SANAA, Yemen — Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani has some advice for Washington.
The United States is doing more to stoke terrorism, here in the heartland of al-Qaeda’s most active franchise, than to defeat it, he says. What the United States ought to do, he argues, is strengthen Yemen’s state institutions — rather than create enemies by carrying out drone strikes.
“The U.S. can protect itself by cooperating directly with local authorities,” he said in an interview in Yemen’s capital.
Take it from a man who might know.
In December, the U.S. Treasury Department branded Humayqani, 42, a specially designated global terrorist, freezing his assets and sanctioning anyone who does business with him.
The Treasury accused Humayqani of using his network of Yemen-based charities to funnel money to al-Qaeda, placing him “at the center of global support networks that fund and facilitate terrorism.” The Treasury said that as of 2012, Humayqani was “an important figure” within one of the terrorist group’s most dangerous wings, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and that he had helped to orchestrate violent attacks on government targets and to recruit fighters.
Humayqani denies all of it. He said his charities benefit “orphans, mosques and poor families,” not al-Qaeda. “My personal stance is against al-Qaeda operations, because they kill outside the law,” he said.
It may be no surprise that a person who is the subject of sanctions dismisses the charges against him. But what makes Humayqani’s case slightly more puzzling, and potentially awkward for the United States, is that he says he is willing to meet with U.S. officials — he claims to have requested a meeting at the U.S. Embassy; the embassy declined to comment — and even face a court of law.
“I don’t have any objections to going on trial here in Yemen to defend myself against any charges — even if it’s from the American Treasury,” he said, speaking in the lobby of a five-star hotel that is frequented by politicians and diplomats. His life is hardly that of a terrorist, he said.
“I’m the secretary general of a political party, and I live here in Sanaa,” he said, as two politicians from another party stopped to greet him with kisses. “I’m a member of the National Dialogue,” he added, referring to a partially U.S.-sponsored effort to bridge divides among Yemeni political parties, tribes and activists.
Humayqani’s open challenge to the U.S. government highlights an uncomfortable disconnect between Washington and a government that it depends on for local intelligence and cooperation in its global war on terrorism.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has deep roots in this impoverished corner of the Arab world. AQAP has carried out at least two failed attacks on U.S. soil in recent years, and U.S. intelligence officials say they have thwarted others, including a plot in August that shut down embassies across the region. The CIA and the Pentagon have collectively carried out dozens of covert airstrikes against terrorism suspects here over the past five years, according to the Long War Journal and other monitoring groups that track the strikes.
But Yemen’s government has long been a fickle partner, pledging allegiance to Washington in its war on terrorism while simultaneously appeasing local anger over drone strikes by paying compensation to some victims. Critics here also accuse some powerful politicians, including former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, of cultivating the country’s homegrown jihadists.
In December, the Yemeni government openly took issue with its American allies over Humayqani.
“Yemenis were surprised . . . that a national religious, academic and political figure . . . was, without any basis, placed on a list of terror supporters,” Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights said in a statement.
Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference also condemned the charges.
Humayqani, who said he has met with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi multiple times since the Treasury imposed its sanctions, was an active participant in the National Dialogue, which concluded in January. But the Treasury says Humayqani’s Rashad Union political party is a front for al-Qaeda recruitment.
Humayqani counters that if the United States knows anything about terrorists, it knows that al-Qaeda doesn’t believe in participatory politics. Al-Qaeda, he said, “believes in jihad as a means to establishing an Islamic state, and it believes that joining the political arena is a form of infidelity, or a non-Muslim goal.”
Humayqani, who wore a string of pearl prayer beads around his traditional Yemeni dagger, is a smooth operator who knows he has powerful local allies. He smiled during the interview and expounded on what sounded like well-honed talking points — discussion, national reconciliation, peace and justice.
“One of our party’s goals is to cooperate with the United States within the framework of justice and forgiveness, mutual interests, benefits, mercy and peace,” he said, beaming.
Whether Humayqani is grandstanding or telling the truth, his words — and very public presence in the Yemeni capital — may leave Washington on awkward footing.
Legal scholars say the Obama administration has not provided a specific definition for a direct and “imminent” threat to U.S. citizens — a label that would qualify a person to become a target for death or capture in Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia.
Legal experts say the category of specially designated global terrorist, as Humayqani is described, is strictly a financial classification. But the Treasury’s depiction of Humayqani’s activities in al-Qaeda — as more than simply a financier — also raises the possibility that he could find himself on a U.S. kill list, said Ashley Deeks, a University of Virginia law professor and former legal adviser to the State Department.
Humayqani, who appeared relaxed, confident — even a little smug — said he is not too worried.
Surely the U.S. Treasury will reverse its decision, he said. In the meantime, he suggested that the U.S. government consider an alternative counterterrorism policy.
“Support the Yemeni government through a national project that would face al-Qaeda,” he said. Cease drone strikes and develop a reconciliation plan whereby militants would turn in their weapons. But he acknowledged it would not be so simple.
“Not all of them will give up their weapons. But this way you give those who are willing to leave al-Qaeda a chance to become a citizen again and live a normal life. Those who don’t will lose the public’s sympathy,” he said.
Separately, he said, he would be “very grateful” if the United States would drop its charges. “It has affected me financially and psychologically.”
Ali al-Mujahed in Sanaa and Lara El Gibaly in Cairo contributed to this report.