In 2011, Yemeni political opposition activist Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee made clear that they had ulterior motives bestowing such an honor upon the Islah Party activist. As the Associated Press reported at the time:
Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, told AP that including Karman in the prize is ‘a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it.’” He also said Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, “which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.” He added that “I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”
At the time, some foreign policy analysts took issue with raising concerns about Karman’s Islah affiliation. In hindsight, their cheerleading for the pick seems unfortunate. Karman was subsequently silent, first with regard to Islamist atrocities beyond Yemen’s borders, such as the Taliban’s attempt to murder 14-year-old school girl Malala Yousafzai, who subsequently received the Nobel Prize for her outspoken advocacy beyond any political lens.
In the years after Karman’s prize, political protests in Yemen morphed into civil war. Increasingly, Islah—basically the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood party—shows its true agenda, partnering and seeking to legitimize al-Qaeda.
Islah’s relationship to al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen dates back to the 1990s, but its ties have really blossomed with the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including US and UN-designated al-Qaeda supporters Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, Abd al-Wahab al-Humayqani, and the late Anwar al-Awlaki. Zindani was a founding member of Islah and the founder of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, as a founder of Al-Iman University in Sana’a where American Taliban John Walker Lindh studied and radicalized.
Since the Iranian-backed Houthi militia overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014, a number of Islah officials have worked alongside AQAP members on the Hadhrami Domestic Council which AQAP established in the Hadramout, and Sheikh Omar Saleh bin al-Shakel, a long-serving Islah official, led it on behalf of AQAP. Islah’s Charitable Society for Social Welfare has also partnered with the Hadhrami Domestic Council, a problematic relationship given its involvement in terrorism. The Yemeni government has also arrested a number of Islah officials for providing direct support to AQAP.
Groups evolve, but it is clear that Islah officials spoke softly to Western diplomats, visiting academics, and journalists, while voicing a very different message to their followers. At the very least, Islah became a gateway group for something far worse.
The politicians behind the Nobel Peace Prize may have believed they were facilitating a progressive world view. In hindsight, though, by failing to understand the true agenda of Islah’s leadership, it is clear that they instead provided international cover for a group that never sought peace but rather propagation of a radical interpretation of Islam, terrorism, and subjugation of those who disagreed.