Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reasserted responsibility for the death of an American teacher earlier this week in Yemen, saying he was trying to spread Christianity in the mostly Muslim Arab nation.
Joel Shrum, 29, was gunned down Sunday while driving in Taiz, a city 170 miles southwest of Sanaa, the capital. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead the Pennsylvania native, and shortly afterward the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, an especially virulent branch of the global terrorist network that has attempted attacks on the United States, claimed responsibility for the killing. A text message circulated by mobile phone that day said that "holy warriors" had killed "a senior missionary."
But locals say Shrum did not proselytize, and the school where he taught English, the Swedish-run International Training and Development Center, identified him as a "development worker." The school opened in Taiz in 1969-one of the oldest non-governmental organizations working in Yemen.
Shrum's sister, Pennsylvania resident Jessica Lloyd, told me, "Joel was a Christian. And it's not against the law to be a Christian in Yemen." She said he was "motivated by the love of God and God's heart for people" to work in the strife-torn country despite the dangers, and had lived in Yemen with his family since 2008.
Shrum attended Wilkes University with plans to be a pharmacist, according to Lloyd. But that changed after a trip to India. "The poverty gripped him," she said. He made other trips abroad, including to Surinam and Morocco, Lloyd said, before ending up in Yemen in 2008. His wife and son, now almost 5, accompanied him, and another son born in Yemen is now 1 year old.
Shrum quickly became fluent in Arabic and not only taught English, but colleagues say he also helped students in business and computer technology skills.
"He downloaded in his heart not to be fearful of Arab people," said Lloyd, "and often said they are not the killers we see on the news."
Family members last spoke to Shrum three days before his murder, catching up on news of his children and planning a beach trip where the extended family would be together this summer.
Muslims by hundreds turned out in the streets of Taiz Tuesday to demonstrate against Shrum's killing (see video clips below). They marched past teahouses and shops bearing placards with photographs of Shrum, the phrase "Why…?" printed in Arabic and English across the bottom.
"Mr. Joel came all the way from the United States of America for nothing but good intentions," said a student who joined the protesters in Taiz. The crowd, which included men, women in full-length black chadors, and children, congregated outside government offices chanting, "Stop terrorism," and "We love Joel Shrum." One woman read from petitions that stated, "We condemn the awful crime of murdering the American teacher Joel Shrum," and, "We demand authorities to seriously search for the murderers and bring them to justice."
Sandstorms delayed travel out of Yemen, but with al-Qaeda continuing to highlight and threaten the work of Americans in the region, Shrum's widow and children made plans to leave the country, along with other U.S. and European members of his team. The Swedish school is staffed largely by Yemenis and plans to remain open.