they want the freedom to move or don’t want to study. They just want to live in Yemen. So we’ve had to deport students.”
Anisi told The Daily Star that after Witter failed to attend classes, the institute tried to deport him but he was turned back at the Sanaa airport. He was subsequently placed under surveillance until his arrest in May, the local weekly Yemen Post has reported.
Witter is the latest case of suspected militants who have used language institutes in recent years to gain entry into Yemen.
US nationals Sharif Mobley and John Walker Lindh – better known as the “American Taliban” – arrived in Yemen as students of Arabic. Lindh was arrested in Afghanistan, where he turned up during the 2001 war fighting with the Taliban.
New Jersey-native Mobley, who had been a US nuclear plant maintenance worker before he moved to Yemen last year, has been in Yemeni custody since March. He was among 11 suspected militants captured in the capital and was later involved in a deadly gun battle at a hospital when he tried but failed to escape detention.
Abdul Muttalib’s class attendance was sporadic, and he disappeared after his visa expired late last year. A recent Al-Qaeda video showed him participating in target shooting practice with the group in a desert militant camp.
Future prospects for the institutes seem grim, as the government is likely to adopt even stricter procedures.
“There’s going to be even more visa restrictions in the future,” said Yemen Post chief editor Hakim Almasmari. “And this will hurt Yemen in the long run.”
Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=115815#ixzz0qWCL7JDt
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)
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